It may seem strange to pick the middle book of a trilogy for my rereading of Revelation Space (now called the Inhibitor Trilogy). But Alastair Reynolds’ Redemption Ark is a magnificent novel that stands mostly on its own and goes in depth into the major Conjoiner characters and the threat to humanity posed by the Inhibitor machines, two aspects of the series that I find most interesting. It brings together an exciting adventure, glowing descriptions of alternate states of mind, and themes of revenge, guilt and redemption. This is a big book of almost 700 pages but beautifully constructed and riveting throughout. Since this is such a well-known classic that has been out for about twenty years, there will be some spoilers in my discussion.
Redemption Ark weaves together several key story lines, taking place in two star systems, which were also the centers of action in the first novel of the trilogy, Revelation Space. One is Epsilon Eridani with its major inhabited planet of Yellowstone, where the once great Chasm City and its orbital habitats known as the Glitterband, have fallen into decay because of the nano-scale Melding Plague. The human mind-linked Conjoiners are at war with another human faction, the Demarchists, for control of this volume of space, and the Conjoiners are winning. The second is Delta Pavonis with Resurgam and its human population of 200,000 centered in the city of Cuvier, where the destructive work of the life-destroying alien Inhibitors is about to begin.
The events of the story are dominated by a message received from the future by Galiana, a founder of the Conjoiners. This group of humans with implants that link all their minds and memories dwells in a complex structure within a hollowed out asteroid known as the Mother Nest. During her experiments to probe the linkage of human minds with quantum states, she found that entanglement related all mental states from the full spectrum of time and showed her a terrible vision of the future.
The message detailed the ruthless destruction of human civilization by the wolves or Inhibitors, semi-sentient machines that were planted throughout the galaxy to throttle civilizations as soon as they reached the star-faring stage. Their origin goes back billions of years to the Dawn War that convinced an ancient alien civilization that the only way to preserve intelligent life was to prevent it from achieving the sort of power it could turn to destructive wars on a vast scale. Centuries before the start of the book, Galiana had set off in a starship to search for a new home, but had never returned until now.
The story opens as Skade, who is a key instrument of a secret Conjoiner governing group, the Night Council, examines Galiana’s recently returned starship. She finds that the Inhibitors, in the form of small black cubes, had invaded the ship, formed larger special purpose units and killed the crew in terrible ways. When they encountered the body of Galiana, suspended in a reefer sleep casket, they did not kill her but instead penetrated her mind. Skade can reach Galiana’s personality and learns more about the Inhibitor invasion. With that knowledge, the Night Council direct Skade to make plans for an evacuation of the Mother Nest to far distant parts of the galaxy. They have also secretly begun the production of a new fleet of starships for that purpose.
Skade is one of Reynolds’ best creations, a Conjoiner whose mental implants accelerate her thinking to such an extent that she needs a crest on her bare scalp to let the excess heat escape.
“The silvery loom of her implant web, topologically identical with her native synaptic network, shimmered with neural traffic, packets of information racing from neuron to neuron at a kilometre per second, ten times faster than the crawl of biological nerve signals. … The narrow upper surface of the crest was hard and bony, but the sides were rilled with beautifully fine vertical striations. They shimmered with diffraction patterns: electric blues and sparkling oranges, a cascade of rainbow shades that shifted with the tiniest movement of Skade’s head.”Redemption Ark, Kindle edition, Locations 98 and 395
She revels in her superior mental powers and secretly penetrates the thoughts of other Conjoiners, sometimes tampering with their memories. She is a perfect foil for Nevil Clavain, who had defected to the Conjoiners hundreds of years earlier (this back story is found in “The Great Wall of Mars” in Galactic North). Since he defected relatively late in life and never agreed to have the full Conjoiner implants put in his brain, he retains a more emotional nature and a strategic sense other Conjoiners lack. So he is especially valued by them as a military asset not only in an ongoing military conflict but also for their future evacuation plans.
Skade takes Clavain to a distant hollowed-out comet where the fleet of starships are under construction. She reveals their purpose and seeks his help. Clavain, filled with distrust of the motives of Skade and the Night Council, realizes they intend to evacuate the Conjoiners and leave the rest of humanity to be destroyed by the Inhibitors. He at once decides to defect, and, while taking over the small ship they came in to the comet, Skade is horribly mutilated. Though she is later reconstructed, her head being grafted onto a prosthetic body of armor, she is driven from then on by the desire for revenge.
