Agony Column Series Review Special


From Revelation to Absolution:
Alastair Reynolds Finishes the Story
The Agony Column for May 10, 2004
Review by Rick Kleffel

Absolution Gap
Alastair Reynolds

Victor Gollancz
UK Hardcover First
ISBN 0-575-07434-5
Publication Date: 11-27-2003
565 Pages; £12.99
Date Reviewed: 04-29-04

Absolution Gap
Alastair Reynolds

Ace Books / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First
ISBN 0-441-01158-6
Publication Date: 06-01-2004
565 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 04-29-04

Readers have good reason to be cautious when starting novels that are clearly labeled as part of a series, especially in the world of speculative fiction. Often it seems that the world of speculative fiction in particular is home to two types of series; Neverending and Grand Canyon Cliffhangers. The former type of series may start with an intriguing promise, but soon seems to lose sight of the end of the story. In fact, with each volume to come out, the resolution promised in the first volume increases in distance rather than getting closer. The thrill of the endless tease soon palls, and readers find themselves dreading new chapters as much as anticipating them. Grand Canyon Cliffhangers, on the other hand, present a brisk plot cut off at an importune point. The reader remains breathless, waiting to find out what happens next. Waiting. Caring. Waiting. Caring. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Reviewing serial fiction offers its own challenge. How is one to evaluate a series if one does not know the conclusion? It's like reviewing a book at the halfway point. "Good start," you might say. "Fine exposition." But all sorts of good intentions and finely executed beginnings can be annihilated by a misstep in the final pages of a novel. For this reason, many readers -- and I am occasionally one of them -- wait until a series is complete to start the first book.

Alastair Reynolds -- as of mid-2004, a full-time SF writer.
Wait no more -- Alastair Reynolds has murdered sleep. In 'Absolution Gap', he's crafted a fitting, rewarding end to a series that's consistently provided some of the finest reading, genre or otherwise, that we've seen thus far this side of the millennium. He's also written a compelling novel of character, intrigue and imagination on a scale both vast and intensely personal. Like all series, this one is best read in order; 'Revelation Space' starts things off, introducing Reynolds' universe of slower-than-light space travel threatened by the Inhibitors, machines left about to ensure that no space-faring races get very far. 'Chasm City', his second novel, is an atmospheric science fiction mystery. It can be read alone, and though it introduced characters and concepts crucial to the series, it did not involve the Inhibitors directly in the action. 'Redemption Ark' took readers back into the thick of it and set new standards for space opera in terms of prose and character. 'Absolution Gap' closes the story with class in a manner that will reward and satisfy series readers as only the finale in a great series can.

Like many readers, I expected Reynolds to continue touring his universe for some time to come, keeping his characters just enough ahead of the Inhibitors to inhibit a resolution to the conflict that would drive the series. And like many readers, I would have been happy had Reynolds continued in this Neverending series mode. Reynolds offers enough fine prose, excellent characterizations, tight plots and imaginative vistas to keep even non-genre readers happy. However, in 'Absolution Gap', he eschews the easy route of the Neverending series and completes the story of the Inhibitors, the humans and the lighthugger starship Nostalgia for Infinity. It's now possible to offer an evaluation not just of this novel, but the three previous novels as well, as regards the whole series. With the story complete, it's even clearer that Reynolds is a major modern talent in genre fiction. These four novels, concluded in 'Absolution Gap', comprise a rich, entertaining, thought-provoking original vision of humanity and science unleashed like a virus across the backdrop of a carefully imagined universe.

Reynolds' third novel
'Absolution Gap' picks up the story of the survivors of 'Redemption Ark' not long after their arrival on the planet Ararat. Nevil Clavain, once known as the Butcher of Tharsis, now a tragic, heroic figure fully fleshed out in the previous novel, has done a runner from the society he helped to create. He's left Scorpio, an uplifted pig from Chasm City (both the city itself and the novel) in charge. Scorpio's done well, but finds himself confronted with an arrival on Ararat that calls for Clavain's presence. There's a suggestion that the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity is in the system and that Inhibitors are catching up with these struggling dregs of humanity. The year is 2675.

In 2615, we find another starship, Gnostic Ascension pulling into an uncharted system. It's Quaiche's last chance to prove to the horrifying Ultra-human captain Jasmina that he has the skills to earn his keep on the ship. He sends his personal ship down to an uncharted planet, where he finds more than he could have imagined at a price that is beyond imagination as well.

