Reynolds, Bova (redux)

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.

In that previous post I also mentioned Uranus (2020), by Ben Bova. Now I’ve read the sequel, Neptune (2021), and it was… strange.

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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

15 responses to “Reynolds, Bova (redux)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    According to my Libby app, I’m 44% through Pushing Ice, and the story is moving along well enough to spackle over the cracks, but I keep running into “yeah, but” speedbumps.

    How is it possible a spaceship can’t tell exactly how much fuel they have? What could be more important than a reliable fuel gauge? And why wouldn’t the captain authorize at least checking when the lives of everyone depend on it?

    How is it possible a jump to 5 gee acceleration isn’t immediately noticed by the ship’s astrogation systems? Per the story, it’s a sudden jump so how can it not be noticed?

    Once on Janus, why can’t they make more fuel? They originally suggested the ice would be a resource.

    The book mentions their attempts to use thermocouples at the edge of the ice, but the temperature difference isn’t great enough. Why not use those lava lines. (And WTF about those lava lines? What is the point of lava “highways”?)

    Speaking of the lava lines, the book says they descend down into the Maw. What happens where the vertical tunnel enters the big chamber? Do the lava lines turn into lava falls?

    Why does a spaceship carry cigarettes? Why do people smoke cigarettes in the closed environment of a spaceship? That’s a hell of a strain on air filtration systems, and would make the ship stink, especially for any non-smokers.

    Svetlana turns from an intelligent reasonable human to another of Reynolds’s monomaniacal assholes in the blink of an eye and stays that course. And the thing is, I read for what humans can aspire to, not be reminded what depths they can sink to.

    I just don’t think Reynolds is ever going to be a favorite author of mine, even though I love hard SF and especially hard SF that respects Einstein.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Is there a lurking statement in that the most likable character in the four-book series is the pig, Scorpio? 🤔

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, I finished it, and OMG, what a bloated and unsatisfying story. The characters are unengaging and unsympathetic; some of them are sociopaths. I skimmed the last 20% just to get to the ending. Which, once again, was a whole lot of nothing. I think I’m done with Reynolds. He seems like just a hack to me, cranking out long-winded tasteless McDonalds hamburgers of books. I’m pissed I spent time reading 1300+ pages for nothing.

      A few notes about more WTF speedbumps:

      The spacesuits use “trimix” which divers sometimes use to avoid nitrogen narcosis due to pressure. WTF is trimix doing in spacesuits that operate in the vacuum of space? It’s normally an oxygen-helium-nitrogen mixture, but at one point O2-CO2-N2 is mentioned. But CO2 is a trace gas closed environments usually work hard to remove. (Remember Apollo 13? Reynolds apparently doesn’t.)

      The Fountainhead species supposedly live in high-gravity, but are made of, and walk on, fronds? WTF? How does a species that evolves in high-gravity turn out like that?

      For that matter, the Musk Dogs are a pretty fucking stupid alien species design as well. F- on the alien design, dude.

      Why are there symbols all over the machinery of Janus? What do they mean? Why does Janus hate repetition? Why did Janus suddenly take off? Reynolds once again loses himself in his own bullshit and doesn’t answer any of that.

      WTF is a “massively serial computer mainframe”? If he’d said parallel, that would have made some sense.

      He characters are stupid, argumentative, and often monomaniacal to the point of psychosis. They’re almost impossible to give a shit about.

      This business of protecting people from the truth rubs me badly the wrong way. The truth may be hard, but it famously sets you free to deal with the real world. The high-handed arrogance of people lying “for your own good” is some of the most stinking steaming bullshit ever. The almost universal response to finding out one has been lied to is anger.

      I was planning to read some of his other stuff, but I think I’ll move on to better authors.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Speaking of Einstein, why do so many authors misunderstand Special Relativity. Time does not slow down when you go fast!

    SR is based on two fundamental axioms: [1] Physics is the same in all inertial frames of reference. [2] The speed of light is the same for all observers.

    Axiom 1 means that time does not slow down (because that would be physics not working the same). In any frame of reference, time ticks at the rate of one second per second. It’s only to people outside that frame that it appears to run slower (because of Axiom 2).

    What’s more, once Janus is no longer accelerating, from their point of view, it’s the universe that’s moving, not them, so from their perspective, it would be Earth that seems to have slow clocks.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    About Bova’s Neptune (SPOILERS!)…

    During the political second half, only one scientist (who the book treats as an unwelcome outlier) points out the huge assumptions they’re making about the aliens from extremely scant evidence. But he was right. They are creating a huge picture from a few dots.

    The book tries to generate urgency regarding a race of aliens that left the Solar system two-million years ago. What are the odds they’ll be showing up any time soon?

