Ace, 2003 (mmpb, Ace, 2004)
First line: The dead ship was a thing of beauty.
Redemption Ark is the third book in Reynolds Revelation Space series. I inadvertently skipped the second novel Chasm City but thankfully Reynolds’ fiction, despite being part of a larger overarching story, manages to stand well enough on its own and I never felt like I was really missing anything major. As when I read Revelation Space the first thing that strikes me about Reynolds’ writing is the staid, deliberate pace. I can’t qualify this in any meaningful way, it isn’t good or bad, but it is certainly an aspect of his writing that for me took some time to warm up to. More so then Revelation Space, Redemption Ark delves a bit deeper into unfamiliar society, particularly the nearly post-human Conjoiners, and lingers more consistently on technologies that are both new and completely fascinating. Reynolds is an idea man and barely a chapter passed by without some new and shiny bit of technological wonder to fire up my imagination.
Perhaps the most exciting, and fascinating, of those technological bits is his handling of spaceship propulsion. It is a wondrous concept that focuses not on generation of additional force to increase speed but rather on the suppression of inertia. That description barely touches on the fascinating avenues that the technology opens up and I have no idea how sound the actual “science” is, but for me it is so well thought out and intricately described to the point where it seems entirely possible. It left me with a sense of wide-eyed wonder and the frenetic excitement of possibility that few science fiction novels have left me with in the past. For someone who is so often critical of the idea of the “infodump” in other novels to enjoy the often exposition heavy passages that are required to adequately describe these new technologies seems a bit contradictory in nature. I think though that for hard science fiction the description of these new technologies is part and parcel of the experience.
Perhaps what I like most about Redemption Ark, aside from the epic galaxy spanning majesty of the plot, is the theme of time that runs through the course of the novel. In particular each of main protagonist perspectives has some aspect that is tied to, or more consistently, the notion of time. The most obvious character that exhibits this is the Conjoiner Clavain who, at 400+ years old, is an integral player both in the history of his people and, as it turns out, their future as well. There are the returning Triumvir and Ana Khouri (last seen in Revelation Space) who have spent considerable time in reefer sleep in order to advance their own machinations; subverting the natural flow of time in order to more effectively attempt their goals. Khouri in particular suffers from how the relativistic effects of space travel have affected her life. The intersection of past and future in the present is made manifest in the Conjoinver perspective not only through Clavain but through the hidden motivations behind the Conjoiner faction’s actions; supposed messages from their future selves. The past is partly responsible for the predicament our heroes find themselves in, the remnants of dead alien societies as described in Revelation Space having drawn the ire of the major villains of the story, the faceless machines referred to as either Wolves or Inhibitors; ancient and at the same time irrevocably tied to the future, at least as they perceive it, as well.
Time has a palpable and substantive weight on the story that colors the actions of all characters. Of course, as the full revelation of the task before him settles on Clavain and he wonders about the futility and justness of his actions, we get this nice little tidbit: “Clavain saw it all with sudden, heart-stopping clarity: all that mattered was here and now. All that mattered was survival.” Clavain’s surety is never given any qualifying attributes. It isn’t the right or wrong decision. It is the only decision. I think it is a fascinating message that with the weight of time, both past and present, against it the only choice that humanity, or rather sentient life, can honestly make is to survive. It is something of a weighty notion but one I found provided some rather meaty food for thought.
Despite Reynolds aforementioned intricate descriptions of new technologies he has an almost frustrating tendency to leave other avenues woefully under-explored. Again in Redemption Ark, we glimpse the now transformed Nostalgia for Infinity the melding plague having consumed its captain and modified the ship in mysterious ways. Those ways remain mysterious and while our glimpse is deeper then in Revelation Space I still feel like the nature of the Nostalgia remains woefully under-explored. Perhaps I missed something in Chasm City, or in some of Reynolds short fiction (or something later in the series) but I desperately want to know more about the Melding Plague that afflicts technology in the universe of Revelation Space, it is such a neat concept (particularly as it applies to the Nostalgia). While they are mentioned in both Revelation Space and Redemption Ark, represented by the Triumvir, the Ultra’s also remain an avenue I’d love to read more of, as some of Volyova’s comments here reveal some previously hidden depths about their society. Then, of course, there are the Pattern Jugglers whose sentient seas store imprints of all lifeforms who swam in them. There’s more, but I’ll stop there, as you can see for every fascinating little morsel lets us taste he lets us only catch a bare whiff of another before snatching it away.
If I had any doubt that Alistair Reynolds is one of today’s top masters of the space opera genre Redemption Ark has since blasted them out of the airlock. While novel takes its time building up elements of the plot, introducing and re-introducing to characters and slowly uncovering the layers of beneath the various threats our heroes face, it manages to weave everything into a cohesive and compelling whole. For all that is left unexplained there is never any doubt that the world of Redemption Ark is as fully realized and fleshed out as our own. I look forward to exploring more in the Revelation Space series and I encourage anyone who hasn’t yet given this series a try to do so at the earliest opportunity.