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Old November 26 2009, 11:10 AM   #1
Planetary
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Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

I consider myself a long-time SF fan.

As a kid, I grew up watching ST:TNG and DS9, I devoured science fiction novels -- from Battletech, to C.S. Lewis' 'Out of the Silent Planet,' to the Star Trek novels -- and to this day I play lots of SF-themed video games, like Mass Effect, Halo and Sins of a Solar Empire.

I can't say I've ever been a big Star Wars fan -- while I love the first three movies, I've never reached the level of adoring fanboyism necessary to excuse the last three, and I've always thought movies like Bladerunner, Alien and 2001 were more representative of true science fiction.

One of the things that's always bugged me, however, is how humanity's future in franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars is often depicted as this gleaming, utopian vision. In Star Trek, humanity's united, the Federation is ethically squeaky-clean, medical expertise can cure anything, ships are shiny and perfect, and conflict is black-and-white. Likewise, with Star Wars, technology is only so much flashy eye-candy, and all we need to know is Jedi = Good, and Sith = Bad.

This is an oversimplification, of course, and I've enjoyed many SF series -- in book and movie form -- that present a more complex future with ambiguities and many shades of gray.

But Revelation Space changed that for me.

Suddenly there's this universe, and it's dark, empty and lonely. Humanity has become a star-faring civilization, but the only things its encountered are the remnants of ancient, long-dead civilizations.

Humanity, even at its technological height, is brought to its knees by a devastating and grotesque plague.

Money, rather than becoming an outmoded relic of a post-scarcity society, is still very much the god of many societies and people.

Space travel is conducted at the mercy of the laws of physics, and journeys between colonized star systems take decades, experienced in relativistic time and cryogenic sleep.

Information is the single most valuable currency in a universe of sub-light travel, and is often decades -- or centuries -- old by the time it reaches other systems.

And the ships. Oh man, the ships! The setting for most of the first book -- and parts of subsequent books -- is the Nostalgia for Infinity, a haunting, city-size ship that dates back to a period of such antiquity in man's space-faring era that no one can remember who built it or what it was originally used for. In the books it's crewed by six biomechanical posthumans, three of whom form a triumvirate because the ship's captain is so badly ravaged by the Melding Plague, he has to be permanently kept in a state of cryogenic suspension to prevent the disease from further warping the biological and machine parts of him. The Nostalgia for Infinity is described as massive, with entire 'districts' of the ship covered in a dust that hasn't been disturbed by human presence for centuries. Powered by its twin Conjoiner drives, the Nostalgia for Infinity is a 'lighthugger' -- a ship that takes months or years to accelerate to within 99 percent the speed of light for its decades-long interstellar journeys. And in one of the ship's cavernous holding bays, a cache containing the Hell Class weapons -- seventeen insidious, incomprehensibly destructive machines that were discovered inside an ancient, hallowed-out asteroid in an otherwise lifeless system.

But most of all, it's the big ideas that make Revelation Space so mind-blowing: The Pattern Jugglers, the only alien life form humanity has encountered, are essentially biological oceans that record the neural patterns of visitors who swim in them, but do not reveal any signs of consciousness. The Amarantin, a long-dead, 900,000-year-old civilization that predates humanity and died out in a mysterious cataclysm shortly after achieving spaceflight. The Shrouders, an enigmatic intelligence that have secluded themselves behind impenetrable bubbles of space/time. Yellowstone, with Chasm City on its surface and the Rust Belt, a ring of thousands of space habitats, orbiting in its gravity well. Chasm City itself, where the melding plague has ravaged humanity's most advanced world and reverted it back to a mix of high technology and pre-industrial-era slums. The Conjoiners, a sect of post-humans with networked consciousness. Lighthuggers, massive ships that take months or years to accelerate to 99% the speed of light for long inter-stellar journeys.

In one area, Revelation Space can't compete with Star Trek. Whereas I'd love the idea of joining a real-life Enterprise and adventuring with Picard and his crew, I would never, ever want to spend even an hour aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity. The characters in Revelation Space are memorable, but not nearly as easy to empathize with as the cast of different Trek series.

But hey, it's written science fiction, and it's not known for its characterization.