    The aliens supposedly wiped out the intelligent species that was on Uranus (which is why the planet has its 90° axis tilt), but all they did on Earth (a much smaller planet) was supposedly cause an ice age. (And imagining they did is one of the largest assumptions the characters make.) I was sort of hoping it would turn out the aliens had moved to Earth and are us.

    The political second half with the “Astronomical Association” felt a bit like Bova was grinding an axe, perhaps from his own experiences with politically minded organizations?

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Having grown up on it, I really enjoy 1950s space opera, but usually only if it was written in the 1950s. For example, the anthologies Old Mars and Old Venus haven’t appealed to me, at least not yet. Retreating into the pre-space-age view of the solar system seems to go against the actual spirit of those old stories. Doesn’t mean modern space opera done in their form (like The Expanse) can’t work, but it does need to have an updated view of science and culture.

    I enjoy Reynolds, but yeah, too many of his endings just aren’t great. He’s a discovery writer, and that feels like a vulnerability to discovery writing, that you generate something interesting and engaging, but with unsatisfying endings. Obviously for me the journey makes up for it to some degree, because I keep reading him. But it would be better if the endings were more satisfying.

    That isn’t to say a discovery writer can’t produce satisfying endings. But for them to do it reliably, seems to require a lot of extra work. I think of Stephen King, who, from what I’ve heard, essentially writes his books twice, once during the discovery phase, and then through a complete rewrite / restructuring one. Seems easier to do that first with outlines. (Says he who hasn’t written anything he’s comfortable publishing.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I had to look up what Old Mars and Old Venus were; I’d never heard of them. Yeah, they don’t much appeal to me, either. Stories written in a given era, with all the scientific ignorance and cultural awkwardness that comes with them, can be forgiven in context. Writing like that deliberately seems likely to be either offensive or just lame; I don’t see the point.

      There was a time when idea fiction went a long way with me, but not so much anymore. Not that all stories need a three-act structure or anything like it, but those that don’t have some kind of story arc — in particular a conclusion — need to be very well written with compelling characters and a real depth to them.

      A while back I stumbled on the Dramatic Structure Wiki page, and it was a bit of an eye-opener how many kinds of story structure there are. But almost all of them are arcs of some kind with a conclusion. (Dan Harmon is well-known for his eight-point story circle.) Bottom line, I think, is that endings are very important. They aren’t extra work so much as doing the work. Stephen King’s idea sounds like a good one. I’ve long thought that, were I ever to try writing a novel (unlikely), I’d go over it once per major character and put myself in their shoes while editing their bits, especially their dialog. I’d want each character to seem and sound individual.

      I noticed that it’s Reynolds’s birthday tomorrow; he’ll be 56. He started writing back in the 1990s and I got curious about his output. I remember finding Stephen Baxter an unsatisfying writer, and I’ve wondered if his high volume of output is part of why. Reynolds, especially given the length of his novels, seems pretty high volume, too. Twenty novels from 2000–2022 (including the as yet unpublished Eversion). Plus six novellas and six collections of short stories. In both cases, I guess one can’t argue with success, but neither author has the impact on me many others do.

      I do okay with him so long as the story moves along and he doesn’t lean too heavily on Clarke’s 3rd law. I thought telling Inhibitor Phase in first person was a huge help. For me it also helped not jumping around between three seemingly unrelated strands. I’m reading Pushing Ice now, and it’s okay (but see my above comment about it).

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I don’t think I’d ever come across that Dramatic Structure article before. Interesting. Most of what I’ve read about story structure is pretty firmly situated in the three act framework, although that structure seems loose enough to cram just about any well structured story into it. The main thing is to understand the emotional beats.

        Reynolds seems to run about a novel a year, which is usually what traditional publishers have preferred to see. It put just the right amount of books on store shelves. Although by the standards of indie publishing, it’s pretty stately. I do sometimes wonder if time pressure isn’t a factor in the endings. Maybe he procrastinates and then just has to live with whatever ending he comes up with before the deadline.

        He did a post once on his writing method. It sounds like the first draft is pretty lean. He said he doesn’t enjoy that draft, but does enjoy the revisions. Which is probably why he’s more descriptive than we care for. I sometimes wonder how those first drafts read.

        I actually didn’t mind the thread jumps in the other books. It felt like how he managed to convey a space opera setting in a slower than light universe. But Linda Nagata writes in an STL universe and her stuff tends to mostly follow a single thread, with no loss of wonder. And I can tell you from my Nanowrimo experience, writing multiple threads across interstellar distances in an STL universe is hard and complicated. There’s a lot to be said for keeping it simple.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, I tend to think of a story as Takeoff, Apoapsis, Landing — a basic arc structure. Dan Harmon’s story circle caught my attention in how it involves a return to normal (albeit with change). It’s useful for serial storytelling like TV episodes (which is where it comes from).

