Friday, March 16

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

It's difficult to describe what Revelation Space is actually about, without giving away the entire plot. Perhaps that's the reason behind why the novel didn't actually have much of a plot until right before the end. The blurb on the back cover talks in broad strokes about the general introductory plot, and that's about it.

I'll say it straight out - I didn't like this book much at all. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't good. When I first started it, there were three confusing plot-threads that used referring continually to tantalising past events which were never revealed properly and seemed intent on annoying the reader. It's only a while later that you see how the threads fit together, and at that point you wonder why Reynolds bothered with his pointless introductions, if you could call them introductions.

I suppose there was one good thread, about an archaeologist on a distant planet, but Reynolds managed to savage this by veering the plot completely off-course and ending a very interesting dynamic that the archaeologist had with an enemy of his. In fact, in reflection, the entire first few hundred pages of the archaeologist plotline was a waste of time.

Reynolds writes short stories - he's good at thinking up very neat ideas, which he does in this novel, but they seemed strung together. This is his first full length novel, and it shows. I got the idea that he was trying far too hard to make a 'grown-up' science fiction novel with plot twists, complex characters and galaxy-spanning events. Instead, he ended up with a mish-mash of utterly boring and detestable characters, a convoluted and obtuse plot as well as far too much padding.

He also has an intensely irritating habit of keeping facts away from the reader. About halfway through the novel, it becomes clear that at least one of the characters knows exactly what is going on and how everything fits together. A while later, someone else figures it out, and then tells yet another person. A typical scene would go something like this:

Khouri listened attentively to the story and her eyes widened. Now she knew the terrible truth about the Inhibitors and what must be done to stop Sylveste.
And then the story would move onto the next chapter. This happened at least half a dozen times and towards the end of the novel, pretty much everyone in the story apart from the reader knew what was going on. Pissed me off no end, and made me want to hurl the damn book out of the window.

(And if you were wondering, yes, the truth behind the Inhibitors is extremely unfulfilling. Oh, did I spoil it for you? Well, count yourself lucky because at least you won't have the high hopes that I had).

In many respects, Reynolds is trying to write a Vernor Vinge type of story - grand space opera with never-told secrets and extremely interesting technology. Vinge however beats Reynolds into the ground, since you actually care about Vinge's characters and he doesn't keep any secrets from the reader (at least not for long at all). In fact, one of the characters in A Deepness in the Sky has a huge secret - which Vinge tells us right at the start of the novel. This gives the reader a great deal of pleasure in seeing how he conceals it, and the character's back story.

Strangely enough, Revelation Space has received good reviews from places like Infinity Plus. As Reynolds is a well respected short SF writer, I think there's no small amount of bias going into these reviews, and even they agree with some of the complaints that I have (while playing them down, of course).

I suppose if you have a lot of patience you might enjoy Revelation Space more than I did, but the simple fact is that there are many SF novels out there that are more worthy of your attention. If Alastair Reynolds hires a new editor who'll advise him to cut out the crap and make things better for the reader then it's very likely he'll become a good novelist.

2:37 PM | permalink | discuss

I didn't get picked to go to the Mars Society's Arctic Research Station this summer.

It wasn't particularly surprising to me, after I'd heard that 250 other people had applied as well. I have to admit that I never thought 250 people would be willing to give up a month or two of their time, unpaid, to go to the Arctic (students aside), but there you go. I suppose I'm a little disappointed that almost all of those picked were from North America but I suspect the only people to blame for that are the Europeans. Anyway, I also concede that I don't have experience in Arctic conditions or similar (who does?) but still...

Luckily, I have a congenital disorder that makes me see the good side of things in any possible situation. In this case, it means that I can devote the month or two that I would have spent there actually doing something productive in the UK. That would naturally include a lot of other Mars Society UK stuff - I envisage that by then we'll have the Mars maps rolling off the production lines and the credit card system fully operational. This means we'll be getting a lot more exposure and hence there'll be many more opportunities to get real work done - my ideal summer would be travelling around the UK giving talks about Mars and meeting interesting people. This would of course necessitate someone actually paying for transport costs (which the venue should really do, but I'm not bothered since if I sell three or four maps per talk then I'm even).

And of course I'd try to spend a bit of time reading up on the subjects I want to do next year, which at this stage look something like Molecular Cell Biology, Pathology and Neurobiology/Plant Sciences (not sure about the last two). Lots of interesting stuff going on in astrobiology - I certainly don't want to miss that.

Going to the Arctic and working on a joint NASA/Mars Society field expedition wouldn't have been anything other than wonderful. But this isn't the first time that I haven't gotten something that I wanted and I'll be damned if I don't make some good out of it.

Coming soon on Vavatch:

Review of Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Review of Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough
Why The Gift (a movie) is a shallow rip-off of What Lies Beneath, which wasn't even that good a movie in the first place
Why the amount of cuts on a trailer is inversely proportional to the film's quality
My take on science fiction films these days
People looking at my essays

12:51 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, March 13

Today is going to be a book day on Vavatch. First up, if you're feeling rich and/or generous, you could consider buying me one or more of the books on my Amazon.co.uk Wishlist. Well, it's worth a try, right?

I visited Galloway and Porter's today, the local cheap bookstore and managed to find a few gems.

The Code Book by Simon Singh was available in perfect condition hardback for only 5 or 6! While I'm not interested in cryptography enough to buy it, I know a few people who'd buy it like a shot at that price.

The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin, perfect condition, first American edition hardback for 6. It's well worth the money and I considered buying a copy or two to give away to friends for conversion.

I actually ended up buying Dragonfly by Bryan Burroughs, an account of the accidents that happened on Mir. I've read a few good reviews of this book and the word-of-mouth has been positive, so paying 3 for a very slightly scuffed hardback copy seemed like a good deal. There was also a good range of other space and science hardbacks which would be great for people just getting interested in space.

10:25 AM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, March 11

I've just written out my TED11 talk from memory - you might be interested in reading it if you liked the TED11 trip report.

12:11 PM | permalink | discuss