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Alastair Reynolds "Chasm City" and "Revelation Space"

Vast and Brooding Ziggurat of Thrills

Alastair Reynolds is one of the leading writers of modern space adventure, equally adept at epic novels and short fiction. An absolute must-read for all "hard science fiction" fans, though perhaps a little dry for those who like more conventional science fiction. A big portion of his work occurs within the Revelation Space universe, one of the better realized "Future Histories" in all of science fiction. Reynolds' style of writing can also be somewhat cold and impersonal, but it is ALWAYS entertaining. Blockbuster wide-screen special effects and breathtaking action are guaranteed in every single story, no matter where you decide to start.

Alastair Reynolds
"Revelation Space" (nv)
(Revelation Space series: 1)
© 2000, Gollancz / Ace
--shortlist : 2001 Clarke
--first novel : 2001 Locus /2
--sf novel : 2001 Locus /22
--novel : 2001 British SF

--/ FIRST place sf series
--/ second place space sf novel

--/ adventure award
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ awesome scale

The vistas here are wide and gorgeous, the ending is pure joy, the canvas is colorful and satisfying. This novel starts in intriguing, if somewhat slow-paced way, showing us an archaeological dig on the other planet - but once we learn what kind of immensity this particular archaeological dig uncovers, the action picks up speed and the marvelous adventure gets underway. Various planetary environments are introduced and a weirdly twisted space-faring cyber-culture is described, getting a different treatment from Bruce Sterling's similar "Schismatrix" series. Lack of the hyperdrive - instantaneous FTL travel - in "Revelation Space" universe makes for a truly mind-boggling contemplation of stellar distances and unforgiving time spans, and it also introduces certain harshness in how the characters would live and function... faced with huge gaps of traveling through the void. Thus, the full flavor of "Generation Ship" epics from classic 1940s science fiction stories can be felt once again (this time mixed with edgy cyberpunk philosophies). In a word: this novel is a trip.

And it makes sense, too, when you combine it with imaginary sensory experiences. One can almost see oneself boarding a colossal and beautiful spaceship, armed to the brim with deadly weapons (capable of destroying whole star systems), battling the ghosts, mysteries and conspiracies along the way and arriving at the weirdest destination possible (the novel does end with a bang, I'm not going to spoil it for you). This is a grand space adventure that will stay with you for years, an ice-cold thrilling vehicle... And yet, this is my only complaint: that the novel feels cold to the heart like a surgical instrument, devoid of any particular warmth. One might argue that the detached tone of the narrative perfectly fits the immensity of space and the life/death decisions that characters will face there. Think of it as an epic story machine, covered in chrome, with tangled spikes of brooding menace sticking out here and there - launched upon a grand voyage with not much thought given to side sentiments (though you'd wish it lasted longer than the 500 pages alotted to it).

There are plenty of other influences here: certainly Iain M. Banks, William Gibson, even early Heinlein (seen in the epic sweep of its story) - and also a striking similarity to Larry Niven's stories in its mind-bending finale. Yes, it could have been paced more engagingly, with fewer chunks of exposition, but the reader knows he is in competent hands: Alastair Reynolds is capable of delivering hard science and plot twists with equal flamboyance.

As a side note, I find it hard to forget the mental image of a vast weapons bay inside the Ultra's spaceship (which comes complete with a ghost captain, by the way), where the dread star-destroying guns darkly loom and sleep... waiting for a senseless command to wake them. You can tell, this is the stuff the best classic space operas are made of, stuff that never gets out-of-date. Awe-inspiring.
(review by Avi Abrams)

(image credit:

Alastair Reynolds
"Chasm City" (nv)
(Revelation Space series: 2)
© 2001, Gollancz /Ace
--sf novel : 2002 Locus /9
--novel : 2002 British SF W

--/ third place space sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ awesome scale
--/ shock value

This novel is quite a different beast from "Revelation Space": it's darker in tone, unapologetic (and often unjustified) in plot twists, baroque in its structure and towering ambition. A reader might get in turn bored, shocked, confused, astounded, and perplexed... it is, however, a black obelisk of a novel, a vast achievement, a master work nevertheless. Think of it as a Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled mystery set to steampunk gears and the brooding lustre of China Mieville's novels, with an added layer (somewhere deep down) of vintage Philip K. Dick's angst. Its pacing and sudden plot twists reminded me of A. E. Van Vogt's approach to writing (which can be summarized as "a new revelation, or a new plot twist, every few paragraphs"). The first half the story tended to drag, however, and I almost wished for action to speed up, and for prose to display (maybe) a little more emotion. Still, it ended up to be an all-out cinematic trip, certainly worth the admission.

I have to say, many people will find the tone and setting of this novel somewhat depressing. Even with the occasional display Chasm City's extraordinary glamor and glitz, and plethora of unmistakable steampunk- and cyberpunk- wonders and references, still - the overall effect of doom and sheer cold-bloodedness of main characters would get to anybody (there is not a single good-nature human being in the story, for a long time). But guess what, all this turns out to be just an appropriate build-up to the final sentiments that Reynolds masterfully hides in the ending. There is Grace in this universe after all! And a deep yearning for things pure and innocent... While these things are hinted - only hinted! - in the novel, they work underneath to shape the characters and to usher in an acceptable (though still pretty convoluted) outcome.

