Monday, March 28, 2005

A chilling answer to the Fermi Paradox: Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space

Enrico Fermi, a physicist, once asked the question: if the universe is as old as the physicists think it is, and life spontaneously appears by normal random physical processes, then sheer probability says there must be millions upon millions of worlds "out there" with intelligent life on them. Out of these countless millions, it is staggeringly unlikely that humans are the most technologically advanced race in the universe. If that is indeed so, then why is it that we have yet to have noticed these other races? Even our technologically meager (by sci-fi standards)race has managed to heft a few loud spacecraft into the dark void to broadcast our existence for all to hear. Where are all the others? This statistical conundrum has been given the name Fermi paradox.

This sort of thinking has fascinated science fiction authors for decades and several have put forth their fictional renditions as to why this might be the case. The latest offering is from Alastair Reynolds, the first in his series titled Revelation Space. Reynolds' speculation generates an intriguing story: the reason humans have not met other intelligent species in their interstellar travels (the book is set hundreds of years in the future) is because there doesn't seem to be any intelligent life Out There. There happens to be thousands of other alien cultures, all extinct, that never managed to mature past a planetary supremacy, much like what we enjoy today. Why? What happened to these other races to keep them from advancing any further?

That is the question pursued by Dan Sylveste, an archaeologist working on the planet Resurgam. Here he pursues some pretty far-fetched theories surrounding the planet's long-dead alien race called the Amarantin. The book traces Dan's attempts to pursue the enigma of the Amarantin in spite of several others' attempts to stop him.

All told, Revelation Space does an excellent job developing, following, and expanding the mystery which the Fermi paradox presents. Reynolds' reason why intelligent races never reach spacefaring capacity ends up terribly interesting. By way of a hint, the reason has something to do with why the samurai don't quite succeed in their military ventures against the modern west and its gatling guns in The Last Samurai.

Not only does the basic premise of the book make it worth the read, the book is full of technology that deserves to be imagined. The weaponry and spacecraft are well-described and suitably futuristic. Reynolds manages to reach far beyond anything you see in Star Trek in terms of real advances but at the same time maintaining an air of believability. I found Reynolds' multipurpose combat suits, a staple of science fiction these days, to be particularly well-drawn, interesting, and just plain cool.

Revelation Space fulfills the reader's curiosity nicely, but fails to deliver on a number of other fronts. First, in today's science fiction, there seems to be a need to fill the world with innumerable AI devices. Revelation Space is no exception. Not only does the ship contain thousands of AI agents that interact with humans onboard, but AI's populate the weaponry, the combat suits, and the shuttlecraft. Even more, so-called "simulations" of several of the characters exist and are characters in their own right, interacting with the humans, offering them advice as well as causing them problems. Ethical problems with casually filling every blender and wristwatch aside, I find the sustained focus on such technology to become tedious and unbelievable. It adds virtually nothing to this particular story and I would have enjoyed it very much without it.

Second, the characters themselves are terribly, terribly uninteresting. Dan is an arrogant, one-dimensional bore who seems only there as a plot fulfilment agent that discovers various pieces of the Amarantin puzzle. He trudges through a love sequence, several conflict-with-dad sequences, and even a sustained struggle with antagonists both AI and human, always to come off plastic and shallow. One of the other characters, Volyova the gunnery officer of the spaceship Nostalgia for Infinity is almost always boring and one-dimensional, except when she slips into frighteningly understated machine fetishes with her planet-destroying weapons cache. Other characters, including the rest of Nostalgia's crew, Dan's wife, and several of the AI simulations remain even less engaging than these. Perhaps Reynolds is another of the sci-fi authors who can't quite manage a human character, but succeeds in spite of this because of the interesting content of his ideas.

Lastly, I found the world (in this case, universe) itself to be profoundly lonely. There are only four people (or maybe five, depending on what you call a person in this book) on board the 4-kilometer-long Nostalgia for Infinity. The book involves only a handful of other characters and very few other people ever come into the picture. If one were to make this book into a movie, the producer wouldn't need to hire many extras. Coupled with a scope of vast distances, a half-dozen different populated planets and enormous time spans, this manages to come off a very empty, lonely existence. There isn't a single character that evinces much of any human emotion, all of the characters are alienated from everyone else, and all of them are at least mildly psychotic.

All of this adds up to a slightly positive review. Perhaps I do not expect much from science fiction authors, but it seems to be a persistent shallowness in the field that ideas outshine humanity. All in all, the mysteries explored by the characters in Revelation Space are compelling enough on their own to make me enjoy this book. I shudder to think what this would mean for our race if indeed this speculation into the Fermi paradox should prove true.


Alien Shaman said...

The book sounds pretty interesting. I was really getting pulled into it and wanting to read it until you mentioned how lacking the characters were. In addition, if there are only 4 characters on the ship that is pretty lame. It sounds like this book relies upon technology, much as some fantasy relies upon magic, which could lead to an entire essay in and of itself.

The cool thing is that this book, along with a fair amount of Sci-Fi, really give you a chance to see what others think about the future and then apply your own thoughts to theirs, or expand your own if the author makes a compelling solution.

Key factors I would be interested in reading about:

Space travel distance solution.
Communication solution.
Artificial gravity.

These are fascinatingly complex problems, so any thoughts outside the box of how to solve them are always fun to read about.

ted said...

I know it's not really the focus of your comments on the book, but as I was reading this, and specifically your comments about the characterization, it made me wonder what man will face psychologically when, not if, we see prolonged space travel in some level of isolation.

It seems reasonable to assume that if man does breach that point where we can travel for prolonged periods of time in spacecraft that crews will be relatively small and there will be some level of A.I. Picture being in an enclosed area the size of a small house with the same five people for six years, for example. If we reach this technological level and thigs progress as such, I think we will see a high level of murder in space.

Now how about if there is space travel on the order of what some sci-fi authors foresee where a group of people head into space with the intention of travelling for generations. In three generations of isolated travel, where would their society be without exposure to a larger group of people?