In any event, at the risk of sounding like a massive fanboy, I wanted to share this with all of you here. Star Trek will always hold a special place in my heart, but Revelation Space really hit the spot for a brilliant, bleak look into the future. Apples and oranges, in a way. And while the series is definitely not for everyone, I can't help but think some fellow Trek fans will find a lot to like in Revelation Space.
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Old November 26 2009, 05:59 PM   #2
diankra
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

I think my favourite part of this series comes in one the later books, when two ships which are accelerating to as close to light speed as they can get, as they're in a race to the destination, have to work out ways of attacking each other - while both are at high fractions of C, with no magic ways round the realities of physics.

Characterisation? Well, you can't really empathise with Scorpio, but he's as interesting a character as you'll ever get...
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Old November 26 2009, 06:47 PM   #3
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

Yeah it is a good series of books... But some things do annoy. The 'pattern jugglers', for example, are just his excuse for a 'deus ex machina' - doing whatever the plot demands.

Out of the books, though, I think 'Absolution Gap' is the best, with the best characters.

I would have liked to have seen more of some of the more exotic factions of the universe such as the 'Skyjacks', but I have not read all the books in the universe. (just the 3 major ones)


If you want your eyes opened to some real epic SF, I would recommend Dan Simmons Hyperion novels. Still the benchmark for me that no other series has surpassed. (although it is more Space Opera than Hard SF)
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Old November 26 2009, 07:31 PM   #4
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

Sounds like a home improvement show.
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Old November 26 2009, 07:37 PM   #5
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

Planetary wrote: View Post
But hey, it's written science fiction, and it's not known for its characterization.
That generalization is over thirty years out of date and, like all thoughtless stereotypes, grossly unfair.
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Old November 26 2009, 07:41 PM   #6
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

Indeed! It makes one wonder exactly what kind of written SF the OP has been reading the past.
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Old November 26 2009, 09:19 PM   #7
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

Your description has intrigued me! I've put the first book on hold at my library, hopefully I'll be able to grab it on Saturday, if not then Monday.
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Old November 27 2009, 12:14 AM   #8
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

Pilot Ace wrote: View Post
Your description has intrigued me! I've put the first book on hold at my library, hopefully I'll be able to grab it on Saturday, if not then Monday.
You'll enjoy it, I think. Reynolds is one of my favorite modern day hard sf-space opera writers.
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Old November 27 2009, 12:15 AM   #9
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

Opera, speaking of the musical genre, is known for flambuoyant characters in melodramatic scenes. It is not known for realistic backgrounds and plausible plotting. Space opera is very much the same. From the days of E.E. "Doc" Smith, the science in space opera was as fictional and the stories as wildly dramatic as regular opera. And in both, the appeal to the fan lies in the colorful characters and what happens to them. The fact that space opera, like musical opera or soap opera or horse opera isn't known for sophisticated, realistic characterization isn't quite the same thing, is it?
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Old November 27 2009, 12:22 AM   #10
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

But these modern writers, such as Reynolds, do use realistic characters and science in their space opera. So, you can have stories that have realistic characters and science in the large, epic settings and plotting of "opera."
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Old November 27 2009, 01:32 AM   #11
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

The current new wave of British science fiction literature is something to behold.
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Old November 27 2009, 04:00 AM   #12
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

Christopher wrote: View Post
Planetary wrote: View Post
But hey, it's written science fiction, and it's not known for its characterization.
That generalization is over thirty years out of date and, like all thoughtless stereotypes, grossly unfair.
Hyperspace05 wrote: View Post
Indeed! It makes one wonder exactly what kind of written SF the OP has been reading the past.
Of the "current" crop, I've been reading Reynolds, Banks and Hamilton, and have read bits and pieces of other series. I've read quite a few books by Neil Gaiman, as well as Neal Stephenson, but I don't consider those guys SF writers in the pure sense.

Of the first three, Banks is easily the best at fleshing out characters.

Reynolds is getting better -- Campion, Purslane and Hesperus (House of Suns) are infinitely more likable and a good deal more complex than Sylveste, Volyova and Clavain. But let's be honest here: Their motivations are often inconsistent, and Reynolds, for all his strengths, can be downright awful sometimes when it comes to things like dialogue and exposition. He's seven full-length novels into his career, and yet he's still prone to infodumps that often take the form of bad dialogue, and stretch on for pages. That's partially his fault, but mostly the fault of his editors, who should have worked with him on those things years ago.

