Saturday, 22 September 2012

Redemption Ark

I've spent much of the week feeling guilty about my neglect of this blog. There's firstly the nagging irritation of having not posted for a little while, which grows exponentially with each day that passes without putting keyboard to text box. And then there's Wednesday night, where I had my many opinions introduced to someone new by someone saying, 'He blogs,' and then nodding sagely while I looked for an excuse as to why I haven't even tried to say anything on here for a while.

So here we have it: a review of Redemption Ark, the second volume in the Revelation Space series by Welsh hard SF author Alastair Reynolds.

Reynolds has become a favourite of mine of the past couple of years. His short fiction is rich and varied, flicking between zany (dinosaurs in rock bands, anyone?) and serious (the end of the world, rich men in cryogenic fugue, and faction wars). Add to that the kind of English prose I would love to write - clean, clear, detailed, but still able to convey a sense of action driving forward - and you've got one of the foremost writers of short SF out there at the moment.

His longer work was a different story until I picked up the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days earlier in the year. I first read Revelation Space in around 2009, and I thought it was an inconsistent piece of work. Reynolds' inexperience shone through; the prose was still technically excellent, but there was no sense of action moving on much of the time. And then, every now and then, there would be a scene which showed Reynolds' potential - one of a deserted lighthugger being commanded by a mad captain while a woman tried to exert control was particularly chilling, because Reynolds managed to strike a near-perfect balance between his technical prose, building atmosphere, and driving action with the narrative. But it was, by and large, a frustrating, poorly-paced book which only really kicked into gear in the last hundred or so pages. My inclination to pick up Redemption Ark was hardly overwhelming

Then I read the two novellas (I'm certain I've reviewed them, but I might be wrong), and I decided that it wasn't such a bad idea to give Reynolds' long fiction a second chance. Diamond Dogs in particular seemed to have sorted the problems with pacing that dogged Revelation Space. And although Redemption Ark clocks in at over 600 pages, more than 100 more than its predecessor, I had no qualms about picking it up.

Some back story (and a spoiler warning): In Revelation Space we are introduced to the planet Resurgam, an outpost colony on the edge of human-occupied space with an interesting archaeological past - it previously had intelligent life that had been mysteriously wiped out. It turns out that they were wiped out by an intelligence known as the Inhibitors, whose entire goal is to wipe out species as they attain space travel. We are also introduced to Reynolds' hard SF universe, where the laws of physics may be bent but not broken - so no FTL travel (the most notable thing when compared with Iain M. Banks' Culture series or Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos. The Inhibitors want to wipe humankind off the face of the universe because they have interstellar travel. Throw in some potentially memorable characters who just don't quite work, big concepts handled in a way where they don't have the gravitas they should, and some serious intrigue, and that's the sum of Revelation Space's parts.

Redemption Ark, whilst being a direct sequel to Revelation Space, stands perfectly well on its own two feet and its own merits. The above will become clear to readers in time, which is all well and good because, despite the new cast and a few new settings, old faces pop up and the focal point of the story is, once again, Resurgam and the Inhibitors. The main plot point is that there's a cache of doomsday weapons which could save humanity in orbit around Resurgam (left there in Revelation Space), and a variety of factions want control over them. Of course, it's not quite that simple, but to distil the essence of a complex space opera like this down to anything other than that is much trickier than it sounds. We have intrigue, complex characters, a multi-threaded plot that converges at the end to explosive effect, big ideas that are pulled off superbly, and, perhaps most importantly, we have a book that really can be enjoyed.

Those complaints I made above? Most of them just don't apply to Redemption Ark. The pacing issue is sorted. The characters are complex but each has more than a little pathos. Perhaps the main complaint to be made is of the handful of superfluous plot-lines that could have been cut to make Redemption Ark a little more accessible to the casual reader, but then what casual reader wants to have to understand the physical underpinning principles of a writer's universe before getting into the story? And that's probably another complaint: there are a handful of infodumps which just interrupt the flow a little.

