It’s been a while since I’ve read a book in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series. Reynolds, who has a background as a professional astrophysicist, writes fairly hard science fiction, particularly space opera. I say “fairly” because he isn’t above mixing in speculative concepts to make the story more interesting. But most of his fiction doesn’t have faster than light travel, and I can’t recall his stories ever having humanoid aliens.
Both of those hold true for the Revelation Space universe. In this universe, traveling faster than light is impossible. It’s hinted a time or two in the series that this might not be ironclad, but the implication is that actually accomplishing it is so strange that no organic life has ever succeeded, and attempts to try seem to invite bizarre catastrophes.
The result is that interstellar travel takes years. Humans travel in relativistic starships call lighthuggers. Due to limitations of biological passengers, these ships typically accelerate and decelerate at 1g. So even though they reach relativistic speeds in their journey, that journey still takes years of ship time.
How do the ships accelerate and decelerate for years at a time? As a physicist, Reynolds is well aware of the stark energy constraints in this scenario. So he doesn’t attempt to imply it’s only a matter of efficiency. His answer involves one of those speculative concepts, in this case a drive that opens a microscopic wormhole to the big bang and uses the incoming energy for thrust.
Because interstellar trips take years, passengers typically spend most of those trips in a type of suspended animation. This involves some risk, particularly for older passengers.
The result is a universe that often feels very similar to the Alien movie franchise, in the sense that characters are frequently in perilous situations without any hope of aid. Although the science is far more rigorous and the technology more interesting. For example, most of the ships can reorganize their internal layouts for various purposes.
Another technology in this universe that many will find aggressively speculative is mind uploading, although the scanning process, at least in the early stories, is destructive, and it’s unreliable enough that many are leery of it. It also seems to require a lot of resources, so it’s something that only the rich seem to have access to. And demand is somewhat mitigated by the fact that no one with access to medical care seems to die of old age. It’s not unusual for characters to live for centuries.
Uploaded minds are referred to as alpha-level simulations. These are treated as sentient continuations of the original person, and are accorded full legal rights. They are contrasted with beta-level simulations, which are simulations built based on what is known about the person, but without a full brain scan. Betas are “Turing compliant”, meaning they pass the Turing test, but aren’t considered conscious and aren’t accorded legal rights. However it’s occasionally hinted that betas may be more sentient than anyone is willing to admit. (In one book, a beta pleads with an unsympathetic human to recognize her as a thinking feeling being.)
Brain implants are also pervasive, leading to different types of societies. In one, a society of Demarchists (democratic anarchists), every citizen is constantly polled on public decisions, a system that is strenuously enforced by a type of police called “prefects”. In another society, the Conjoiners, everyone is mind-joined with everyone else via wireless communication. It’s initially described as a sort of hive mind, although from the inside is portrayed more like everyone being in a giant permanent chat room. Another group known as Ultranauts, are the permanent crews of the lighthuggers. Naturally these factions aren’t always on good terms with each other.
While characters have the potential to be immortal, it’s a dangerous universe with numerous wars and catastrophes. Earth has entered an ice age and so, after the 22nd century, is largely out of the picture. For a few centuries, humanity enjoys a Belle Epoque in the Epsilon Eridani system, and there are a couple of novels set during this period. But then an alien nanovirus plague strikes and turns human civilization into a dystopian nightmare.
But that is minor compared to what happens next, when human civilization encounters Reynolds’ answer to the Fermi Paradox: the question that asks, if the evolution of intelligence is so likely, then where is everyone? The answer here is self replicating alien robots whose mission is apparently to wipe out any intelligence beyond a certain level. These AI entities are called “inhibitors” in the stories, but are informally known as “wolves”.
The wolves are extremely powerful and advanced. They can detect just about anything in space with a temperature above the cosmic microwave background, making them very hard to hide from. The earlier novels in this series covered humanity’s initial encounters and then war with these entities.
So there’s a lot of backstory to this novel: Inhibitor Phase. Reynolds constructs the story so it can be enjoyed if you haven’t read any of the earlier books and short stories, but I think many of the plot developments carry a lot more emotional weight if you have. So I’d recommend starting with Revelation Space.
By the events of this novel, humanity is in desperate straits, reduced to isolated groups hiding from the wolves. The story begins in one of these isolated groups, but ends up going through the ruins of human civilization and becomes an odyssey, involving a pretty cool transformation, in pursuit of an ultimate weapon to use against the wolves. Reynolds has a powerful imagination, and comes up with settings that I can only describe as sublime.
I enjoyed this book a great deal and recommend it, but with a couple of caveats. First, if it isn’t obvious from the above, this tends to be pretty grim stuff, although humanity’s ongoing survival through all these catastrophes ends up feeling optimistic in a way.
The other is that Reynolds isn’t always great with endings, particularly in this series, and this book is somewhat consistent with that. On the one hand, the ending is emotionally very powerful. On the other, we’re teased with information in the story that we never get. This might be rectified if there are sequels, although it’s not clear if there will be. Still, I found the journey more than made up for any stumbles at the end.
So if hard(ish) science fiction space opera sounds like something you’d be interested in, and don’t mind stories that can get pretty grim at times, this is definitely worth checking out.