        A novel a year for good SF sounds like a crushing schedule and one likely to make them a commodity (which I imagine is pretty much how publishers see it). I can see Grisham cranking out legal thrillers, or King horror stores, or any number of mystery and detective authors being able to do that, but hard SF seems to require a bit more creativity if it’s to be much good. Neal Stephenson, at a quick glance, seems to be about two years between novels. The need for content is an unfortunate aspect of modern life. Everything becomes a commodity. Good for publishers; bad for readers.

        I’m now about 60% through Pushing Ice. Reynolds’s writing really suffers from bloat and pacing issues. And from his characters being near psychopaths. That Svetlana carries a pointless grudge for 18 years? Holy cow, what an asshole.

        And weird science keeps jumping out at me. The spacesuits use “trimix” and many of the characters are former divers. Trimix is an oxygen-helium-nitrogen where helium replaces some nitrogen to avoid the problems of nitrogen narcosis due to pressure. So, what is it doing in spacesuits that are intended for vacuum? And where are they getting the helium? Someone later mentions O2-CO2-N2, but CO2 is a trace gas — hundreds of parts per million. Usually closed environments work hard to remove it. So WTF, Reynolds? That seems sloppy for a hard SF novel and makes me doubt his writing all the more.

        And if he doesn’t explain why the machines are covered with symbols, I’m gonna be really pissed.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        And, indeed, I am. Very. 🤬

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The rather prolific Alastair Reynolds (in order of date published):

    1. Revelation Space; 2000
    2. Chasm City; 2001
    3. Redemption Ark; 2002
    4. Absolution Gap; 2003
    5. Diamond Dogs; 2003 (short story collection)
    6. Century Rain; 2004
    7. Pushing Ice; 2005
    8. Thousandth Night; 2005 (novella)
    9. Zima Blue and Other Stories; 2006 (short story collection)
    10. Galactic North; 2006 (short story collection)
    11. The Prefect/Aurora Rising; 2007
    12. The Six Directions of Space; 2007 (novella)
    13. House of Suns; 2008
    14. Terminal World; 2010
    15. Troika; 2010 (novella)
    16. Deep Navigation; 2010 (short story collection)
    17. Blue Remembered Earth; 2012
    18. On the Steel Breeze; 2013
    19. Harvest of Time; 2013
    20. Poseidon’s Wake; 2015
    21. Slow Bullets; 2015 (novella)
    22. Revenger; 2016
    23. The Medusa Chronicles; 2016 (with Stephen Baxter)
    24. The Iron Tactician; 2016 (novella)
    25. Beyond the Aquila Rift; 2016 (short story collection)
    26. Elysium Fire; 2018
    27. Shadow Captain; 2019
    28. Permafrost; 2019 (novella)
    29. Bone Silence; 2020
    30. Inhibitor Phase; 2021
    31. Belladonna Nights; 2021 (short story collection)
    32. Eversion; 2022

    He’s been a busy bee! 😀

  • Wyrd Smythe

    As a reference point, an author whose work I almost always enjoy very much, Neal Stephenson:

    1. The Big U; 1984
    2. Zodiac; 1988
    3. Snow Crash; 1992
    4. Interface; 1994
    5. The Diamond Age; 1995
    6. The Cobweb; 1996 (J. Frederick George)
    7. Cryptonomicon; 1999
    8. Quicksilver; 2003
    9. The Confusion; 2004
    10. The System of the World; 2004
    11. Anathem; 2008
    12. The Mongoliad; 2010–2012
    13. Reamde; 2011
    14. Seveneves; 2015
    15. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.; 2017 (with Nicole Galland)
    16. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell; 2019
    17. New Found Land: The Long Haul; 2021 (with Austin Grossman and Sean Stewart)
    18. Termination Shock; 2021

    The comparison isn’t entirely fair because Stephenson does a fair bit of non-fiction writing not listed here. There are also six stories labeled as “short fiction” not listed.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’ve started reading the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child, and, after reading the bloated hackery of Reynolds, what a pleasure it is to read well and tightly plotted storytelling with great endings. They’re basically crime-thriller novels.

    It started with I watched Jack Reacher (2012), the Tom Cruise adaptation of One Shot (2005), the ninth book in the series. It was (as most Tom Cruise movies are) pretty good, so I figured I’d read the book. It was pretty good, too, so now I’m working my way through as many as I can before I get tired of the series. So far, besides One Shot, I’ve read Persuader (#7; 2003) and The Enemy (#8; 2004). The latter was especially interesting in that it’s about Reacher’s time in the army. The other two I read (and, as I understand it, most of them) concern his life after he leaves the army.

    Now, only 24 more to go! 😀

  • Farscape (plus Bova and dreams) | Logos con carne

    […] while back, I posted about the Ben Bova novel Uranus (2020). More recently, I posted about the sequel, Neptune (2021). While I liked the former okay, there was much about the latter that […]

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