Gollancz, 2000, 476 pages, C$22.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-06876-0
Any novel with the gall of putting “The first great science fiction novel of the century” on the cover upon publication in January 2000 is setting itself up for huge expectations. Things get more interesting when you realize that it’s a first novel for British SF writer Reynolds. Portentous announcement, or mere marketing hyperbole? Let’s find out.
The first hundred pages of the novel are both promising and disquieting. While Reynolds shows a comforting writing ability and packs a high density of concepts in a few pages, he deals with at least three different story at several different times. Though things eventually converge, they are cause for some confusion, especially when the narrative jumps in time.
Eventually, though, a story emerges, one of a dedicated (maybe mad) scientist named Dan Sylveste, who is much, much more important than he initially seems to be… or at least that’s why an elite assassin and a spaceship crew are willing to cross light-years and realtime decades in order to get him. Of course, Revelation Space wouldn’t be a grandiose space-opera without a few alien races, terrible galactic dangers and shattering betrayals. Those come in time.
Fortunately for its own good, the book’s pace accelerates in time, and while it might take some work to get going through the first half, the rest of the book is as compulsively readable as anything published in the genre. Even clocking at nearly 500 dense pages, Revelation Space almost feels too short at times. The intricate detail in no way detracts from the pleasure of reading once all the necessary pieces have been assimilated by the reader. There is a lot of setup, but also a lot of sustained payoff. (Though the action often skips too quickly over dramatic moments, then settles down for long stretches of exposition. First novel technical faults.) Interactions between the characters are complex and multi-layered, often changing dramatically over time. Gadget freaks will find a lot of those, and even more socio-technical concepts scattered here and there.
This might be Reynolds’ first novel, but he already shows most of the skills required to compete with some of his best contemporaries. Indeed, Revelation Space has much of the same feel than recent novels from the Brit school of Hard-SF as practiced by such authors as MacLeod, Baxter, MacDonald or Banks. No wonder if many formerly-disappointed fans are coming back to the genre because of these writers: It’s nothing short of a revitalization of the smart space opera / Hard-SF sub-genre that they’re bringing forth.
As an SF novel, Revelation Space is very very good. Good enough to be, yes, “the first great science fiction novel of the century.” As a first novel, it’s so accomplished that it’s almost scary. I was lucky enough to find a British edition only a few months after its initial release in England and well before its release in North America. You’ve been warned; don’t miss it.