And in 2727, on the small frozen moon of Hela, Rashmika Els, a 16 year old archaeological prodigy, has unearthed evidence that undermines the beliefs of those who rule the vast cathedrals, huge cities in motion that circle the moon to keep the planet Haldora in view, just in case the miracle happens again. That miracle is becoming a little bit more common of late.

Once again, Reynolds uses the time differential created by slower-than -light travel to help unfold a complex story that plays out over decades. The power of this novel, and its success as a cap to the series, derives both from Reynolds ability to create a detailed impression of future history and his characters. From the macrocosmic scale of his universe to the personal scale of his characters, Reynolds uses musical, detailed prose that carries the reader effortlessly into a complex, compelling story. First and foremost, the writing here is evocative and beautiful. The prose never gets in its own way, yet shines with an undercurrent of poetic precision and beauty. The density that was the hallmark of 'Revelation Space' and 'Chasm City' gets paid off in this novel. Reynolds is able to create worlds, cities, and societies that have a history the reader can feel but need to actually read about in the hundred or so books that Reynolds could clearly write about the background. Reynolds' language lets him create a world larger than we see on the pages, and in this fourth novel, the scope is served by three previous works of meticulous world-building.

Reynolds' second "stand-alone" novel contributes much to the series.
But one of the great satisfactions of any series is seeing the characters change and grow. 'Absolution Gap' offers that on many scales. Again, the time dilation allows character within the narrative to become fully fleshed-out. New in this novel is Vasko Malinin, a young protégé of Scorpio who becomes more than just a walk-on sidekick. Clavain again brings the authority of a long life of conflict, much of which we've seen in the pages 'Chasm City' and especially 'Redemption Ark'. Those pages pay off here as events on Ararat lead towards an inescapable conclusion. Interestingly enough, the real protagonist for much of 'Absolution Gap', and indeed a Reynolds' future history series is Scorpio, a pig genetically engineered to encompass human intelligence but not privy to many of the advantages of being a full-blooded human in the 28th century. Reynolds is able to use the intentional flaws built-in to Scorpio by his creators to provide a more human perspective on the events in the novel. It's a very clever construct, and allows Reynolds to get in some of his best, most pointed writing.

But Reynolds excels as well in Rashmika Els, the argumentative teenager who seems to know what others must learn. In a sense, she's the inverse of Sky Haussman from 'Chasm City', and Reynolds plays well in unreeling her character in the style of the best mystery writers. The society that surrounds her is hidebound with fundamentalist religious traditions and the limitations of a "small town" planet. It's another excellent example of Reynolds' ability to create imaginative, cohesive societies and characters that tie directly into the societies and characters that surround us.

Reynolds also provides some long-awaited character satisfaction. One of the characters he's been most careful about building has been the Captain, long ago fused into the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity by the Melding Plague. 'Absolution Gap' finds the Captain coming forward and making his most up-front appearances. They're perfectly, enjoyably surreal.

One problem that occurs all too often in space opera series is the creation of one or more single-environment worlds. This results in simplistic, cartoonish reductions that trivialize the achievement of 'Dune' and other works. Reynolds has eschewed this easy route to create worlds that are complex and multi-faceted. Across the sweep of the four novels, readers have found worlds that reflect the variety of human life, our ability to turn even hostile environments into homes. In 'Absolution Gap', Reynolds unfolds a world of huge, mobile cities called Cathedrals. Dickensian in nature, the Cathedrals offer layer upon layer of human habitation built in the manner of a nautilus shell. It's an accretionary process. Holding the Cathedrals together is a fundamentalist religion that's painfully precise in conception. Reynolds matches the human element with the architectural structure so that each contributes to the believability of the other.

We aren't world-shapers in Reynolds' future, but rather world infectors. Infection and diseases play a huge part in shaping both Reynolds' futures and his humans on both a macroscopic and microscopic scale. From the Melding Plague that fused the Captain with the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity to the human infections that plague otherwise uninhabitable worlds, Reynolds understands the critical role played by microbes in history, and he weaves these themes into his story as well. He's especially effective at creating landscapes that evoke the diseases within, both mental and physical.

