Movements within science fiction have come and gone—New Wave, cyberpunk, the Silver Age, etc. But one which has been there nearly since the beginning is space opera. No matter whether one cites E.E. Doc Smith’s Skylark series or Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, its popularity has ebbed and flowed, but always the sub-genre has had its foot in the field. The canvas writ large, prose barely competent (Simmons and a few others are exceptions), complex plots, and semblances of character—all zig and zag across the galaxy to save something (anything!), discover the mysteries abound, and prevent the worst cataclysms from being unleashed on the universe. Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space series, opened by the eponymous novel in 2000, is no exception—in any way.
Starting as three separate strands that eventually intertwine, Revelation Space opens with the archeologist Dan Sylveste and the dig he is participating in on the remote planet Resurgam. A mysterious obelisque revealed in the layers of dust from a long lost civilization of bird-like humanoids, Sylveste, along with the beta-level construct of his conniving father, attempt to interpret the mysterious runes on its sides. Traveling near light speed in a massive Conjoiner space ship is Ilia Volyova. On a mission to save her captain who is dying in cryo-sleep of a strange plague, she will stop at nothing to find a cure—including kidnapping and murder. And lastly is the assassin Khouri. Legally working the bizarre architectural construct that is Chasm City, after one of her kills she is approached by a mysterious entity called the Madamoiselle and given an offer that goes against her oath as a legal assassin. The bait too good, too personal to decline, it isn’t long before she is undercover, looking for a ride to Resurgam. The three’s stories conflating in smooth fashion, the they find themselves chasing and facing a mystery that could mean everything to not only them, but all sentient species.
From purely a genre perspective, Revelation Space possesses all the eye candy a fan could desire. BDOs, rogue AIs, assassins, romance, space fights, interstellar travel, mysterious alien species—everything one would expect in space opera is present in the novel. Certainly the reason the book—and series—are as popular as they are, Reynolds appears to have been steeped in the likes of Carl Sagan, Arthur C.Clarke, Murray Leinster, Edmund Hamilton, John Brunner, and others before creating his own offering to the community at large.
It’s at the technical level Revelation Space crumbles. A three hundred page story hidden inside a six hundred page novel, leeeeeengthy is the exposition and nuuuuumerous are the digressions leading away from the main plotline that ultimately draw the three main characters together on their mission. Reynolds not a born writer, he gets by on quantity over quality on a word by word, scene by scene basis. Had the novel been published in the Golden Age—the boom of space opera—undoubtedly half would lie on the cutting room floor, scrapped by a willful editor. Writers like A.E. van Vogt and Andre Norton could cover the same ground in a far slimmer volume. But in today’s age when size doesn’t matter, the info dumps and temporary stopovers injecting a little side action are all there for the reader’s perusal.
In the end, whether or not the reader will enjoy Revelation Space is dependent (as always) on the expectations they bring to the table. If the subtle talents of writing science fiction are the least of your concerns, then Reynold’s big story, spread on a vast canvas, will be enough motivation to enjoy. For pickier readers, those who need characters which at least reach the second dimension and a narrative which does not beat around (and around and around) the bush getting from A to B, it’s likely the first book in the Revelation Space universe will disappoint. I somehow feel responsible for adding more, but that is truly the novel in a nutshell.