Victor Gollancz / Orion
UK Hardcover First
Publication Date: 06-27-2002
567 Pages; £17.99
Date Reviewed: 07-29-02
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002
Human culture, spread across the galaxy by advanced technology. Artificial intelligences and self-designed 'post humans'. Ancient alien cultures and self-replicating, inimical machines that roam the galaxy. It's the most basic stuff of science fiction. Alastair Reynolds writes so well that he can work these into a complex novel of dark wonder. He does this by sheer writing skill, by taking the English language and building a universe out of believable characters, compelling set-pieces and lots of unexpected twists to the standard technologies. 'Revelation Space' was in fact a revelation, a huge first novel that set the scene and had a fully satisfying story. 'Chasm City' used the backdrop created in 'Revelation Space' as the setting for a complex noir mystery, but didn't provide any resolution to many of the problems raised in 'Revelation Space'. 'Redemption Ark' is obviously the follow-up that 'Revelation Space' required. Readers should note that while the story has been revealed and redeemed, it has not been resolved. 'Redemption Ark' is the third book in a series, and readers should definitely seek out the other two and read them sequentially before attempting to read 'Redemption Ark', which itself will require a sequel or two. That said, 'Redemption Ark' is a fantastically satisfying novel in which Reynolds uses the tools of fine non-genre literature to set a new standard for science fiction.
The plot of 'Redemption Ark' involves the pursuit of the 'hell class' weapons found on the ship Nostalgia for Infinity in 'Revelation Space'. In Reynolds universe, humanity has split into two factions. The Conjoiners are humans who have incorporated technology that's allows them to share thoughts. A bloody battle resulted in a separation and eventually an on-going war that has worn both sides down to a 'war is routine' mentality. The events of 'Revelation Space' have tipped the balance that had existed, and now the Conjoiners are looking to take control of Nostalgia for Infinity. Skade is the woman closest to being the leader of the Conjoiners by virtue of being part of every circle of government within the telepathic faction. When she recovers a long lost Conjoiner exploration craft, the events that propel the novel are set into motion.
Reynolds creates a number of new characters for this novel and brings back characters from both 'Revelation Space' and 'Chasm City'. Skade sends Nevil Clavain to retrieve the weapons, while Ana Khouri and Triumvir Ilia Volyova monitor the alarming events that are unfolding in the Resurgam system. Skade is relentless, driven, powerful and where she needs even more power, aided and abetted by a cleverly described technology. Clavain is certainly one of the most enjoyable and complex characters we've seen in the science fiction world in a long time. The 400-year old 'Butcher of Tharsis' defected from humanity to become a Conjoiner, and now finds himself between two cultures. Reynolds does a superb job at building up the layers in this character, slowly revealing a deeper and deeper personality. New also to 'Redemption Ark' are Antionette Bax and Xavier Liu, ship owners who find themselves drawn into the Clavain's and Skade's plans. Their youth adds some nice contrast to the long view offered by Reynolds other characters. Don't mistake youth for simplicity, however; each has a number of secrets and layers that are revealed in the novel.
Reynolds no-FTL universe provides the writer ample opportunity to evade the reader's expectations when it comes to the usual pursuits and explorations. There are dazzling twists on weaponry and drive systems. Reynolds knows how to make the physics accessible and the surprises comprehensible. It's an absolute delight to witness his take on the hoary cliché of "space battles". He comes up with some wonderful analogies that give the reader the kind of insights most readers will only expect a writer to achieve. And he does most of this within an entirely familiar relativistic universe, without a hyperdrive flip switch or warp lever in evidence anywhere.
Perhaps most surprising given Reynolds strength in the science fiction arena is the darkness of 'Redemption Ark'. If you strip away the vivid SF underpinnings, you're left with a horror novel in which the dead speak, Frankensteinian monsters are assembled from the parts of the mad, horrific plagues drench the surroundings in a mucousy slime and all the monsters are at core distinctly human. Horror readers who have missed Reynolds work would be well advised to give it a chance. His starships are like gothic castles, with unexplored expanses and localized hauntings. Death is common but not commonly permanent. The revivified are rarely happy to find themselves alive and the living are not often certain either. There's not a lot of violence, but there is a lot dank unhappiness.
'Redemption Ark' doesn't offer quite as satisfying an ending as did 'Revelation Space' and 'Chasm City'. It's clearly a book with both prequels and sequels in mind. You must read the former, and you will certainly want to read the latter. 'Redemption Ark' does come to a clear conclusion, wrapping up the gripping story of its characters and ideas. But we are talking about a novel whose concerns stretch across billions of years and light-years. Reynolds does an excellent job of keeping his story frame focused so that it never seems overly portentous. He can zoom out to the cosmos and in on the conscience in one smooth written sequence with an ease that disarms the reader. At his most enlightening, he is simultaneously most entertaining. He can't fly faster than a speeding bullet, but readers will devour his novels with a seemingly similar speed. 'Redemption Ark' will take any properly prepared reader -- those who have read the first two novels -- on a journey that will reveal the depth and intensity of the best reading experiences.