But those criticisms are minor. It's easy to get into Redemption Ark and connect with the universe and the characters. Comparisons with the Culture are justified; although the content is different, there's enough in common to see where Redemption Ark is strong against such as Use of Weapons, and that it's a worthy read. As mentioned before, you don't need to read the first book in the series to get into Redemption Ark, and, although it's time-consuming, I highly recommend reading it.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

An unacceptable state of affairs

Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached a defining moment in British politics.

Actually, let me revise that opening sentence; we reached the point some time ago, but we didn't notice it. Petty political posturing has now got more place in our politics than trying to do good. Ignoring the facts is acceptable so long as it's covered by a political attack.

If anyone hasn't seen the Observer article by Nick Cohen, I'd advise them to head over to the Guardian website and read it. For those pressed for time, Save The Children has launched an appeal to raise £500,000 for needy children in Britain, and has found itself under attack from Conservatives and their supporting newspapers.

It's the first time the charity has launched such an appeal in living memory, and it's asking only to raise the money for the essentials - 'a hot meal, blankets, a warm bed'. That they even have to launch such an appeal raises serious questions about the way this country is going. But to then attack the campaign as obscene on grounds that the chief executive of Save The Children has left-wing political links goes beyond the pale.

At the very least, the government should be conducting a serious investigation into the decline in living standards. We have people visiting an ever-growing number of food banks (and not just the unemployed - with wages frozen and benefits for working families cut, more and more employed families can't afford to feed themselves), a state of affairs associated more with post-Wall Street Crash America and the Great Depression than twenty-first century Britain. Child poverty - cut by almost a million under the last Labour government - is increasing exponentially. In Yorkshire, one in three children has gone hungry in recent months. And all Conservative MPs do is sneer and make political attacks, when they should be using the power they have to do something.

This government doesn't care about the people of this country. The rank and file of the nation could be dying in the streets and all the people in charge would care about would be lining their own pockets and facilitating the fraudulent funding of their pet projects.

I'm going to write to my MP. I don't expect a response (not least because he spends more time in court working as a defence barrister in serious sexual cases than in Westminster), but I'll be writing all the same, to both his Westminster office and his chambers in Leeds. I hope I won't be alone.

Saturday, 1 September 2012


China Miéville would appear to have a thing for trains and ships.

The evidence is clear, m'lud. Iron Council had an eponymous train that gave New Crobuzon hope against the totalitarian regime in power there. It wasn't a bit-part player. It formed the crux of the whole novel. And then there's Iron Council's predecessor in Bas-Lag, The Scar. The floating city, Armada, gave us a memorable setting made up of thousands of lashed-together ships. Like the Iron Council, Armada was a hotbed of political scheming and misdirection all based around a mode of transportation.

And Railsea combines the two.

In Railsea, trains are talked about in nautical terms. It's a world without oceans, but with a rich and varied world. We have the railsea itself, an inhospitable land punctuated by habitable islands, where burrowing megafauna dominate and humans need to travel the rails of the railsea to get from place to place. Sham Yes ap Soorap is a doctor's assistant aboard the Medes, a moletrain that goes to railsea to hunt the megafauna. And what follows from the blockbuster opening is an old-fashioned sea adventure story, complete with pirates, mythology, wild battles with impossible creatures... and a distinct lack of water.

I like China Miéville. Most people will already have twigged that. In the last two years I've read all the Bas-Lag novels, plus The City and the City and Embassytown. None of them has been a let-down; all of them have been phenomenal read, and all for different reasons. In its style and scope, Railsea has most in common with Bas-Lag - the grotesque beauty of another world eerily close to our own will be familiar to most of the initiated. Throw in an epic adventure where the little man takes centre stage and it becomes a must-read for Bas-Lag fans. It may not be in the same world, but there's a steampunk feel, as well as there being something a little 'off' about the setting.

Being for younger readers, all aspects of Miéville's usually verbose vocabulary are pared down. It's still a little spicy for the really young 'uns, and I think most readers under a certain age would still be daunted by the complexity of Miéville's prose, but as a stepping stone to his adult work I can't see a better option. Older readers will still love it, and I know that I will thoroughly recommend it to anyone who asks.

There's plenty I could say about the literary influences behind it - such as Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe - but in truth you don't need to know about them to enjoy the book. It's just an added literary Easter egg.