Alastair Reynolds. Absolution Gap. Gollancz, 2005.

Over the past fortnight I’ve been indulging myself with Alastair Reynolds fourth novel ‘Absolution Gap’ – including a memorable 2hr session with three 10% abv Belgian beers in my favourite watering-hole – ‘tWildeman in Amsterdam.

Before I start with my review of ‘Absolution Gap’, a some background information is necessary! And please note that there are what are called Major Spoilers throughout the review – if you intend to read any of the Inhibitors novels, don’t read this!

‘Absolution Gap’ is the third in a sequence of novels which started with ‘Revelation Space’ in the UK in 2000 (cover : ‘the first great science fiction story of the century’) and then ‘Redemption Ark’ in 2002.

A fourth novel, ‘Chasm City’ is set in the same universe, but is a sidebar (albeit a very big one), as is the novella ‘Turquoise Days’, which was originally a chapbook published in August 2002 by Golden Gryphon. ‘Turquoise Days’ was subequently doubled up with another Reynolds’ novella (not in this sequence) ‘Diamond Dogs’ by Gollancz (Amazon), which itself was previously published as a chapbook by PS Publishing.

For many, however, their introduction to this story sequence will have been either

‘Great Wall of Mars’ – originally Spectrum SF#1 (Feb 2000), collected in Dozois 18th (2001)
‘Galactic North’ – originally in Interzone July 1999 and Dozois 17th (2000))
‘A Spy in Europa’ – originally Interzone June 1997 and Dozois 15th (1998)
‘Dilation Sleep’ – Interzone September 1990.
However it is worth nothing that these earlier stories were set in that same universe, and ‘Dilation Sleep’ is, according to Reynolds’ website, set in an earlier version of this storyline. Elements of the aeon-spanning ‘Galactic North’ do not tie in with the novel sequence, and it is worth noting that Reynolds’ does admit the existence of internal contradictions! in the stories.

‘Great Wall of Mars’ provides a prequel to the novels, starting the story sequence on Mars, with factional fighting amongst humans, still constrained to our solar system. The Conjoiners are humans who have used hi-tech implants to communicate closely with each other and to essentially become a hive-mind. They are trapped in their walled city on Mars (a stunning piece of imagery – in effect a two-dimensional Dyson ring, the high walls of which enable a habitable atmosphere within the circular wall).

The Demarchists are humans also using implants, but who have opted to retain their individuality. It is the baseline humans are displaying the most aggressive traits. This short story introduces us, albeit briefly, to Neil Clavain, Conjoiners’ Galiana and Remontoire, and idiot-savant Felka (the description of her increasingly frantic struggle to keep the Great Wall operational is a highlight of the story). All of these characters will be with us for a couple of thousand pages of the novel sequence. Clavain is a human, whose brother callously tricks him into a mission which is intended to spark war. However, the Conjoiners have a trick up their sleeve, or, rather, deep in Mars, and the story finishes with Neil Clavain becoming Conjoined, and starting a journey that will end a long time and a long distance later, at the end of Redemption Ark.

During ‘Great Wall of Mars’, the narrative refers to previous contact between Clavain/Galiana, and Clavain’s near death on Phobos, giving some quick back history and rooting the story in a bigger picture. Interestingly, having re-read the story today, I was quite surprised at just how short it was – I had returned to the story expecting it to be much longer.

‘Revelation Space’, the first in the novel sequence, introduces us to Dan Sylveste, at an archaeological dig on the planet Resurgam, studying the few ancient remains of the ancient indigenous species, the Amarantin. En route to Resurgam is the ship Nostalgia for Infinity, which, instead of being controlled by AIs (as regularly featured in the somewhat eclipsed Iain M Banks), the ship’s captain is now at one with his ship, due to the ancient Melding Plague. The visits of some of the crew to the bowels of the ship to talk to the half-ship/half-human being is resonant of the HR Giger element’s of Alien, and are an early example of the very visual, physical imagery Reynolds handles with consumate ease. Throughout all of his later work there is a baroque architectural solidity to his spaceships and his worlds and his settings.

Reynolds’ ships resonate with me – they feel like the wonderful Chris Foss covers [website gallery here] of the Panther paperback books I read in the 70s as a teenager, with an awe-inspiring size and beauty that you get from the spaceships in Kubrick’s 2001.

Similarly, his landscapes, cityscapes and buildings come across vividly – he is able to paint images with words – dark, gothic pictures for the most part!

Another theme of Reynolds is repeated throughout this, and other stories – identity and the use of technology to to blur it. Sylveste’s father appears as an AI on the incoming ship, and the characters, invariably rounded and motivated (the size of Reynolds’ novels enables this to be done) are often not quite what they seem, with hidden secrets and depths – or are able to grow and change through the novel (notably the captain, who continues to merge with the spaceship).

