Two weeks ago, for Sci-Fi Saturday I posted about Absolution Gap (2003), by Alastair Reynolds. It’s the third book in his Revelation Space series. If you read the post, you know I didn’t care for it. Really didn’t care for it, especially after some disappointment with his writing style in the second book in the series, Redemption Ark (2002).
Now I’ve read Inhibitor Phase (2021), the last book of the series. For the first three-quarters of the book, I was once again rather enjoying Alastair Reynolds. Unfortunately, the last quarter, not to mention the resolution to the series, was a huge disappointment.
I’ll get to that, but first Inhibitor Phase, which Reynolds wrote 20 years after the first three books in the series. (Depending on where you count from, 2000, 2002, or 2003, the publication dates of the first three.)
In many regards, that stretch of time seems to have allowed his writing to mature. For the first three-quarters of the book, I thought I was back on track with Reynolds, but the last quarter derailed that train of thought. However, it’s possible my problem is with his series work. I don’t have serious complaints about his standalone novels.
Inhibitor Phase has three noteworthy — and I thought very positive — differences from the first three books in the series:
Firstly, it’s written in first person, which I don’t recall Reynolds using previously. First person goes a long way in making a story more dynamic, immediate, and engaging. It puts readers deeper into the story and gives them a personal stake.
Secondly, in part aided by the first person POV, the story moves along nicely (at least in that first three-quarters). That flow helped spackle over what I perceive as Reynolds’s writing weaknesses. (I felt it bogged down a bit in the last quarter.)
Thirdly, Reynolds abandons the multi-threaded approach of previous books and stays with a single character’s first person POV. That helped the story flow, and it worked better for me than the constant jumping between threads (all those mini cliffhangers got old).
I also thought that (at least in that first three-quarters) he turned down the verbosity, though much of his dialog made me cringe. (It’s hard to criticize space opera for being space opera, but much of the dialog seemed rather comic book.)
On the other hand, even in that first three-quarters, there were some sore thumbs.
Last time I mentioned that Reynolds sometimes seems not in his own universe. Characters react to presumably common things in their reality with surprise, shock, disgust, and even nausea. (Why not joy, awe, or wonder, I wondered?) I mentioned in the comments of that post how Rashmika twice sees something that reminds her of a Bruegel painting. I asked, “How does a supposed 17-year-old raised on a moon in orbit around a gas giant in a distant system in the 28th century know about Bruegel? How many people here in 2022 know about Bruegel?”
In this book, Miguel notes that Glass is “…as monochrome as an old photograph,” which seems weird for someone 500 years from now. It’s a small thing, but it briefly took me out of the story. (It does turn out that there is more to Miguel than we know, but even so it jarred, perhaps from being sensitized by other apparent anachronisms.)
I suppose it goes with space opera, the notion of certain individuals being so valuable that others use “any means necessary” (including property damage and kidnapping) to obtain their help. I’m also not impressed by forced demonstrations of whatever, such as Lady Arek demonstrating the stone skein to Clavain (I knew Reynolds would bring him back somehow). The high-handed arrogance of the characters makes them unsympathetic to me.
The way Glass kidnaps Miguel seemed a dumb plan (and Glass is anything but dumb). What if Miguel did what he was supposed to do and destroyed her capsule? Her plan depends on him acting out of character. And if her plan was to kidnap him, why go through the rigamarole of being captured? Reynolds later excuses it as her nature for cruel play, but a far better plan (more timely and less risky) would be to grab him then and there in space.
Speaking of bringing back supposedly dead characters, we know from the Epilogue of Absolution Gap that Aura survives until 3125, so the loss of Lady Arek lacked dramatic tension. It only opened the question: How will they bring her back?
I sense a strong media influence in Reynolds’s writing. I don’t know if it’s because he’s young and heavily influenced by media, or if he’s hoping his books get picked up for movies or TV. His descriptions often read like production design instructions. (The “key and lock” thing… was, I thought, a good example of a dumb, but visual, bit.)
That space opera trope of lots of orbiting objects crowded together in space and the canonical image of dodging through the dangerously crowded group is nonsense. Space is big. Very, very big.
All of which are minor, even trivial, complaints, and many can be ascribed to, “Hey, it’s space opera, lighten up!” Fair enough. As I said, I rather enjoyed the first three-quarters and was delighted that Reynolds had grabbed my interest again.
Unfortunately, the last quarter was disappointing.
