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Literature: Revelation Space

Revelation Space is the first novel in the Hard Sci-Fi Space Opera series of the same name, by Alastair Reynolds.

The book opens in the year 2551 on the planet Resurgam, a newly-founded colony on the edge of human space. The colony hasn't had time to terraform yet, leaving most the planet a wasteland wracked by ruinous dust storms. Dan Sylveste, brilliant scientist and leader of the colony, oversees an archaeological excavation of a long-dead alien civilization's remains. He discovers they had achieved a much higher level of technological sophistication than previously thought...before they were wiped out in a mysterious cataclysm. Fearing the same could befall humanity, Sylveste races against time to investigate an ancient genocide before dust storms, unruly colonists, and his own sordid past catch up with him.

Meanwhile In The Past, the ship Nostalgia for Infinity is enroute to the planet Yellowstone. Designed to carry thousands of colonists in suspension, its only passengers now are a handful of Ultras transhumans adapted to the rigors of long interstellar spaceflight. They're desperate to find Sylveste: their captain has been infected with the "Melding Plague" and they believe only Sylveste can save him. But in a universe without faster-than-light communication, they don't know Sylveste left Yellowstone more than 15 years ago. On Yellowstone itself, an assassin named Ana Khouri has been hired to infiltrate the Nostalgia for Infinity once it arrives. Her mission? Follow it to Sylveste and kill him, at all costs.

Due to the time dilation effects of light-speed travel, the novel juxtaposes multiple plotlines, separated by decades, as happening concurrent with each other. The novel also introduces and expansive and complex universe.