It transpires that the Amarantin were indeed wiped out by a dark force in the galaxy, the Inhibitors, who have set themselves the task of removing any spacefaring race, the better to protect the galaxy. This grim underlying premise of the book, that humanity is in grave danger of being wiped out of existence, as have any number of previous races which have managed to reach the stars, and the dark, claustrophobic setting, don’t make for true Space Opera, and in some ways the novel is a mix of film noir and a thriller novel – Reynold’s earlier stories were often hard sf thrillers. A sort of cosmic who-dunnit.

In the several hundred pages, there are many twists and turns, subterfuges and deceits. One problem I have though is that even taking into account that it is three years since I read the novel, whilst the tone, texture and feel of the novel remains, there is little of the detail of the plot twists that I recall. Perhaps this is the nature of the novel – very info-dense, very atmospheric, but the twists/turns are subtle ones that don’t necessarily stay in the memory. Or maybe it is because I read primarily short SF these days and my mind-set isn’t tuned into to novel length fiction. Or maybe it’s incipient Alzheimer’s on my part! Whatever the reason, it makes any detailed review by me at this point a complete impossibility.

One concern I have, that is shared by other reviews, and which is a common feature in all Reynold’s novels, is that the story rushes fairly quickly to its climax, which is in fact somewhat anti-climactic bearing what has gone before. To my mind a novel of several hundred pages needs what I can best describe as a Big Fuck Off ending – it warrants ending with a Bang, not a Whimper.

In ‘Redemption Ark’ – we are re-introduced to Neil Clavain and others from ‘Great Wall of Mars’ and Khouri/Volyova from ‘Revelation Space’ feature, and we are introduced to Skade/Antoinette Bax, all (or most!) of whom survive through to ‘Absolution Gap’. The Inhibitors are increasingly threatening to humanity, and a secret store of Cache weapons, from an ancient race, are discovered and may be a solution. Or not. Featured heavily in this novel are a pair of very odd bedfellows, the Conjoiner Remontoire – tall, thin, ascetic, the most post-human of humans, and an uplifted Pig who goes by the name of Scorpio on account of his branding as a slave. Scorpio has every reason to hate humans, and every reason to be happy at their destruction, but this most sub-human (so to speak) of the humans has some surprises in store.

As above, two years after reading the novel, not a lot of the detail remains. Maybe its incipient Alzheimers on my part? I do recall a growing sense of frustration, partly at the way characters would appear to be killed off at one point, only to return later (in one case, from memory, a decapitated corpse survives by attaching its head to a spiderlike robot, and at a later stage, jettisoning the head in a small capsule to avoid death on the spaceship they are travelling in). There was a touch of the Freddie Kreuger’s – I didn’t feel confident that anyone was ever truly disposed of! Similarly, some major characters were left in effect to carry on their lives off-screen, so to speak, with little fanfare.

So, that’s a quick catch-up to where this review started, with ‘Absolution Gap’, which I managed to read in a short period of time, thanks in part to a couple of days away.

Despite the previous concerns, it has to be said that the immense chutzpah of Reynolds holds the attention, although you need to set aside several long chunks of time as it isn’t the kind of novel you can dip in to.

The central conceit of this story is a doozy – one Horace Quaiche crashes on the moon of a gas giant, Hela, whilst exploring a very alien bridge in a small shuttle. He would normally be rescued by his spaceship, but it is on the other side of the gas giant, and communication is impossible. Resigned to death, when the gas giant evidently disappears for a fraction of a second, creating enough time for an emergency beacon to make contact with his ship, he decides this is of high religious significance. He has a religious conversion, which involves him wanting to watch the planet at every moment. To do this he has his eyes permanently, unblinkingly, kept open by painful barbs, and his need for sleep is chemically removed. However, as the moon circles the gas giant, the planet is going to move out of sight – and to stop this happening he builds a moving cathedral, inching its way across the surface of the planet, in order to keep the gas giant in view at all times. His faith spreads, and soon a convoy of cathedrals and supporting vehicles is continually circling the globe.

The cathedral and is grotesque characters are wonderfully crafted, and there is one stunning moment when the use of nuclear weapons creates a bright enough light to get through the darkest of dark glass in the cathedral, thus displaying the otherwise unseen images in that stained glass. The way Reynolds handles the unfolding of information about the faith is to be applauded, as you gradually realise exactly what is happening, and why. Future drama is flagged as Quaiche announces his intent to drive his cathedral over the mysterious, frail bridge, spanning a huge chasm – the bridge which was the cause of his visit to the moon in the first place.

This story thread also features the efforts of Rashmina, a local girl who wants to find out what happened to her brother, who joined the caravan some years ago. However, as mentioned before, not everyone is who they appear to be, and clues are dropped early on to flag up such an issue with her.

