Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Feb 25th, 2019, 9:18 pm

TITLE: The Inhibitor Trilogy (Revelation Space)
AUTHOR: Alastair Reynolds
PUBLISHED: 2000, 2002, 2003
GENRE: Science Fiction > Space Opera/Hard SF
RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★


Alastair Reynolds' Inhibitor Trilogy, or How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Your Cache Weapons.

While the sub-genre of space opera in science fiction (SF) literature has been traditionally regarded with some derision by critics for its romance and an underpinning framework in narratives that often rely on fantasy as much as on more rational SF-elements, there has been a perceptive increase in gravitas associated with the form ever since M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device (1974) attempted to invert some of the more common space opera tropes. Subsequently, there has been a whole host of space opera works from the 1980's onward that have tackled various concepts and issues with a measure of sobriety, both from a technological but more often a sociological perspective, and while still retaining their sense of romance. One need only to look to the works of Brin, Simmons, Banks, Cherryh, Baxter, Nagata, Vinge, Benford, MacLeod et al. Iain M. Banks' Culture works especially upped the ante with their topical relevance in exploring the application of socio-political power at civilisational levels with sophistication and stylistic verve, all whilst revelling in the exuberance of the sub-genre's usually outlandish tropes. And Stephen Baxter took the concept of space opera and raised it a couple orders of magnitude with his Xeelee sequence so that one might conceivably call the opera "cosmological", all whilst fortifying it with a strong foundation in real and speculative physics.

But nothing really exemplifies this "new space opera" movement as it has come to be loosely regarded quite like Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space and the other instalments set in this milieu. In hindsight, Reynolds' first novel marked a specific focal point around which this new-found, more serious treatment of space opera as a form crystalised. While the setting still contains elements that are rather too fantastic, Reynolds nevertheless imbues it all with a scientific rigour that, with very few exceptions as in the case with Baxter, is normally absent in works dealing with such scales. The first novel is rather dense with its expository passages on astrophysics and other scientific conjectures extended out to some exotic ideas, but these are generally more fluidly incorporated in subsequent volumes of the trilogy. Reynolds' background as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency does not imply mere workman-like prose for his exposition, even if the first instalment might feel soporific to some during the first half for its setting the stage. Reynolds' writing is actually able to distill highly atmospheric moods and imagery, and his handling of prose and characters has gone from strength to strength during his career as an author (now full-time).

In the Revelation Space setting that extends beyond the trilogy, the Welsh writer creates an extraordinary future of mankind with substantial range and attention to detail, where human civilisation has spread to a few relatively near systems in the slower-than-light ships they utilise. The backdrop and history presented are rich, and the Gothic atmosphere that permeates certain settings (cities, habitats, ships) is affecting in a similar fashion, as when enveloped within the intricate and mysterious ostentation of Vienna's Stephansdom or the Duomo di Milano. (The four kilometer Nostalgia for Infinity is one of the most evocative interstellar ships in science fiction despite being slower-than-light and in a decrepit state. Its "infected" interior brings to mind Gothic cathedrals of old.) The overall mood Reynolds creates reaches back to the works of Arthur C. Clarke in its ability to draw forth an ambiance tinged with the cosmic vastness of space and time.

One of his most interesting achievements is a presentation of competing human factions and bifurcating cultural developments with real and canny plausibility. Reynolds has a particular talent for incorporating bio-engineering and cybernetics in the depiction of humans that seem very convincingly alien. More so than biologically non-human yet sapient creations in other SF that are often bestowed too-human qualities. The familiar is perverted here into an uneasy merging of human and machine intelligences. It's too chillingly real for comfort as in the case of some Ultras, where the aesthetics of their portrayal can have a decidedly body-horror element (such aesthetics reach an apogee in Reynolds' excellent story, Diamond Dogs). The diverse Ultras that inhabit interstellar Lighthugger ships between systems are a strange transhuman culture incorporating extreme body modifications. They're one iteration of human society estranged from the rest of mankind thanks to the effects of relativity, where a single journey places them many decades distant from both their points of origin and destination. There's also a foreboding aspect to Reynolds' depiction of machine-like dispassion in the unknown agenda of Conjoiners. Where the Ultras are a lonely, insular group with their constant treks in the void between stars, the Conjoiners are their very opposite. High-tech and secretive, they co-exist in hive-minds with the aid of nanomachines filling their heads that mimic brain structure and augment neural capabilities. Such human factions are embroiled in a tangle of mysteries, intrigues, and conflicts that take centuries of real-time to resolve. Murder and betrayal are also the schema of operation for Reynolds' brooding and morally ambiguous characters, yet they are unusually pragmatic in their attitudes with respect to each other's actions or crimes. They're less concerned with feeling than they are of furthering agendas, whether selfish or altruistic. The framework of character interaction and dialogue can thus appear impersonal as if observed from some metaphorical distance, and this tone feels naturally congruent with Reynolds' particular scientific vocation. It's most noticeable in the first volume, but the effect is ameliorated in subsequent instalments as characters grow through tribulations.

