For the past week or so I've been reading Alistair Reynold's Revelation Space. The jury is still out on whether I'm enjoying it or not.

Reynolds is part of a small wave of speculative fiction writers coming out of Britain; others I've read are China Mieville, Charlie Stross, and Ken MacLeod, and I feel like I've read enough to make some tentative pronouncements on what this wave is about.

One thing the writers all seem to have in common is a distinct socialist bent, refreshing after the liberatarian-dominated American sf. (Not that I've anything in particular against liberatarians, although I find them sadly naive on certain points. It's just nice to read something different.) The more important distinction, though, is that they are all very setting-focused... and more than that, they concentrate on making the setting as alien and distinctive as they can. At the same time, they're still filtering the setting through people, and it is the people on which they're focusing. None of it is what I'd call hard sf, that is, technology-focused. It's far closer to social sf, but not quite. The overall intent seems to be to cram people into the weirdest, most contorted molds that can be thought of and see which bits still look human.

Mieville does it best, in my opinion. I buy his books for the lush imagery and the sense of brain-melting, but I keep reading because his characters are real to me and I'm desperate to find out what horrible fate is in store for them. (This is, after all, Mieville. It's always a horrible fate.) MacLeod was the least successful - in fact, I must admit that the one book of his I tried to read (Cassini Division) I never finished. Despite the fact that it was written in first person, the main character was never real to me; she was too blatantly an observer-narrator, too clearly a vehicle for conveying all the weird and nifty ideas of the book through. And they were very weird and very nifty ideas. I am, I confess, a very shallow reader. I read to be entertained, and I don't find explore-the-theme-park "ideas" books entertaining enough.

Reynolds is somewhere in between. He writes what I think of as skeleton characters; they aren't two-dimensional by any means, and I find their motivations and actions perfectly believable, but they've clearly been given just the amount of attention and care that allows the writer to hang a story on them without breaking them. More to the point, they haven't nerves. I am interested in such characters, I care what happens to them, I am willing to read about them - but when they bleed, I am but an interested and mildly pitying bystander. I do not bleed with them, as I do with Mieville's characters. They do not make me feel what they feel. They are believable, but not compelling.

That's one of the reasons I'm moving so slowly through Reynolds's book. The other is that watching his plot happen is like watching glaciers mate: the scenery's good, and you get the feeling that the end result will be both spectacular and unique, but do bring a packed lunch. I am 304 pages into this 545 page book and I am only just beginning to sense the shape of where this thing is going and what is driving it and how all these bloody characters are going to meet up. The lapse in book-time between chapters is frequently months or years, the events sometimes dramatic in their own right but frequently very tiny in the overall plot sense, little infintesmal moves towards a distantly seen, vaguely conceived ending. It's lovely, but not for the impatient.

The general result has been that I read a chapter, leave the book for a day or two, read another chapter, forget the book, read a few more chapters... I do keep drifting back; the characters are just good enough, the plot just interesting enough to make me wonder what's going to happen. But a grabbing story this one's not.

Perhaps I'll change my mind in a few weeks when I finish it.


Revision Progress: 269 pages (of 380)
Changes: Less than I thought there would be. Added some description and chopped a dead plotline: the rest was just line edits.
Up Next: A scene that largely consists of floundering and dead plotlines but needs to be there for timing purposes. I'll come up with something.

posted at 12:53 PM on 07/01/05 by kat - Category: Books - Comments closed because I was getting enough spam to run over my bandwidth limits. Sorry guys!
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