Redemption Ark, Alistair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2002)

Grade: Γ — 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. This is the highest grade that many very good books that are part of a series can receive, since series require an investment in reading that normally only appeals to fans of that genre.  

In brief:

Redemption Ark is Alistair Reynolds’ third book, and the second volume of his Inhibitor Trilogy.[1]  It is a highly enjoyable read, but in many ways suffers from the dread “middle book of a trilogy” syndrome.  That is to say, it doesn’t have a clear beginning (other than the previous book) nor end (that being in the next book). Even so, it does almost read as a stand alone,[2] and continues and builds upon the central saga of one of the most imaginative worlds I have seen in Science Fiction. I cannot imagine many people who like Science Fiction being able to resist this series.

Setting:

Set in the 24th to 25th centuries, this is a 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.  Nanotechnology has reached Ultratech levels, but has become limited by the horrible Melding Plague that causes it to effectively become cancerous in its growth.

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:

Redemption Ark is the highly enjoyable sequel to Revelation Space. It greatly builds the culture and storylines introduced in that novel, adding depth to the characters, world and plot of the series. In it, we see the development of some of the characters and the central threat plotline introduced in the previous volume,[3] as well as the introduction of strong new characters and plot lines that allow us to see new aspects of Reynolds’ future trans-humanity.  Most importantly, it continues the central “Inhibitor” story arch of the first novel and builds the overarching plot, while still providing a tentative sense of closure at the end of the book.  This is seldom achieved in Trilogies, particularly in second installments, and as such limits “middle book” fatigue as much as any author can.

As with Revelation Space, Redemption Ark is told as a post-modern multi-perspective point-of-view narrative, with some storylines picking up characters from Revelation Space, and others introducing new characters whose paths eventually cross with our previously existing heroes.  While on the whole, this works exceptionally well, I did find the lack of any central focus on the continuation of the Sylveste family’s storyline somewhat disappointing.[4] That’s not to say they disappear from the series, but we never really return to them being a central thread, and since I felt there were some loose ends regarding them at the end of the previous volume in the trilogy, I remained disappointed throughout.

Having said that, the introduction of the Clavain character and the front-and-center role played by the Conjoiners made for a marvelous addition to the series. For those who have not read the previous stories in this series, the Conjoiners are a set of cybernetically enhanced humans who have implanted technology into their brains (though they have other enhancements as well).  These implants significantly enhance their cognitive abilities as individuals, but more significantly allow for the creation of a networked consciousness, or a “group mind,” between members of the same “nest” (that is, Conjoiners who are within reception range).  While Conjoiners themselves find this a liberating experience, many other aspects of humanity found the concept a tad too “borg-like” for their liking; i.e. the fear of the loss of identity resulting becoming part of a group mind was abhorrent, despite the fact that such loss-of-self did not actually occur. 

While the sci-fi technical and descriptive elements of the “Cojoined” were cool, what I found most interesting was that they were not the villains (per se).  While the idea of mentally networked humans has been used before, to my knowledge, they almost always serve as villains.  In this tale, however, we get to see it from their perspective.  The central protagonist, Clavain, is a Cojoiner and from his view we see that they are not out to take over the world, or even the minds of others.  Rather, they find freedom and mental enhancement in their networked selves.  While some of the antagonists in the story who are also Conjoined, it is not the conjoined nature that is at fault.  To that end, we get insights in this story that we seldom see elsewhere: a society where being part of a group-mind is not a bad thing.  Brilliant.

Beyond this, Redemption Ark also further explores the sub-culture of the Ultras, as well as concepts of what a total fusion of individual and machine might be like. Sadly, I can’t talk too much about this line without giving away story-lines from Revelation Space,  but suffice it to say that the concept of extreme age and the total merging of one’s self with technology are fascinatingly examined in this tale.  To that end, Redemption Ark explores the concept of what it is to be human in a trans-human future. 

Most importantly, however, it moves forward the plots from Redemption Ark and brings the threats introduced in that story to full Galactic center. While the end of the book does not bring closure to the story as a whole, neither does it end in a cliff-hanger.  It had an ending that made me look forward to (and indeed rush out to buy) the next installment, but didn’t leave me irritated that it wasn’t out yet (I first read this book back when it was new).  All in all, it was a good part of a great series and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes Sci-Fi.


[1] The Inhibitor Trilogy is often referred to as the Revelation Space Trilogy, which confuses the matter since that is the name of both a book and his World.

[2] So much so that I don’t qualify it as a Serial, even though it is a Chronicle (see: http://wp.me/PWa2h-bN).

[3] As well as a subtly hinted at cameo by a character from Chasm City.   

[4] To avoid spoilers for the first book, I won’t go into to much detail, but for those who have already read it, be aware that we don’t really delve much more into any stories for any of the Sylveste family anywhere else in the entire Revelation Space world.  Having said that, I thought it important to note they don’t play a central role in the rest of the series so that readers might expect that and so enjoy the books more than I did.

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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 Chronicle, Cycle, Hard SciFi, Identity, New Space Opera, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Saga, Science Fiction, Series, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Trilogy, Ultratech, Uncategorized, Unique or Imaginative World, World and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Redemption Ark, Alistair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2002)

  1. adrian kyte says:

    As a reader of much SF, the Inhibitor trilogy is probably the best series in this genre — at least of the last decade. Al Reynolds treads that fine between literary fiction and a great story, sustaining it for over 1,800 pages! In my view the last, Absolution Gap, is a masterpiece.

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