Escape Velocity: Alastair Reynolds

I'm focusing on the novel "Absolution Gap" in this post because it illustrates a lot of what I like about the science fiction of Alastair Reynolds. AG is the third novel in a trilogy that begins with Revelation Space and continues with Redemption Ark. The novels are set in a future, spacefaring civilization divided into two warring factions, the Conjoiners (who embrace the radical integration of the human body and technology) and the Demarchists (who reject this level of integration). This universe has passed through, and abandoned, a stage of highly developed nanotechnology, which became a liability with the advent of something called the Melding Plague. (Reynold's true feelings about nanotech become somewhat more apparent in his new novel, Century Rain, which also appears to explore the origins of the Demarchist/Conjoiner schism. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.) The two factions must confront a threat from the ruthlessly destructive machines known as "Inhibitors" or "Wolves", which, we are told, are the relic of an ancient conflict known as the Dawn War, and whose sole function is to keep the Galaxy free of spacefaring civilizations (thus answering Enrico Fermi's famous question).

Alastair Reynolds is a Welsh-born science fiction writer now based in the Netherlands. Until recently, he worked as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency, and he brings a professional's eye for detail to his stories of space travel. Oh, and one more thing: He can write.

Part of the strength of Reynolds' writing comes from his ambivalence toward technology - a trait he shares with Isaac Asimov. (In fact, the Good Doctor also created a faction of techno-skeptics, known as the "Medievalists".) I'd argue that the tension between the technological, "cultural man" and the pre-technological, "natural man" is a universal theme of literature, stretching from Gilgamesh (cf. the relationship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu) to The Lord of the Rings (Frodo and Samwise) - and see also Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's analysis of the opening chapters of Genesis in The Lonely Man of Faith. But I digress.

What makes Reynolds' writing stand out is his evident comfort in writing as a writer. He devotes no less attention to the inner landscapes of his characters than to the details of his futuristic universe - which he describes meticulously. Even better, there is a seamless transition between the one and the other. This is what science fiction writing, at its very best, should do: mirror the reciprocal relationship between our inner and outer worlds - how the outside world changes us, and how we change it in return. This is what I call "inside/outside technique". Here's a magnificent passage in which Quaiche, who has been infected for political reasons with a virus that simulates "religious" feelings (literally the opiate of the masses!) confronts his own imminent death in a crashed spacecraft:
The virus was not helping. He had hoped that it would, but the feelings it brought were too superficial. When he most needed their succour he could feel them for the paper-thin facades they were. Just because the virus was tickling the parts of his brain that produced feelings of religious experience didn't mean that he was able to turn off the other parts of his mind that recognised these feelings as having been induced artificially. He truly felt himself to be in the presence of something sacred, but he also knew, with total clarity, that this was due to neuroanatomy. Nothing was really with him: the organ music, the stained-glass windows in the sky, the sense of proximity to something huge and timeless and infinitely compassionate were all explicable in terms of neural wiring, firing potentials, synaptic gaps.

In his moment of greatest need, when he most desired that comfort, it had deserted him. He was just a Godless man with a botched virus in his blood, running out of air, running out of time, on a world to which he had given a name that would soon be forgotten.

(I'm reminded of Theodore Sturgeon's masterpiece, "The Man Who Lost the Sea" here.) This passage goes on to describe the work of a gifted glassblower named Trollhattan, whose impossibly delicate works are created in zero-gravity and cannot be transported far because of the accelerations involved; Reynolds invokes the image to evoke Quaiche's relationship with Morwenna.

One of the book's most memorable characters is Scorpio, whom we first met in Redemption Ark. Scorpio is a pig - an intelligent pig, of a race bioengineered by humans. (Think The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells.) In AG, Scorpio really comes into his own; we see a character who has been abused by the cruelty of humans, and at the same time feels alieneated from his own kind. Even among intelligent pigs, he is smarter than your average pig. Having availed himself of the physically taxing process of cryosleep several times, he feels himself aging, and knows he cannot hope to enjoy the kind of lifespan avialable to humans with their (human-engineered) rejuvenation technology.

There's more I'd like to say about Reynolds, but I'll save it for another time; I want to get this post done so I can move on to something else. Next week we're going to look at the novella Seven American Nights by Gene Wolfe.

I'm looking foward to more work from Alastair Reynolds. There are still a couple of pieces by Reynolds that I haven't yet read (Chasm City and Turquoise Days).