Revelation Space, Alistair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2000)

Revelation Space

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Grade: B — Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.  Also, to avoid bias, the highest grade I’ll give a book by someone I know and like.  

In brief:

Revelation Space was Alistair Reynolds’ first book, and serves as the first volume of the continuing Series (both Chronicle and World) of the same name. It is a Stand Alone novel, and though in that sense, one does not feel cheated at the end as one sometimes does in the Serial form of story telling. It is, however, truly the opening salvo in one of the most imaginative worlds I have seen in Science Fiction, and I cannot imagine many people who like Science Fiction being able to resist the next book. 


Set in the indeterminately distant future, this is Hard Science Fiction setting where interstellar travel exists, but is limited by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. To that end, space travel takes huge amounts of time, and is only endurable through stasis and time dilation.

Humanity lives across a handful of star systems, and is tremendously divided by the different branches of humanity, branches that are in no small part defined by access to and attitudes towards technology. 

In Depth:

Revelation Space is a stand alone novel that serves as both the first installment to the Revelation Space Trilogy and Saga, (probably self-explanatory but these are sub-types of a Series, which will be discussed in upcoming posts) as well as his introduction to the World (ibid) of the same name.  As such, it opens the doors to one of the most interesting Science Fiction worlds ever created, and in my mind has almost come to define the term “New Space Opera” (though I still prefer the term Space Opera Noir).  In it, we are introduced to a dystopian Hard Science Fiction universe with elements of nanotech that border on Ultratechnology.

As a book, Revelation Space proves that one can write a Hard Sci-Fi book that can be told on a grand, interstellar scale.  The world Reynolds creates avoids Faster-Than-Light travel (FTL) and instead revels in the relativistic ramifications of a human society separated by decades long travel times.  Humanity, as such, has fragmented into sub-cultures whose different access to and attitudes towards technology has divided us into almost separate species (a theme common in many of Reynolds’ works). Best of all (to me anyways), none of his segmented societies can be said to be ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’.  Each is equally dystopian.  To that end, perhaps one can say that they are all bad guys, but with some redeeming elements.  Very realistic and very dark.

What is more, it is told in a classic Post-modern way, with multiple narratives and protagonists whose lives start as disjointed and move towards a single plotline by the end of the book. This not only allows Reynolds to tell a complex tale, but it also allows him to give us insights into each of the major factions of humanity and thus the world he has created. This not only shows us the different tech levels and cultures that exist, but gives us point-of-views that allow both sympathetic and antithetic insights to each of the societies and thus each of the characters. 

As a tale, the story follows a galactic scale question rooted in present day science: if there are other intelligent species out there, why don’t we pick up radio signals from them?  In the world of Revelation Space the question gets pushed a bit further, for right from the beginning we know that other space faring species existed, but none of them remain alive now.  What happened to them is the central premise of this book.

While this question is answered in the end of the novel, it seemed fairly rushed to me, as if the editor said, “Come on mate, we’ve got a page limit you know?”  Indeed, considering the intense detail given to other aspects of the world throughout the book, I thought the ANSWER seemed a bit rushed.  In fact, while this book does stand alone, I felt that the story line of a few of the POV characters seemed cut off a bit prematurely.  Neither do we ever really return to those characters in any great depth later. 

That is, in fact, the only real problem I have with the book. If you note how many of Reynolds’ other books I read, I think you can see that it is certainly a problem I lived with.  It didn’t kill my enjoyment of the story by any means, just made it slightly less than it could have been. As for the rating, I loved this book, but its slightly weak ending and highly technical world may not appeal to those who are not Science Fiction fans, but to anyone who enjoys Speculative Fiction of any kind, this is a must read.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Hard SciFi, Identity, New Space Opera, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Science Fiction, Series, Space Exploration, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Uncategorized, Unique or Imaginative World and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Revelation Space, Alistair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2000)

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Arghh, I need to read this…. Something needs to reignite my interest in contemporary sci-fi…

    • Thomas Evans says:

      This is definately a good one to start with. His writing has improved since he did this book, but the ideas presented and characters inside the book are great.

      Mind you, I think his best book is porbably the Prefect, though I did just finish House and Suns and thought it was a bit of a hoot.

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