Big bad killing machines are coming into your section of the galaxy. Intelligence is a plague they mean to wipe out, because otherwise, intelligence is doomed.
If Revelation Space is a high-concept space-opera archaeological mystery, then Redemption Ark is more of a straightforward thriller. Several of the surviving characters from the first book are scattered across the two systems, Epsilon Eridani and Delta Pavonis, with the Inhibitors closing in and most of humanity none the wiser. Revelation Space is a tale of exploration and of deep-time history stretching back far into the past; Redemption Ark is a carousel of recriminations and more recent revelations (not to mention some future ones as well).
Alastair Reynolds continues to ask whether humanity will ever be mature enough to save itself from species-level threats. Even with such advanced technology, it seems doubtful. The most powerful players, the Conjoiners, are still a fractured mess of politics within their Closed Council. On Resurgam, the colony is so insular and backwards that any space travel of any kind has been prohibited. Only Volyova, mostly aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, and Khouri, working incognito on the planet, have any idea of the magnitude of the threat facing the colony and humanity in general. Theirs is a thankless task, and one at which their chances of success are slim.
It’s so nice stepping back into the Revelation Space universe. No faster-than-light travel. Nanotechnology limited by the Melding Plague (though, it seems rather capable as it is). Complicated, almost dynastic stories caused by the disruptive influences of reefersleep and relativistic travel between a few colony systems. It’s a picture of the future that is perfect amounts of realism and fantasy mixed together.
The big focus in Redemption Ark is on the possession of the "Hell class" cache weapons aboard Nostalgia for Infinity. Reynolds opens up the backstory of the Conjoiners, introducing Clavain and Skade. Both Conjoiners, neither is really a typical Conjoiner. Clavain has eschewed much of the implant technology that allows Conjoiners to function collectively; Skade embraces such technology but is operating on her own shadowy agenda. Once Clavain realizes what Skade represents, he leaves and sets out to seize control of the cache weapons before she can. The result is an epic chase sequence that lasts for a good chunk of the book. In case you were worried that Reynolds might leave out some brainteasing technobabble, don’t be: the inertia suppression technology driving this chase is enough to keep your mind occupied for a few weeks.
The other half of the book concerns the keepers of Nostalgia and their manipulation of events on Resurgam towards a mass planetary evacuation. The Inhibitors have set up shop in the system for reasons unknown, and their presence will eventually prove fatal to the colony. Of course, Volyova isn’t exactly a trusted name on Resurgam after her terrorist actions in the previous book, so she and Khouri have to be very sneaky. This part of the book didn’t hook me quite as much as Clavain’s did, although I was happy to be reading about Khouri and Volyova again.
Redemption Ark has an excellent overall structure, but the book itself is rather too long. There is a fair amount of duplicate information here, characters repeating things we already know just because those characters don’t know. On one level, such misinformation is a gratifying tribute to reality, and characters will do things that ultimately backfire because they don’t have the complete picture the way that the reader does. Such irony is the bread and butter of good fiction, but we don’t need to be around for all the explanations afterwards. I got tired fast of hearing someone explain about the Inhibitors for the nth time, and if that kind of duplication were cut out, this would be a slimmer book.
Reynolds also reveals more about the purpose and intentions of the Inhibitors themselves, even providing brief glimpses into their perspective on the problem. It makes a lot of sense, from a certain point of view. The Inhibitors aren’t just here to wipe out intelligence because it is inherently dangerous to the stability of the galaxy; they are the proactive reaction to a foreseen threat that intelligence will apparently make worse. It leads to the chilling conclusion that the selfishness of survival in the present might lead to extinction in the future. (Might being the operative word, of course.) Though this book takes place over a fairly short span of time, Reynolds’ plotting forces us to think on more massive, cosmological timescales.
As such, Redemption Ark joins the first book in this series as one of big plots and big ideas. I have a little less patience this time around for its length, which seems less deserved. But the story, the revelations, and the conflict is just as good. As a book, it’s satisfying; as an instalment in a series, it’s gratifying. Now I just need to get my hands on book three and what will hopefully be an epic conclusion.