As for Banks, I'd say Horza and Mrs. Mulverhill (Consider Phlebas and Transition, respectively) are two of his most memorable characters, but even with Horza, we don't know much about him and his motivations are wildly inconsistent. We read Consider Phlebas for its wild series of exotic locales and increasingly ridiculous situations, but not for the interaction between characters or fascinating internal dialogue.

Contrast that with a non-genre writer like David Mitchell, who like to dabble in SF within the larger framework of his stories. Or Arthur Phillips. (The Egyptologist Phillips, not the Prague Phillips.)

Maybe I'm reading the "wrong" SF, and correct me if I'm mistaken, but no SF writer I'm aware of has been able to create characters even remotely as interesting as Timothy Cavendish, Sonmi 451 or Ralph Trilipush.

And really...Somni 451 is a character that exists for, what, 80 pages? And yet she is probably the most memorable SF character in my mind.

stonester1 wrote: View Post
The current new wave of British science fiction literature is something to behold.
I agree. For me, it's about the big ideas, which is why I can forgive the poor characterization.

Pilot Ace wrote: View Post
Your description has intrigued me! I've put the first book on hold at my library, hopefully I'll be able to grab it on Saturday, if not then Monday.
Sweet, I'm glad you're giving it a shot.

I think the first scene aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity will be enough to make you a believer, but on the off chance you find Revelation Space a bit dense, then I suggest starting with Chasm City, which is much more conventional but has the same bleak, lived-in feel as the other books.

While I've been critical of the characters in RS, I do think Sky Haussmann, the main villain of one of Chasm City's narrative strands, is among the more memorable in any Reynolds work. Haussman is, quite simply, an evil bastard.
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Old November 27 2009, 04:06 AM   #13
Planetary
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

And I hope I haven't confused anyone, but Revelation Space is the title of the first Reynolds novel, as well as the unofficial name of the series. The books are: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, Chasm City, Diamond Dogs/Turquoise Days, The Prefect and Galactic North -- together they form what fans call the "Revelation Space universe."

Century Rain and House of Suns are stand-alone books, but they're not part of the Revelation Space universe.

(I suppose my earlier count of seven books was wrong -- it could be between eight and ten, depending on whether you count novellas and short story collections.)
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Old November 27 2009, 04:18 AM   #14
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

Hyperspace05 wrote: View Post
Yeah it is a good series of books... But some things do annoy. The 'pattern jugglers', for example, are just his excuse for a 'deus ex machina' - doing whatever the plot demands.

Out of the books, though, I think 'Absolution Gap' is the best, with the best characters.

I would have liked to have seen more of some of the more exotic factions of the universe such as the 'Skyjacks', but I have not read all the books in the universe. (just the 3 major ones)
From what I understand, the Skyjacks are just men. Reclusive men, with biomechanical alterations similar to the Ultras, but men nonetheless. (The closest we get to them is a passage in Chasm City mentioning them in passing, and the recorded message tied to the lattice-work bridge on Hela in Absolution Gap.)

I'm not sure we could call the Pattern Jugglers deus ex machina. They allow characters to accomplish things they normally would not, but those enhanced neural abilities are never deal-closers that help resolve plots.

Spoilers: At least one of the characters in Diamond Dogs has augmented mathematical prowess thanks to the Jugglers, but that doesn't help her avoid the same disgusting fate as the other characters. The Nostalgia for Infinity's captain swam with the Jugglers, but that did not actually help him overcome anything -- he's still a Melding Plague-infected horror afterward. Clavain was joined with the Jugglers, and may have helped aid in the escape from Ararat, but that action would have been ultimately pointless without the intercession of Remontoire and the Zodiacal Light.

Contrast that with Trek's deus ex machina, which usually come in the last three minutes and directly allow the characters to resolve conflicts. The Jugglers may have the power to change things, but they don't invent or improve technology at the last second to save entire ships and crews.
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Old November 27 2009, 05:48 AM   #15
Hyperspace05
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Re: Revelation Space changed the way I look at SF

The way I see the pattern jugglers as 'deus ex machina' is that set up that whole secret identity plot in book #1. And that ability to communicate with the jugglers to achieve something so specific is never accomplished again in the series. Later studies of the jugglers in 'redemption ark' shows how frustratingly hard communication with jugglers are... you were more likely to get disassembled by the jugglers than to get any specific request accomplished. That is what I mean by their abilities and communication skills being dependent on the demands of the plot.
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