Space opera, though, is rarely concerned primarily with characters. Cosmic speculations, weird concepts, and unhealthy levels of excitement are the point. Reynolds conforms to such tradition by focusing on his universe, the "big idea" and a multiplicity of smaller ones. One of them materialises as a dystopia presented with a strange, mycelial techno-virus having transformed an apex of human civilisation around the orange-hued Epsilon Eridani star into a beautifully grotesque parody of its former glory. The consequences of this virus are positively Lovecraftian in effect and contribute substantially to the setting's Gothic ambiance. The thrust of the "big idea", however, is the in-depth treatment of the Fermi Paradox. It's a uniquely SFnal problem in fiction, one that civilisations with a certain, requisite knowledge-base in cosmology may ponder. Grappling diligently with this dilemma is the sine qua non of any serious, large-canvas narrative in SF if it's to be a contender, and Reynolds posits a chilling scenario. All of this is presented within a context of cosmic enigmas, exotic weapons, and an all-encompassing threat of "Inhibition" with humanity's building response to such menace. The scope is far-reaching, potentially extending three billions years hence to a projected collision of the heavens themselves.

The prospect of such an extrapolated timeline with respect to purpose is one element contributing to the grand tapestry presented when taking the near stand-alone instalments of the trilogy together. Each starts at a different point and often with new primary characters, but each instalment ends up converging at overlapping loci, both in narrative terms and also in theme. (Meaning it's possible for the intrepid reader to pick up the trilogy out of order, but that's not generally recommended given the convoluted nature of the overarching story.) And this technique is replicated within the books as well. Reynolds preference is to carry forward more than two different plot-threads. Since sub-light travel is a main component of the trilogy, they all start at different space-time locations but arrive at the same point. So, Revelation Space spans four decades: the stories of the major players start in the years 2524, 2540 and 2551, but they all end up converging in 2566. Space opera that so meticulously exhibits the complex realities of sub-light velocities is rare, where journeys to relatively near systems can situate travellers decades if not centuries distant from their starting times. Such voyages can never be taken lightly and, if embarked upon, reduce to a distant memory what amounts to a consciously abandoned life. The various novels and short stories within the RS setting range from the 2200's to the 40,000's, but the bulk of the narrative in the Inhibitor books only span approximately two hundred years.

The trilogy is one of the best amalgamations of space opera romance (albeit of a darker strain) with the cooler tone of hard SF, and it is also unapologetically dense with respect to detail. It's like a virtuoso display of scenes and effects borrowed from cosmology, quantum mechanics, and emergent theory. Reynolds is particularly careful to stay within the remit of Einsteinian laws, and this leads to his showcasing of feasible approaches to the workings of relativistic travel, including speculations on how theoretical but plausible technology such as inertial dampeners might be utilised. This is tied into one of Reynolds' most dynamic passages in Redemption Ark, which presents highly considered scenarios depicting how warfare at near-c velocities might actually unfold. It's a wild and frenetic ride, very entertaining, and shows just how his strong-willed characters contend with a turbulent and demanding universe. It's already been intimated that the incorporation of relative time within all points of the journey (origin, in-transit & destination) adds a measure of complexity to the narrative structure as the plot shifts decades forwards and backwards. Another fascinating aspect of the books are the tiered artificial intelligence programmes and the adherence of decorum in social contexts of using such software. From those utilised for tasks involving precision sans creativity to those emulating varying levels of consciousness, even up to digitised representations of scanned humans that replicate brain structure but where the scanning process results in human fatality. All of this amongst a number of other scientific speculations and technological conceptualisations, one of the more unusual being the use of a virus to replicate religious fanaticism in Absolution Gap. The notion that religion is akin to a virus of the mind has been posited by many during the twentieth century. Reynolds takes this meme and makes it unnervingly tangible whereby dogmatic indoctrination is physically administered as a virus affecting relevant structures of the brain. As can be guessed from the titles, religion is a prevalent undercurrent in Reynolds' narrative. The importance is not in its presentation as an authoritative force and the resulting consequences of its control (although this is depicted in the final instalment). Reynolds stresses it more as a world-view that subverts scientific truth, and this is hardly surprising given his background. It's a state of mind for Reynolds, and his characters find absolution in their perceiving the universe as objectively as is feasible.

