Top critical review
A Grand Scale in Both Space and Time
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on July 2, 2010
Alastair Reynolds has written the best galaxy-spanning, big-idea space opera since Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep. It has a fascinating universe with characters operating from truly deep-time, cross-galaxy perspectives. Among them are:
Campion and Purslane, two non-identical clones from an original set of a thousand "shatterlings." They and their siblings were created to repeatedly make exploratory circuits of the galaxy and meet every 200,000 years or so to share memories and plan their next circuits. Risking official censure, Campion and Purslane consort during their circuits rather than exploring independently.
Hesperus, a robot of the Machine People who has lost much of his memory, but strives to discover and complete his mission. His actions demonstrate repeated loyalty to Campion and Purslane.
The Spirit of the Air who was once a man, became a machine intelligence, and finally evolved into a distributed machine intelligence. It controls the climate of the planet Neume and is regarded by the population as a capricious and inscrutable god. Asking the Spirit for favors is dangerous to everyone.
The Vigilance, a civilization of immortal archivists, collects information about the entire galaxy, continually sifting and prioritizing it. Some of this information is shared with other civilizations--with unforeseen consequences.
The novel is also rich with highly-imaginative Big Ideas. Stardams are containment devices of only partially understood technology that can contain entire solar systems. Aspic of Machines is a high-tech paste that can perform any number of miraculous tasks--just smear it on the problem surface. "Whisking" from place to place using dynamic transporters seems the least of the marvels available in the far-distant future.
The book has two characterization flaws worth mentioning. First, many of the long-lived characters--particularly Campion and Purslane's fellow shatterlings--lack the experience and insight one would expect from human beings who have lived for tens of thousands of years. The author might learn a lesson or two from the age-weary wisdom of Poul Anderson's characters in The Boat of A Million Years. Second, many of the shatterlings are difficult to tell apart given what little we learn about them. This is particularly frustrating when readers are trying to figure out which one is a traitor to the Gentian Line. The author could have extracted key episodes from each shatterling's history and presented a Tom Clancy-like one-page profile that left readers with a feel for the shatterling's personality and motives.
There are also two story weaknesses. I won't summarize the plot, as it is best experienced without advance cueing. I will say that it drags in places. I am tempted to conclude that the author does this deliberately to help us short-lifers understand the book's timescale, but it happens too often in dialogue for this to be entirely true. While there are interesting and surprising resolutions to many of the questions raised in the story, there are some left unresolved. For me this felt more like unpolished storytelling than cliff-hanging for a possible sequel. Your mileage may vary.
Despite having grumbled over its flaws, I recommend the book to my fellow SF fans as enjoyable and thought-provoking. After reading it I continue to regard Alastair Reynolds as one of my favorite SF authors. Pick up this book and enjoy the long journey he has mapped out for us.