The second strand of action shifts to the planet Resurgam in Delta Pavonis star system. It is there that the Inhibitors are beginning their assault on humanity by converting a series of planets into the raw material they need to penetrate the system’s star and release deadly streams of radiation to destroy life on Resurgam. Ana Khouri, a former assassin who played a prominent role in the Revelation Space novel, now holds a position in the government of the planet where she is known as the Inquisitor. Though the government denies the existence of the Inhibitor threat, Ana’s sole purpose is to save the population of the planet by organizing their evacuation with the help of a local dissident leader named Thorn.
They are aided by Ilia Volyova, who is the one person who can gain access to a space ship orbiting nearby, the strange but vast ship known as Nostalgia for Infinity. The plan is to evacuate the Resurgam population to this ship, but it has long been taken over by the Melding Plague, which has distorted its outward shape in fanciful ways and turned much of the inner space to oozing mold-like excrescences. The ship is controlled by the mind of its once-human captain, whose body has long since been merged into the rotting substance of the ship. Ilia is the only person who has been able to communicate with his mind and persuade him to cooperate with the evacuation plan.
Also aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity is a cache of super weapons, developed in ages past with alien technology, that are the only force that could help resist the Inhibitors. This becomes the contested prize that draws Clavain to the Delta Pavonis system in a race with Skade to see who can first capture the weapons. Of course, Volyova has no intention of giving them up without a fight. That sets the stage for a colossal space battle, just as the Resurgam evacuation is in progress and the Inhibitors are completing their weaponizing of the star that can wipe out everyone.
While carefully drawing these and several other plot strands together for a great climax, Reynolds also weaves in powerful themes that keep the human struggles to the forefront of the action. As the title of the novel suggests, redemption is a powerful theme. Clavain has killed many people in his long life and his two defections had been impulsive acts. He is plagued by fears that he might be wrong, “acting on the paranoid delusions of an old, old man, but knowing that it must be done. That, he suspected, was the way it would always be for him.” (5915)
His great concern is to keep safe both Galiana, in her suspended near-death state, and Felka, who he suspects might be his daughter. Felka was born as a result of Galiana’s early experiments in heightening mental powers, but the result was flawed. Beneath Felka’s calm surface mind, Clavain perceives a “howling storm of consciousness … frantic and ceaseless, like a machine always on the point of ripping itself apart, but one that would never find respite in its own destruction.” (Location 14086) To satisfy this inner mental fury, she has to occupy herself constantly with fiendishly complicated games that help slow the intensity of her mind. She has her moments of calm lucidity as well as insight, and Clavain is one of the few people she can care about.
The captain of Nostalgia for Infinity has long been lost in depression, guilt and catatonia for a murder he committed aboard the ship ages ago. Ana Khouri still feels guilt about being separated from her husband, although it was an accident of military transport which put them in distant star systems. Her attraction to Thorn opens this old wound, and the shadow of a relationship is skillfully captured when the two are surrounded by the dark Inhibitor machines in a space shuttle as they are penetrating the minds of both:
“She even sensed Thorn, linked into the same information-gathering network. His own thoughts, such as they were, echoed hers precisely. He was paralysed and compressed, unable to scream or even imagine the release that would come from screaming. She tried to reach out to him, to at least let him know that she was still present and that someone else in the universe was aware of what he was going through. And at the same time she felt Thorn do likewise, so that they linked fingers through neural space, like two lovers drowning in ink.”Redemption Ark, Kindle edition, Location 7574
I can only hint at the depth of description for each character and scene. Reynolds thinks through every detail and evokes a vast range of experience while capturing in an almost tangible richness the physical sense of the worlds he has created. For me, Redemption Ark is the capstone of the entire Revelation Space sequence, which now comprises seven books and a related series of the Prefect novels. Reynolds has recently announced completion of a third Prefect novel and his intention to leave the Revelation Space universe to write stand-alone novels. Whatever direction he chooses for the future, the Revelation Space series stands as one of the great creations of science fiction.