This novel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Absent Aliens: Revelation Space is littered with examples of this, though the reasons for why are only hinted at towards the end of the novel. The sequels further explore and explain this.
  • Action Girl: Both Ilia Volyova and Ana Khouri, verging at points into Back-to-Back Badasses.
  • A House Divided: The Nostalgia For Infinity - the entire crew hates each others guts and are all capable (and willing) to murder each other.
  • Alien Geometries: The Shrouds. Spacetime near the "edges" is under a constant state of flux, meaning that any ship that attempts to approach is torn apart by the wildly shifting tidal forces.
    • Also, the Inhibitor "Jewel" at the center of the mysterious planet orbiting Hades. When Sylveste first sees it, it appears to be rotating in the center of a chamber. However, as he proceeds straight towards it, it appears to him that the walls of the chamber are rotating, while the Jewel is fixed, implying that the Jewel is dragging spacetime around it.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Ana Khouri. Though concerning her roots on Sky's Edge and her given name, she probably has South American ancestry. (The surname is her husband's, who is of Middle Eastern descent.)
  • Anachronic Order: Literally; the different plotlines take place decades apart and later combine (or rather, the earlier ones "catch up" to the latest one) due to relativistic time-dilation.
  • Anti Matter: Used as a weapon of mass destruction, and as a highly efficient fuel. Ack-am launchers fire tiny pellets of normal matter containing a magnetic confinement field for the antimatter. Sylveste has a pinhead of anti-matter in his eye, used to coerce the Triumvirate into helping him
  • Anyone Can Die
  • Cool Old Guy: Played with Sylveste. He's been alive for hundreds of years due to relativistic space travel, but that doesn't really count due to hibernation and time dilation. However, even accounting for that, he's subjectively in his sixties.
  • Badass Normal: A lot of the main characters, but Volyova probably takes the cake. MacGyvering ? Check. Batman Gambits ? Check. Deadpan Snarker ? Check. Smoking Is Cool ? Double check.
  • Badass Longcoat: Ana Khouri wears one while on a Shadowplay assasination assignment in Chasm City. They're also popular on Sky's Edge, where she was born.
  • Big Dumb Object: Several:
    • The sealed advanced Amarantin city is initially presented as this; it's a gargantuan shell surrounded by solid rock.
    • The mysterious planet orbiting Hades is revealed to actually be an immense Amarantin artifact. When Sylveste and the gang manage to get inside, they discover that it's composed of layers and layers of different Amarantin defenses, like several Big Dumb Objects all stacked around each other in a kind of Matrioshka doll.
    • And, of course, at the end when it's revealed that the neutron star Hades is actually a giant alien supercomputer.
  • Body Horror: The effects of the Melding Plague.
  • Body Snatcher: Calvin's ability to take over Dan's body (with Dan's permission) to perform a complicated surgery.
  • Brain Uploading: The backstory mentions a group of people known as "The Eighty" who were the first to attempt Brain Uploading. They all died (well, technically, their simulations were corrupted or went irreversibly insane).
    • Dan Sylveste's father, Calvin Sylveste, was one of the Eighty, and presumably is dead as well. However, Dan has a slight-lesser-quality simulation of Calvin (a "beta-level", as opposed to an "alpha level" like the Eighty) that proves to be frighteningly convincing.
      • Actually, we find out later that Dan "sold" his father's alpha level simulation to the pattern jugglers in order to give Dan the right brain patterns in order to enter the shroud.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: Averted. It takes decades to get between stars, and even getting a ride on a Lighthugger is rare outside of the core planets like Yellowstone. Border worlds may have a Lighthugger drop by only after a couple decades.
  • Cool Star Ship: The Nostalgia For Infinity
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: Chasm City, at least until the Melding Plague ruins everything.
  • Cyborg : A lot of the future factions of humanity have Transhumanist trappings, at least as far as having with various brain implants. The Conjoiners are a whole society of these, the Ultras and Demarchists less so.
  • Culture Chop Suey : A given, with humanity being quite a cosmopolitan mix during the events of the trilogy, especially on old and densely inhabited colony worlds like Yellowstone. Nationalities play a far lesser role than back on Earth and the main new political and social divisions are purely ideological factions (such as the Conjoiners, the Demarchists, the Ultranauts, etc.). Some characters' names give obvious hints about a great mixing of nationalities.
    • Yellowstone is a cosmopolitan mix of a planet, settled mostly by American, European and East Asian colonists. Sky's Edge was settled by Latin American, Middle Eastern and Central Asian nationalities.
