Review of Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds
by Alastair Reynolds
I actually read this soon enough after Redemption Ark that I can still remember some of the details of that book! Absolution Gap picks up two generations later. The Nostalgia for Infinity is parked on Ararat, and its occupants have set up a “temporary” settlement. Little do they know that, in the space around them, Conjoiners and Inhibitors battle to a standstill, until a lone craft breaks the silence and crashes into Ararat’s ocean. Clavain, Scorpio, Skade, Khouri, and Remontoire all make an appearance. Alastair Reynolds provides these characters with a new direction and a new source of hope for pushing back the deadly anti-intelligence machines.
Whereas Redemption Ark flits back and forth between Clavain/Skade’s battle near Yellowstone and Volyova/Khouri’s machinations on Resurgam, Absolution Gap jumps back and forth in time. It’s not by much, just enough for the one set of characters to catch up with the “present” on Hela once they arrive there. In this way, Reynolds begins laying the ground work for some of the mysteries that serve as the primary food for thought. Who built the bridge across Absolution Gap? What, exactly, is Haldora, the gas giant that intermittently vanishes? Who are the “shadows” who might offer hope against the Inhibitors? How is the obsessive, manipulative Quaiche involved?
These mysteries make the book entrancing and well worth reading. As always, Reynolds shows a remarkable ability to put his physics knowledge to good use and create realistic yet terrifyingly unfamiliar situations. I can’t pretend I understand all of the consequences of the things that happen here, but I always appreciate how Reynolds spells out just enough to make it feel plausible (even if it isn’t). But if science fiction is more your speed than actual science, the explanations and exposition never get in the way of the story. In this respect, Reynolds proves that he has the writing chops to back up his astrophysics degree.
Reynolds continues to inflict moral dilemmas on all of his characters. Quite early in the book, Scorpio faces a dilemma of how to respond to Skade’s demand that Clavain die in order to save the life of a baby that Scorpio doesn’t even know. The baby, Aura, is a strategic asset—and Clavain is quite willing to sacrifice himself to secure her. But Scorpio isn’t so sure. Cue some flashbacks for the reader to the vicious, ill-tempered, vindictive hyperpig from the previous book. This Scorpio is almost unrecognizable in comparison, and it’s understandable why he is now reluctant to resort to violence. Again and again, he faces related dilemmas as he struggles with his advanced age—for a pig—and increasing conflict with the wishes of the rest of the group.
To be honest, I was very surprised that Reynolds kills off Clavain so early. I fully expected either an unlikely way out or some form of limited resurrection. When neither were forthcoming, it took me a while to accept that Clavain was really dead. But I suppose he had served his purpose in the story—more to the point, by removing Clavain entirely, Reynolds created a power vacuum, with Scorpio in an uneasy detente with the rest of the leaders.
Meanwhile, on Hela, the moon orbiting Haldora, Quaiche establishes his cathedrals that migrate around the equator, always trying to keep the gas giant at their zenith. Over the half-century or so since discovering the phenomenon, Quaiche has gone quite mad. Now, as Haldora’s vanishings increase in frequency and duration, he is preparing a last-ditch effort to demonstrate his control and supremacy over the various faiths and doctrines. But the Nostalgia for Infinity’s crew has other ideas: they want contact with the shadows, even if it interferes with Quaiche’s local power plays.
It’s this almost coincidental conflict of interests that makes the rest of the book so interesting. In particular, I loved the attempts by the Cathedral Guard to take over the Nostalgia for Infinity only to be repulsed by the combined efforts of the crew and the ship, which is now an integral part of John Brannigan, its former captain. As the Guard storms the vessel, believing it to be any other Ultra lighthugger, there’s that sense of foreboding that comes before the protagonists rally and kick ass.
This set up the novel for a stellar ending, and Reynolds does his best to deliver. Despite being nearly 700 pages, though, the book still feels like its ending is rushed! We go from Scorpio’s final decision not to contact the shadows to an epilogue set thousands of years in the future, showing us a glimpse of a humanity that has pushed back the Inhibitors but now has to flee from a different problem. It’s a harsh reminder that there will always be enemies and threats to us as a species. But I would have been much more interested to see Scorpio et al deal with the Nestbuilders after they make contact.
As far as the story goes, Absolution Gap hits the mark every single time. It is perhaps the strongest of the trilogy in that regard (though, to be fair, I don’t remember much about Revelation Space). As the final volume in a trilogy, it leaves a little to be desired because it leaves some things out. But it does its best to show the characters we’ve become familiar with continue their fight against one of humanity’s deadliest enemies. Reynolds continues his tradition of tackling big issues that humanity just might face in the future, if we manage to spread out amongst the stars. His universes, this and those of his standalones, are ones I will visit over and over.