The one loose point of these books is that the final volume leaves certain points inadequately resolved. But closure to these aspects of the narrative is presented in the titular short story contained in the collection Galactic North (2006). This short can be read independently, even before the trilogy, and it's an epic, relativistic chase through interstellar space (eventually beyond the galactic plane) that lasts circa forty thousand years. While not strictly necessary, it would also behove the prospective reader to pick up the short story The Great Wall of Mars (also Glacial) before going on to the second book of the trilogy. It introduces a key character playing a major role in books two and three. It also presents background information on the development of the two main competing splinterings of humanity with their differing ethoi regarding varying levels of technological assimilation onto human bodies and minds. All these stories are found in the same collection. Galactic North might possibly work as an even better (certainly gentler) introduction into this particular universe, presented as it is in smaller morsels yet still jam-packed with fascinating concepts and providing glimpses of various facets of the setting. For many, the dense trilogy might be more palatable after having read the collection.

While the trilogy is the mainline sequence of the setting, there are a number of other stand-alone instalments set within the Revelation Space universe, any of which can also make excellent introductions for those not inclined to commit to three books. Chasm City (2001) is Reynolds' second novel after Revelation Space. It's a much more personal, one-perspective, unreliable, noir-like narrative that takes the reader to the heart of the Melding Plague affected Yellowstone civilisation. Reynolds' psychedelic and gloriously grotesque descriptions of a city consumed by a nanotech virus are heady. Readers who had a difficult time with RS were able to zip through CC and subsequently became confirmed Reynolds enthusiasts. The Prefect (2007) is a hardboiled police-procedural taking place before the onslaught of the plague, when the "demarchist" or democratic anarchist Yellowstone civilisation was experiencing its own Belle Époque and, in many respects, was the high-point of human achievement for circa two centuries. Less flashy yet complex as all of Reynolds' work, this one is executed near perfectly. Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days (2003), two novellas, both good. The first particularly so with its high-tech mystery-cum-exploration theme presented as a 'new weird' styled haunted house of horrors. It's amongst the best contemporary examples of SF-horror. All of these expand on one of the most in-depth and fascinating future histories ever created in contemporary SF.

Perhaps these books are not for the casual science fiction reader, especially because full appreciation does require the reading of additional material. But the Inhibitor trilogy, and the Revelation Space milieu more generally, is a must-read for every serious aficionado of SF. Since the "big idea" is the focus of the trilogy, readers who are patient and undaunted by the elucidation of both scientific principles and setting will find it especially rewarding. One helpful analogy is that reading Reynolds is akin to visiting a Baroque exhibition. The paintings of Carravagio might be overwhelming at first glance and could require frequent visits to regard fully the various shades, expressions, positioning and perspectives contained in the artwork. Once a critical threshold is passed, appreciation of what's on display is extreme and lasting. Reynolds' descriptions and ideas will similarly linger long after the books have been read. Any demerits of the trilogy are easily counterbalanced by the scope of what Reynolds achieves. What's striking is the confluence of conflicting sensibilities. It's in the intimacy of the overall setting through the constrained framework of humanity's outward expansion, yet also in the huge, timewise sweep for the specific themes on which Reynolds concentrates and the survey of historical depth presented. It's one of a declining number of SF settings that truly evokes a sense of wonder. Not just in demonstrating man's tenuous position against an intrinsically unknowable and mechanistic universe, but also in its verisimilitude in charting a potentially plausible and complex future history that, no matter how fantastic, is circumscribed by our rationalist perception of reality.
Feb 25th, 2019, 9:18 pm