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Revelation Space Review: You Could Have Been The One

I can group all artworks roughly into three categories. The good ones, ranging from interesting to masterpieces, the bad ones, ranging from boring to disgraceful, and the could-have-beens. The latter category includes those works that could have been amazing, but unfortunately, they are bad. Revelation Space is a could-have-been. 

Part of the Revelation Space cover.

First things first. Revelation Space is being described as a gritty, hard sci-fi opera. It’s set approximately 500 years into the future, where humanity, even though cannot travel faster than the speed of light, can, in fact, travel close to the speed of light. This results in the colonization of several nearby star systems. However, the fact that one needs decades to travel from one system to the other led to highly isolated colonies, that, in turn, evolved technologically, socially, and politically very different from one another.

The book has three POVs. Dan Sylveste, a xenoarchaeologist (someone who studies the archaeology of alien civilizations) who researches the reason behind the extinction of the Amarantin, Illia Volyova, an Ultranaut (a faction of transhumans who travel between star systems), and Ana Khouri, an ex-soldier.

Now, I said that Revelation Space is a could-have-been. This means that some of its aspects are good. And this true, there two main points in which Revelation Space is amazing.

S-Tier World Building: Alastair Reynolds has created probably the most intriguing and unique space sci-fi world I’ve read yet. There are myriads of factions, civilizations, political and hierarchical systems which have evolve naturally due to the technological paths they chose. Reynolds introduces many fascinating ideas on how a species can evolve and how a faction can be born. I have to be honest, as a GM I’m jealous of Reynold’s world-building skills. Only by reading the first 100 pages of the book you can quickly understand why, by the time of the writing of this review, there are more than 8 books set in the same universe.

A Great Ending: Endings are always tricky when the stakes are too high, when there is a great universal mystery waiting to be unveiled. Yet, Alastair Reynolds manages to deliver. The ending is amazing and satisfying, and even though Revelation Space is part of a trilogy, one can easily stop here without the story feeling incomplete.

Unfortunately, this is where the good points end. The rest of the book is a mess:

Deeply Unlikable Characters: Every single character in this book – and I don’t mean only the POVs, I mean every-single-one – is a patronizing asshole. If I had a penny for every time I read the phrase “You don’t understand, do you?” or “You haven’t guessed, haven’t you?” I would be rich by the end of this book. I sincerely hope that Alastair Reynolds doesn’t talk like that to people. However, it’s not only the patronizing part that makes the characters unlikable. They simply lack anything likable about them. Sure, they have their reasons for doing what they do, but they lack this X-Factor that even the meanest bastards have that makes you care about them, even if they commit the worst crimes.

Devoid of Emotion: Reynolds makes good use of his academic and scientific background to explain every single thing that happens. I mean it, everything. You will read about things like the Coriolis force to one-time pads, and while the author explains even the most convoluted of subjects in a seamless fashion, he cannot describe the most important thing: Emotion. This book lacks emotion in every single page. The dialogues are simply wrong, they feel like they are part of a bad telenovela or, for a better analogy, like they are generated by an AI. Also, there’s no deep-diving into the feelings of any of the characters. There are no dreams, no hopes, no happiness, no despair. If the big revelation of the book was the every one of them was a robot I would not be surprised.

Missed Potential: This is the part that annoyed me the most. For all the amazing world-building, Alastair Reynolds does nothing with it. We get introduced into a deeply transhuman society, there are dozens of talks of how many of the surrounding characters are severely altered (cybernetics, nanotechnology), we learn about new political systems stemming from the rise of certain technologies, yet, there is no discussion at all about what the effects of them are. When do you stop being human? How does tinkering with your very being makes you feel? What is the effect on others? What societal miracles and atrocities come hand in hand with certain technologies? These are deep questions which should have at least been touched.

Overall, Revelation Space is an interesting book. I’m not sure whether I would recommend it to anyone due to its severe mishaps. Nevertheless, if you’re a sci-fi bookworm then you should give it a try.

Rating: ★★½
Feelings: During the first 100 pages, I really believed that you were the one, Alastair.
Imaginary Quote: “I can explain everything but I have no feelings!”

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