Solid, fact-based scientific speculation has been a hallmark of each of the works in Reynolds' series. They're actual, factual science fiction, spun out in with a speculative poetry that is integrated with each individual novel's plotline. 'Absolution Gap' finds Reynolds taking readers deep into string theory and arriving at the M-brane hypothesis. There's enough borrowed from cutting edge current day theory to provide the satisfying intellectual jolt that good science fiction can offer, but not so much that readers will feel as if parts of a physics textbook have been dropped in their laps.

A novella from Golden Gryphon.
While the novels cover the majority of the story, and can be read in strict chronological order, there are other short works that fit nicely into the series and are well worth seeking out. 'The Great Wall of Mars' and 'Glacial' are best read after 'Revelation Space' and before 'Redemption Ark', and give a gripping account of Clavain's early years. 'The novella 'Turquoise Days' can be read after 'Redemption Ark' and will definitely enhance the reader's enjoyment of 'Absolution Gap'. 'Diamond Dogs' offers a valuable bit of background, and can be easily read anytime after 'Revelation Space'. It's available in a double-novella format from Gollancz who deserve our thanks -- along with Interzone -- for bringing us Reynolds in the first place. Reynolds' web page gives a nice thumbnail description of all of his stories.

As a novel, 'Absolution Gap' provides a very nice stand-alone jolt in the opening segments set on Hela. Reynolds creates a world with enough mystery to keep us reading breathlessly but comprehensible enough within the framework of the series to provide an enjoyable enlargement of our understanding of his vision. Reynolds has shown again and again in this series his understanding of the importance of the mystery quotient in science fiction writing. He's an expert at tipping the reader back and forth between a state of wondering and a state of wonder. The characters created especially for the novel are compelling and well-wrought enough to hold their own against characters we've known over the previous three novels.

Where it begins.
As much as I like the series, it is clearly not all things for all readers. Reynolds' prose is dense and poetic. It's not transparent in the style favored by bestselling writers. Reynolds is also utterly unafraid to grapple with huge cosmic concepts. This will endear him greatly to the H. P. Lovecraft fans of the world, but not necessarily to those looking for an easy escape. As a one-time astrophysicist for the European Space Agency -- he's recently quit to devote all his time to his writing -- Reynolds is fully qualified to talk about hard science, and he does so well. But if you have no tolerance for hard science in your science fiction, then you might not tolerate Reynolds. On the other hand, if you prefer the military-heavy metal style of much of today's "hard" science fiction, Reynolds may be all-too-literary for your tastes. His ability and willingness to maintain the mysteries behind his universe may try a casual reader's patience. Be assured that your patience will be rewarded; but be aware that it may be tested. The goo factor might also put off some readers. Reynolds writes science fiction with an eye for horror. In fact, the opening passages of 'Absolution Gap' offer some of the finest horror writing we’ve seen this year. Jasmina, the Ultra captain of the lighthugger Gnostic Ascension is easily one of the most frightening figures to be coalesced out of nightmare in recent SF. With these provisos in place, though, it's easy to recommend this series, now complete, as one of the best that science fiction has to offer.

As the end of a series, 'Absolution Gap' provides a sense of completion but not overfill. Even as the series ends, Reynolds can't stop himself leaving the reader wanting -- but not needing -- more. Readers now have the full story to evaluate, from beginning to end. Reynolds' series has a frosty start, to be sure. The character who dominates the beginning of the novel and the series, Dan Sylveste, is daringly and bracingly unlikable. Coupled with Reynolds' unusual stipulation of no faster-than-light travel, Reynolds' universe is hardly inviting. This not the utopian future of 'Star Trek', nor is it the simplistic fantasy playground of 'Star Wars'. Instead, it's more like the derelict ship found at the beginning of the movie 'Alien'; dense, filled with a history that the audience can sense without having to experience in detail. As Reynolds introduces the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity and her crew, as the careful construction of his multi-layered plot unfolds, readers can enjoy his ability to always provide just the right level of detail, just the right level of poetry in his prose. 'Chasm City' is a wonderfully detailed detour, a melting pot in which Reynolds cooks up powerful characters in a richly imagined setting and a carefully layered mystery. 'Redemption Ark' and 'Absolution Gap' round out the series nicely, offering battle and resolution, a forward thrust and a thrilling finish. If you start out reading 'Revelation Space', you're in for a treat. There are four novels in all that await you, which will evoke a variety of moods and create worlds you'll fear and enjoy. Alastair Reynolds has presented the new century with a remarkable prose creation. The beginning and the end of the universe await you.