  • Death World: The All Planets Are Earth-Like trope gets a major kick in the shins in this series. The most Earth-like planet mentioned is Sky's Edge, which is full of hostile life that is biologically incompatible with Earth life. Eating it will kill you (and vice versa) or do nothing. Then there are the Pattern Jugglers - algae-like Starfish Aliens inhabiting planets with global oceans - that usually act benign, but once in a while someone who swims with them doesn't come back, comes back wrong, or worse. Also, Yellowstone, the most important and most populated interstellar colony of humanity, has an atmosphere and surface very similar to Saturn's moon Titan, so only the giant domed settlements (like Chasm City or Loreanville) and orbital habitats are actualy populated. Pretty much all planets in the series are either uninhabitable, barely habitable (without advanced tech) or habitable, but full of Everything Trying to Kill You.
  • Death from Above: Threatened by Volyova in Revelation Space, who uses one of her ship's smallest weapons to devastating effect as a warning to the inhabitants of Resurgam. She also has access to teratonne-yield nukes and "hell class" weapons that could conceivably shatter worlds.
  • Demoted to Extra: Khouri's role is lessened throughout the novels; she only plays a relatively small role in Absolution Gap
  • Domed Hometown: Most cities have pressurized domes over them to allow for a breathable atmosphere. Chasm City is the most notable, with a 60 kilometer wide dome covering the city and the volcano-like rupture in the center that provides the gases used to make the city's air supply.
  • Dramatic Unmask: When Dan finds Sajaki's empty powersuit, revealing that the "Sajaki" he thought had been accompanying him and talking to him was actually the Sun Stealer.
  • Eldritch Starship: The Nostalgia for Infinity
  • Electronic Eyes: Dan Sylveste. At first he has advanced eyes that are able to record all that he sees and playback later for review, along with taking snapshots and live-zooming. Later, though, his eyes are damaged and are repaired with local parts on Resurgam, leading to a terrible security-cam-like vision (i.e. black and white, slow framerate, etc).
  • Eternal English : Averted. Though the stories are all in English via Translation Convention, it is clearly stated that human languages 500 years in the future have continued to further evolve. Notable examples are the two main languages: Norte and Can-asian. In a throwaway comment, Volyova refers to her native language as "Russish" (presumably some descendant of Russian).
  • Fantastic Slurs : Yellowstonian Demarchists call Conjoiners "spiders" and rogue Demarchists, Skyjacks and Ultras "zombies". The "spider" nickname was also used by the Coalition for Neural Purity seen in the chronologically earliest installments of the series. Conjoiners refer to baseline humans as "the retarded".
    • In-Series Nickname : The Yellowstonians (and apparently people from other terrestrial planets as well) often refer to themselves as "Stoners".
  • Forgotten Superweapon: The "Cache Weapons" aboard Nostalgia for Infinity. They're also known as "Hell-Class" weapons.
  • Grand Theft Me: What the Captain did to Sajaki prior to the events of Revelation Space.
    • Though it technically is more of a Body Snatcher example, as the "host" mind is overwritten and effectively "killed".
    • Also played straight and subverted by Calvin Sylveste, who had originally engineered Dan Sylveste as a clone of himself to make it easier to possibly imprint a copy of himself into Dan's brain. While he does do this near the end of the book (and had already done it once previously), it's more of a two minds/one body relationship.
  • Gratuitous Russian : Volyova, but only when she gets particularly frustrated or angry (so it's mostly limited to swear words or snarky comments).
  • Grey Goo: Played with the Melding Plague. It absolutely devastates Chasm City, horrible killing thousands of people and mutating the affected landscape. Subverted in that it only attacks nanotech, meaning that normal matter (and baseline humans without any nanotech in their body) are completely unaffected.
  • Gun Porn: The "Warchive" aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, which can reproduce any weapon from recorded human history. Volyova and Khouri make good use of it at the end of novel, when they need to arm themselves.
  • Human Popsicle: Most starship passengers, as it's either cryo or spend years or decades awake between stars.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: Shadowplay, in which the bored, virtually immortal residents of Chasm City are hunted by professional assassins according to pre-agreed rules. The game is set up so most of the clients survive, in order that people will keep paying for the thrill-seeking experience.
  • Ice Queen: Volyova
  • Insistent Terminology: "Servitors" for robots (non-sentient worker ones, but still).
    • What are these "cryogenics" you speak of? They're called "reefersleep", dammit ! And flying cars are "volantors", get it?
  • Last Name Basis: Most of the characters in the novels address each other by last-name only; Ilia Volyova and Ana Khouri being the only ones whose first name is said more than a couple times.
  • Matter Replicator: The universe has "Manufactories", which are essentially extremely adaptable factories ranging from the size of a washing machine to enormous kilometer wide constructs. The devices require matter, and some time to actually build the object, but they can build a huge array of devices. The first novel, Revelation Space, has the "Warchive" on the starship Nostalgia For Infinity, which is a manufactory specifically designed to build guns, with an archive of millions of weapons from the modern age of the 2500s to pre-history. If given certain parameters, it will splice together different guns to get the desired elements.