A second story thread is set, initially, some 50 years earlier in time (it took me a hundred or so pages to note the different timestamps at the beginning of each story segment! It starts off with Neil Clavain in a period of self-imposed exile on the planet Ararat, his role as leader taken over by Scorpio, the pig/human chimera. Once again, Reynolds’ imagery is powerful, with the spaceship Nostalgia for Infinity upright, standing on the shore, a central point around which the crew and refugees from the previous novel are living. However, 20 years of peace are shattered when Khouri and Skade make dramatic re-appearances, and there is dramatic rescue of Khouri’s child, kidnapped in utero by Skade, who is now being carried by her. This rescue involves infiltrating Skade’s crashed vessel, memorably leaching cold into the atmosphere and creating a spectacular spiky cathedral of ice around it. Rescuing the baby involves Clavain giving up his life (rather too contrived for me). It transpires that the infant has special powers on account of where she was conceived.

No sooner is the new born infant rescued, than the need to leave the planet becomes urgent, due to nearby Inhibitor action. In some very memorable sequences, the captain of the ship, melded with the ship, takes a higher profile. With a detour to Yellowstone (there for one reason only), the ship finally heads towards Hela. We then find out how the two stories are actually linked. And then we head for the Big Finish.

But there isn’t one. As is the case in Reynolds’ novels, things suddenly start happening very quickly, and not to best effect. The bad guys are polished off very anti-climactically, Scorpio comes down the mine the bridge to stop the cathedral crossing but by then everyone’s dead so it wasn’t necessary, the ship is sacrificed to Quaiche’s mad desire to shift the orbit of the moon to be geo-stationery over the planet Hela, but this happens just as Quaiche dies, so that’s a waste as well. And, worse still Rashmira has little impact on the ending.

The good guys are left on the plain, and we bizarrely find out in double quick time that the bridge wasn’t alien at all. One of the last things Scorpio says in the novel is that the character they saw at Yellowstone is an interesting bloke but more of that at another time – picking up on a short reference to that character when the ship was re-routed to Yellowstone. This pulled me up short – as if I’d gone straight into a brick wall. what bloke? Who was he? I spent minutes racking my mind as to who he was, and why he should be suddenly mentioned, although not identified, a page from the end of this novel? And they head off into the sunset.

Worse still, IMHO, we then get whizzed past us several hundred years of future history – in which we learn that the humans were beginning to get a handle on the Inhibitors, so maybe best we didn’t link up with the Shadows on the other side of the brane, because there is an even shadowier race hanging around our space, but leaving that aside there are going to be these Greenfly, who are going to come along and give us grief in the future, so really, all this full about The Inhibitors which has taken almost 2000 pages isn’t actually that important in the long run.

I’m of the belief that the ‘Absolution Gap’ half of the story, with Quaiche leading his cathedral towards the alien bridge spanning a huge chasm which has never been crossed, with the Shadows trying to reach him from across another galactic brane would in fact be better as a standalone novel. There would be a Grande Finale with the true nature of the gas giant finally revealed via the scary Shadows, and his faith/cathedral crashing to the ground, and Rashmina resolving her quest.

Contriving to link Clavain/Scorpio/Khouri to this story just doesn’t work for me. It’s not necessary, and the fact that it necessitates a v-e-r-y unconvincing requirement for them to ‘plant’ their precious infant child with a local family and wait ten years for her to grow up and infiltrate Quaiche’s cathedral (puh-leeze), shows this up. The girl, a baby/infant in this story thread, is the teenage Rashmira in the other thread, but to be frank, if you were reading the novel and not paying that much attention, you could almost miss this happening. For this intertwining to make any sense, Rashmira should have a huge moment of clarity when all is revealed, there should be some high emotion when she meets her mother after ten years separation, and she should use her scary alien powers in the Grande Finale. But none of this happens. The story actually comes to a climax absolutely without any intervention by Rashmiri! So why have her?

In conclusion, the novel is really a tale of two halves. One half which lasts 600 pages, and which for the most part is extremely satisfying and entertaining, with two different story threads. And the second half, which is telescoped into 50 pages, and which tries to tie the two together and bring the story to an end.

For me, Reynolds has proven stronger in his shorter SF – ‘Turqoise Days/Diamond Dogs’ being of a right length for him to provide a single conceit to hold down a plot, to introduce one or two major characters and settings, and to entertain in a fraction of the space. I know that publishers want fat novels, but for me, in an ideal world what appears in Absolution Gap would appear as

Absolution Gap – standalone novel (not in the Inhibitors series necessarily), as outlined above, with more (much more) about the branes and the Shadows
Clavain’s death on Skade’s icicle spaceship as a story
Nostalgia for Infinity – a novel in the Inhibitors sequence which features the ship having to flee Ararat, but finally (thanks to the Captain) helping more humans escape the Inhibitors (with more Pattern Jugglers thrown in)
But despite these issues, Reynolds’ next novel, Century Rain (a standalone title) is due out in a couple of weeks, and I’ll be getting hold of a copy asap!

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