Tuesday 26 May 2020

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds (2000)

Rating: Excellent

My finger isn't exactly on the pulse when it comes to Alastair Reynolds; twenty years after Revelation Space was published and after about eight years of having it sitting on my shelf, I've finally read it. It would have been okay if I was aboard a lighthugger in a reefersleep capsule traveling near the speed of light, then perhaps only a year would have passed. In any case, I digress before I've even began, which leads me to perhaps the novel's only significant flaw: Reynolds tendency to pack in the detail, extrapolating wherever possible. Fortunately the majority of the time such narrative indulgences are either entertaining or actually do service the novel's world-building, however on occasions one wishes that a ride in a shuttle was just a short segue to greater things, rather than a chance for a character to mull over a multitude of possibilities. That aside, Revelation Space is brilliant hard science fiction, with a compelling plot that doesn't give up its mysteries right till the end and an ensemble of characters who both fascinate and confound. I've read some criticisms regarding the characters sometimes one-dimensional personalities, but I figure that humans five hundred years into the future who augment themselves with AI implants and live in extreme environments would be as consistently intense as many of these freaky characters.

Revelation Space has all the ingredients of modern space opera, yet manages to make something fresh (or it did 20 years ago), invigorating and decidedly Gothic in nature. Featuring three intertwining narrative strands that coalesce around the Resurgam system, where humanity has discovered an ancient alien civilization that has been eradicated by a suspiciously timed 'Event', the novel fluctuates in intensity as the plot unfolds, mostly switching between the monomania of the eccentric but brilliant scientist Dan Sylveste, and the crew of 'Ultras' who inhabit the 'lighthugger' Nostalgia for Infinity (such names are no doubt a nod to Iain M. Banks...). Although the Ultras themselves are a compelling bunch, led partly by the hard-nosed Russianesque Ilia Volyova, it is the machines that inhabit the Revelation Space universe that enthrall. Nostalgia for Infinity is one cool ship, powerful yet decaying; virtually a skyscraper sized spaceship packed full of mysterious chambers and a gunnery full of weird alien weapons. Oh, and did I mention Sunstealer, the Gothic monstrosity that inhabits the gunnery's computer systems? There's so much packed into this novel that it can't help but be impressive, both conceptually and stylistically, but no doubt if you are a science fiction fan you would have read Revelation Space already, if not, don't wait as long as I did. Now, onto the other novels in the series (at some stage...).

Sunday 3 May 2020

Running Dog - Don DeLillo (1978)

Rating: Excellent

Don DeLillo is one of my all time favourite novelists and I have deliberately not rushed to read all of his novels so that I can always have some lurking there waiting for when I feel that certain itch to immerse myself in his unique narrative style. DeLillo wrote two of the great post-modernist novels, one could even call them guidebooks to post-modernist thought - White Noise (1985) and Underworld (1997). Running Dog does not scale the lofty heights of those two novels, but it does deliver enough intellectual DeLillo thrills to illicit a certain literary smug satisfaction. Running Dog features a typical DeLillo premise: various shady factions maneuvering to get their hands on a film that purports to contain footage of Nazi's getting up to carnal naughtiness in the last days in Hitler's bunker as the Soviets creep ever closer. DeLillo pulls the reader into this circle of lust over the film, making you want to see and know just as much as the next nefarious 'businessman'.

Typically for a DeLillo novel Running Dog has an ensemble cast of characters, rather than one main protagonist leading the way. This is certainly not a weakness due to DeLillo's ability to bring alive the psychological core of a character in a just a few lines - "He appeared younger than twenty-two, looking a little like a teenager with a nervous disability. High forehead, prominent cheekbones, large teeth. He seemed intense, over-committed to something, his voice keening out of a lean bony face..." Coupled with DeLillo's dialogue, which is stripped down, yet bursting with a deeper complexity, irony and a rhetorical self awareness, the novel can't help but to delight. I burst out laughing a number of times, including after the very last line, which is a difficult thing for a novelist to achieve. Even more effective is the realisation that if the premise of the existence of an amateur Nazi porn film wasn't disturbing enough, the reality of what actually is on the film has its own subtly disturbing implications. I thoroughly enjoyed Running Dog at a time when I really needed something to take me away from our current reality, which, as we all know, has its own disturbing implications. I have no doubt that DeLillo will be one of those authors who pen a post-plague novel in the tradition of many great novelists.