  • Meanwhile, in the Future: A given, with all the Time Dilation and Anachronic Order going on.
  • Mile-Long Ship: Lighthuggers are roughly 4 km tall.
  • More Than Mind Control: When it's not simply driving it's hosts mad, the Sun Stealer's influence on people is implied to be this. For example, Dan Sylveste's urge to go to Resurgam, despite there being no good reason to go there, let alone found a colony and begin archaeological digs.
    • Also implied with Calvin and Dan's relationship. Dan somehow never seems aware that he is Calvin's clone (he still believes the entire time that he is just Calvin's son), despite all the important and odd details he knows (such as the fact that Calvin can take over his body like a puppeteer). Also, despite their antagonistic relationship, Calvin seems to have an undue influence on Dan's decisions.
  • Mysterious Antarctica / Grim Up North: Much of Resurgam is like this, due to still being largely unpopulated and partially terraformed.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: What Dan Sylveste and the Nostalgia's crew unwillingly put into motion at the end of Revelation Space.
  • Non-Action Guy: Dan Sylveste. He is a main character, and is certainly around a lot of action, but largely avoids most of it himself.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist : Dan Sylveste and his father, Calvin.
  • Powered Armor : The "suits" are a very versatile example of this trope. Powerful enough to probably wipe out an entire modern-day army. Slightly subverted in that the suit will "take over" if it deems the situation too dangerous to trust to relatively-slow human reflexes (at which point the person inside becomes little more than glorified cargo).
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The brains of children are installed in the Conjoiner Drivers according to the short story "Weather" in Galactic North. Their minds do a bunch of math that lets the drives work. Something of a subversion to the trope as the Conjoiners consider running a drive to be a vocation which is chosen voluntarily. The brain can decide to be reintegrated with a body after working for a few decades.
  • Projected Man : Many of the "entoptic" simulations and personal avatars are presented as this.
  • Reactionless Drive: The Conjoiner drive effectively works like a reactionless drive; while it does spew out plasma capable of slicing through a ship's hull, it does not require fuel, as the energy necessary to accelerate mass from the drive comes from a wormhole connected to an alternate dimension before the Big Bang. Other forms of propulsion avert this, and even the ships with Conjoiner drives need to carry fuel for their vernier thrusters.
  • Schizo Tech: Sky's Edge armies hit this; some soldiers will be carrying what are essentially AK-47s with some computer integration, while others will be using artificially intelligent suits of Powered Armor wielding anti-matter cannons, turning them into a Person of Mass Destruction
  • Shown Their Work: Reynolds is a former astronomer and a former ESA employee.
  • Solar Sail: Weaponized. A ship constructs a solar sail and releases the sail behind its engines, using the engines to propel the sail backwards at the ship pursuing it. The speed difference between the ship and the sail would be enough to instantly destroy the ship.
  • Space Does Not Work That Way : Averted. Related to the Shown Their Work entry.
  • Space People: Many Ultranauts, such as Triumvir Hegazi, have never set foot on anything that wasn't built by man.
  • Space Pirates: Ultras are seen as pirates, even when they are (mostly) honest traders. The Nostalgia for Infinity was used to raid ships before the events of Revelation Space - and during the events of Revelation Space, they threaten to nuke cities from orbit to coerce the population into releasing Sylveste.
  • Spirit Advisor: The Mademoiselle's beta-level sim in Ana Khouri's implants. Also, Calvin's simulation to Dan, once Calvin figures out how to get around various safeguards and pop into Dan's visual field whenever he wants to...
  • Starship Luxurious: The Nostalgia For Infinity used to be this, and while it still fits in with the enormous part of a luxurious starship, it's not a very nice place to be.
  • Title Drop: "Revelation Space" refers to the region of spacetime around a Shroud; the one person who survived a close encounter later describes having alien knowledge downloaded into his brain.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Dan Syvleste, *twice*. He's the last to realize that Sun Stealer has stowed away in his mind, and he doesn't find out that he's his father's clone until moments before he blows himself up.
  • The Everyman: Ana Khouri is the most ordinary of the main cast. Unsurprisingly, she's also technically The Hero.
  • Villain Protagonist: Ilia Volyova for most of the first novel.

Return from the StarsScience Fiction LiteratureRewind (Terry England)
Retrieval ArtistLiterature of the 2000sRibblestrop

alternative title(s): Revelation Space
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