August 7, 2011

Revelation Space, and how not to write the big reveal

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at August 7, 2011 11:03 PM

I've been working my way through Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series lately. He has an astronomy background and his novels tend to be all the way at the diamond end of the Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness. I'm impressed that thus far in the series (I'm almost done with book 4) there's been no faster-than-light travel whatsoever: I take the extreme view that hard sci-fi should never include any form of FTL, because of the consequences for causality. Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky is probably the best slower-than-light space opera I've read, but the Revelation Space novels are in second place.

More generally, Reynolds often gives technical and plausible-sounding justifications for the various advanced technologies that appear in the books, which is a nice bonus for the reader who knows enough physics to make sense of it (but probably impenetrable to others). The problem with this is when I have enough expertise to know why it doesn't work in reality (i.e. the few references to condensed matter physics), I can see behind the curtain and the illusion is ruined. But most of the time it works, and it's a nice way of extending the sense of wonder that can be found in physics.

Unfortunately, this attention to plausible justification in the scientific realm isn't matched in Reynolds' characterization. I'm finding that the biggest flaw in his writing is that his characters' actions often seem insufficiently motivated. Certainly reasons are provided, but they often just don't ring true.

It's appropriate that both his strengths and his weaknesses are in the realm of explanation and justification, because most of his books center around some grand mystery, and much of the urge to keep reading derives from the desire for an explanation. The real climax of the book tends to be the big reveal, although there's usually a nice space battle afterwards. Reynolds has used various devices across his novels to keep the mystery under wraps, some more successful than others. In particular, what he does in the first book in the series (itself called Revelation Space) is so frustrating it feels like being cheated.

Revelation Space alternates between three viewpoint characters who start out in separate places but come together over the course of the novel. And the big mystery (the titular revelation) is actually explained to one of those characters early on. But to keep the reader in the dark, the narrative cuts away right as the explanation starts. Later on, this character's thoughts on this topic are only related in vague terms to keep the secret (and at the same time remind the reader that there is a big secret). Then, when she finally tells the second viewpoint character about it, the story cuts away again! Only when the third character finds out, late in the novel, does the reader get to learn the secret as well.

So why do I say this feels like cheating? There are similar devices that seem legitimate: for instance if a mystery novel briefly takes the viewpoint of the killer during the murder without revealing his identity. I think the problem here, though, is that these are persistent viewpoint characters throughout the book. That gives them a special status, where the reader's immersion in the fictional world is directly connected to the reader's immersion in those characters' minds. To keep the reader out at these critical moments in the story sets up a distance between the character and the reader, and sets the author up as censor rather than storyteller.

That said, I think one could do something interesting with this device in a first-person narration in which the narrator was deliberately keeping secrets from the reader, but in third-person limited mode it was jarring and frustrating. Luckily, Reynolds must have seen the error of his ways, because after his first novel this particular trick hasn't shown up again.

Tags: Books