The novel opens (literally) with a bang: the explosive destruction of an enormous space elevator structure, and a subsequent voyage to Yellowstone/Chasm City (which brings to mind some of the Jack Vance's baroque destinations), interspersed with flashbacks of a "Generation Ship" odyssey to another star. I was deeply impressed by Alastair Reynolds' development of his anti-hero, Sky Hausmann, in this part of the story: he is a tyrant in the making, a ruthless figure, a peek into dark souls of the likes of Stalin and Hitler. His is a fascinating progression of evil that's being justified in the name of an idea, in the end revealed as sheer lust for power. Many will find this character hard to stomach (there is even an appearance of a much-maligned Joker figure) - and yet... yet... there is a sort of the redemption lurking just outside the view, a possibility for a transcending change that cannot be explained, and can be only felt. I applaud Reynolds for not stating these things clearly, and for the subtle emotional nuances that break through the cold facade of this book's gritty plot... Well done.

There is much to be said about the Pandora's Box of visual delights in this novel, and I attach some works of art that (barely) touch on that splendor. One word of caution, though: nothing in this novel is what it seems from the start, so prepare to be astounded... after enduring the long, meticulous exposition in the beginning. Chasm City will grow on you... and then you will wander in the twisted jungles of its buildings looking for, and not finding the happy-ending, unless you can uncover a certain happy-ending inside of you. And that seems to be exactly what Reynolds was intending.
(review by Avi Abrams)

(art credit: Marcin Jakubowski)

(art credit: Mark Goerner)


Read more reviews for this writer

Also read:
Alastair Reynolds, "Pushing Ice"
Alastair Reynolds, "Galactic North" (collection)
Alastair Reynolds, "Galactic North" (collection) Part 2

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished the second book....and I'm completely torn by this series.

The mind simultaneously exults and cringes at the scale of this tale.
The ideas and insight into humanity and the universe at large is just incredible…and reminds me of the feelings that I had as a kid reading the Heechee saga long long ago.

However – and it is a big however – the author truly must be getting paid by the word.
Apparently Reynolds never met a paragraph he didn’t like.

As someone who has read 20-30 novels a year for the past 35 years, I have never ever skimmed so much in my life.

If two paragraphs would set the proper mood and space, Reynolds decides that what is really needed is two PAGES to do the same…..and unfortunately, this is my worst personal hell…..mind-bending ideas and fast-paced execution – broken up by ungodly amounts of extraneous fluff that completely break the flow of the novel.

Each 700 page novel could easily have been edited down by 200 pages or more, to make it tighter and improve the pacing. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why the editors allowed this level of rambling prose…..quite like an erudite, interesting friend who got drunk and couldn’t quite get his point across without vast amounts of irrelevant babbling.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Modern writers should learn from the pulp era masters, where (even though they were paid by the word, and paid peanuts) a typical sf pulp would have a complete novel, two novellas, and 4 short stories in it!!

10:17 AM  
Anonymous P said...

I've actually read all his books, save The Prefect, which I'm currently reading, and I'll just state now, that the books are fantastic.

In reply to Anonymous, I take another example of an author who rambles on and on in his work, yet has come up with one of the biggest franchises to date. J R R Tolkein, and his habit of taking 4 pages just to describe the dirt under Frodo's nails (Perhaps not true, but just an example).

The Revelation Space universe is epic in its scale, so you have to look at everything in the big picture. Saying a Lighthugger was big, sleek and has lots of guns simply just does not do it justice.

On a technical note, Lighthuggers *cannot* destroy star systems, not even with all those Hell Class weapons aboard the main ship of the story. Yes, a Lighthugger has the potential to depopulate a planet from Orbit, but it's weaponry is not sufficient to fully penetrate the crust and destabilize a planet's core, causing it to tear itself apart or simply blow up like Alderaan Vs Death Star.

On a finishing note, I wouldn't give up on his books. I agree that his first two are a little slow going, but later novels are just amazing and help to explain things that perhaps readers didn't understand from previous books. They happen to have a faster pace also. With these books, the level of detail is necessary for our minds to picture Reynolds' universe in full detail, but think of only the big picture, otherwise you'll get lost in the details and find the book unenjoyable ;)

5:58 AM  
Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Wow, can't wait to sink teeth into the last Revelation Space series novels!

3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read just about every word by Reynolds. Didn't skim a bit. Not, like say, Stephenson who I will never read again. By the last quarter of Cryptonomicon I was reading maybe 2 sentences a page. I'd rather read Ayn Rand.

9:35 PM  
Blogger Avi Abrams said...

I had the same experience with Stephenson stuff. I have a suspicion that patience in his case is rewarded - just need a lot of time to ease into it.

Ayn Rand is what current world is heading to... weird.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i just finished reading ALL of his books and looking for more of the same type of writing ne suggestions the only scifi stuff ive read is the entire saga of seven suns a cple of weeks ago and all of A.Reynolds stuff this last week or so

4:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Anonymous (4.35AM) - Try Ian M. Banks. I recommend The Algebraist.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter F Hamilton is an epic writer, I recommend Pandora's Star if you wan't similar yet thought provoking writing

9:41 PM  
Blogger Cloud said...

Alastair Reynolds is the only author whose books I can read again and again without getting bored. The scale and detail he goes into is incredible. I agree that the first two novels aren't very fast paced but they are still good. Reynolds stand alone novels however are some of the best science fiction I've ever read, particularly terminal world, pushing ice and century rain. If you like these books I recommend Ian M. Banks.- excession and consider phlebas or Michael Cooley-seed of the earth.

3:42 AM  

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