Firstly, because Reynolds leans way too hard, and too often, into Clarke’s Third Law. Too much of the technology seemed nothing but magical bullshit. I would have to get into spoilers to explain, but he really lost me with all the hand-wavey deus ex magica.
Secondly, and much more importantly, the novel — and the series — ends, not with a bang, but with a faint whimper. Four books, and we’re rewarded with a whole lot of nothing.
The fourth book is a quest story (as are the second and third), and the heroes find what they seek… and then… nothing. We never see their “holy grail” put to use, either in the short term for the heroes themselves or in the long term for humanity. Show, don’t tell, and Reynolds doesn’t show and hardly even tells.
Further, we never learn what the end goal of the Inhibitors is. They apparently have a plan involving the Milky Way galaxy’s collision with the Andromeda galaxy, but we never learn more. Given how things turn out, what about that plan? It feels as if Reynolds got lost in the vastness of his story.
Absolution Gap was a book that, the more I thought about it, the worse it seemed (and it added very little to the overall story). The ending of Inhibitor Phase is similar. The more I think about it, the worse it seems.
But since I’ve enjoyed his standalone novels, I’m not ready to discard him. I’ve got Pushing Ice (2005) checked out from the library and will see how it hits. I’ve also got his novella, Permafrost (2019), in my queue. I liked the other novella of his I read, Slow Bullets (2015), so maybe it’s more his series work. (I can’t say that his Revenger series sounds at all like my cuppa.)
I don’t quite know what to make of Ben Bova’s Neptune. The story moves along nicely, sticks with the main character, and continues the major discovery made by the scientist Tomas Gomez in Uranus.
But while Uranus read like a modern hard SF story, Neptune reads like something out of the 1950s.
Bova died in late November of 2020 at the age of 88. (And 21 days; he was born in early November of 1932.) Neptune was published in 2021, and I wondered if it had been pulled from much earlier work or if someone else had a hand in finishing it.
Or if Bova was regressing to an earlier mindset.
In any event, it was weird how much it felt like a 1950s space opera. (It’s seeming child-like simplicity made me wonder if it was intended as a Young Adult novel.)
I think it was written recently given some salty language by the ship’s captain, a few mild sex scenes, and one character’s horrific description of seeing her parents murdered and then being (at age 10) raped by the bad guys. (I’m not sure what that added since it’s never mentioned again nor play any role in the story. One character even wonders if that story is a lie.)
The sense of it being a 1950s space opera is heightened by many of the tech descriptions, some of which involve absurdities (such as a spaceship apparently running off batteries and then having only enough power for half the mission).
One thing I noticed (and I could be wrong about this, so get out the saltshaker), is that two characters, in Hungary, in late summer, sit outside, see, and talk about, the star, Sirius. The problem is that Sirius, in late summer, doesn’t rise until about 3 AM. (Last night, just after sunset, I noticed it high in the sky slightly before transit.)
Sirius is discussed because it’s close to Earth (8.6 light years) and seeing it gets the characters talking about humanity’s first mission to another star. That star. (Which was vaguely surprising. One would think the Alpha Centauri system would be our first target. Which, in fact, it is.) Given Bova’s background, it seemed a bit strange to me.
The plot involves Hungarian Baroness Ilona Magyr, whose father Miklos disappeared on his one-man mission to explore the depths of Neptune’s ocean. Convinced he’s still alive, she plans to follow on a three-person mission of her own. She hires experienced space captain Derek Humbolt (of the salty language) and young scientist Jan Meitner.
What they find on Neptune continues the thread started in Uranus about what the scientist Tomas Gomez found in the oceans of Uranus. (In Neptune, Tomas Gomez is referred to as Teresa Gomez. It’s not a misprint because the text uses the pronouns “she” and “her”. Not sure what happened there, but it’s part of the strangeness of the book.)
You know how they always say, “It’s not aliens!” … It’s aliens.
I don’t want to spoil either book, and the post is long enough, so I’ll leave it at that. I will say that the latter half of the book is decidedly political. All the adventure is in the first half.
I’m not sure I can recommend it unless you like 1950s space opera. On the other hand, I did enjoy Uranus, and Neptune is the sequel, so reader’s choice. These two are part of the Outer Planets trilogy, but with Bova dead, I don’t know if we’ll see the third book (which I assume would be Pluto).
I will add that, as with Inhibitor Phase (and that whole series), the ending is unsatisfying. Another whimper rather than a bang.
Stay spaced, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.