Book review: Inhibitor Phase (Revelation Space 4) by Alastair Reynolds

Nearly two decades after the last novel from the main Revelation Space storyline, Reynolds returns with a book that’s even more expansive and bleak than the ones before. With new and some very old characters, Inhibitor Phase can be read as a standalone book, but old fans of the series will find enough familiar elements to trigger bouts of nostalgia. Most importantly, however, this book shows how much Reynolds grew as a writer over this century. The characters are almost likeable, and the story seamlessly merges the intimate with an expansive setting.

During the years since the last book, the Inhibitors, a race of sentient machines designed to eliminate all intelligent races, has decimated humanity. Small pockets of humans are clinging to survival on inhospitable planets, hiding from the Wolves, as they call the Inhibitor machines. One such group of people is led by Miguel de Ruyter, who is about to defend his colony from an incoming ship, which could reveal the colony to the Inhibitors. In an accident that saves his conscience, the ship blows up before he has the chance to do so himself, but there is a single survivor, whom Ruyter helps. The survivor, however, turns out to be from a different ship, and she came to collect him to help her in the quest to stop the Inhibitors.

Glass, as the survivor calls herself, blackmails Ruyter into following her to her ship, and they take off for Yellowstone, which in the past has been the center of human spacefaring civilization, and now is a graveyard with a few pockets of life that descended into a post-apocalyptic tribal society. There, they join forces with Lady Arek, her right hand the Hyperpig Pinky, and her band of survivors. Together, they launch a daring raid on one of the surviving settlements, to obtain technology that would potentially help them defeat the Inhibitors.

After the raid, the four of them plus some rescued hyperpigs make their way to the planet Ararat. Some of their characters harbor a secret past. Ruyter turns out to be the brother of Nevil Clavain, a centuries-old warrior and explorer who discovered technology that could defeat the Inhibitors, but died before revealing its location. Pinky turns out to have been Nevil’s right hand Scorpio, and he happened to kill Nevil on Ararat, and dumped his body into the planet’s ocean, where it had been absorbed by the alien Pattern Jugglers, who can read memories and thoughts, and alter the brain structures of living beings. The band’s hope is that Warren, Nevil’s brother, would be compatible enough to absorb Nevil’s memory when he communes with the Jugglers.

Glass also needs to cleanse her systems of a nanovirus, so she swims along. At the end, however, Warren is killed, but his consciousness, along with his brother’s memory, is transferred into Glass’s body, where her old mind and the new one now share the same space. With the gained knowledge, they travel to the location of the alien technology, which they find in a giant spaceship. Soon thereafter, the Inhibitors show up, and Glass with Warren inside her sacrifice themselves to extract the technology specifications and transmit them to Lady Arek. Dormant manufacturing facilities that were strewn all across the galaxy begin receiving the schematics and produce weapons that could defeat the Inhibitors.

Alastair Reynolds says in the preface that it is not necessary to be familiar with the previous books to appreciate this one. I not only agree; I find it beneficial. The new characters come with little emotional baggage for the reader. In the original trilogy, people like Ana Khouri come with such a deep back story and expectations, that Reynolds must have felt obligated to write them in a way that may not have been conductive to the story. For example, Khouri used to be a deeply abrasive character, and even though she experienced a slight redemption arc (no pun intended), she had to be written in a way that still elicited a love-hate feeling from the reader. In this book, none of the characters save for Scorpio has played any part in the previous books, so the author had a clean slate.

It shows. The characters are much better developed than those from two decades ago, they are less one-dimensional, have very intriguing and a little more plausible back stories, and while still being somewhat cavalier with their own lives, they show enough emotion for the readers to care about them. Warren even goes as far as feeling remorse for his past actions and trying to rationalize them. Glass gets her redemption by explaining her history with Warren, Arek, who is deeply unlikable at the beginning becomes a beacon of hope. Even Scorpio evolves. Not internally, but his relationship with Warren and Glass improves in a very agreeable manner.

The story itself, however, is yet another of Reynolds’ retellings of the Odyssey, this time even more blatant than usual. We have a visit to the Swinehouse, which is an allusion to Circe’s island in Homer’s story, and the storm on Ararat where Warren dies is reminiscent of Charybdis. Our Odysseus of this book, Warren, then “washes up” on the shore, only to be hosted by the sea people instead of Calypso, and he also spurns their offers to have his body modified to be able to live with them, and instead begs to fly away in his ship. While his ship is not wrecked at the end, Warren and Glass end up essentially shipwrecked at their next planet, awaiting their death. On one hand, this adds some structure and familiarity to the story, but on the other, it once again allows Reynolds to write a narrative without a clearly set path, leading the reader on a chase through the unknown. Some readers may appreciate it, while others may wish a more clearly delineated story.

Even though I appreciate the unknown, it also lends itself to the risk of losing one’s goal or changing it along the way. The most evident instance of this is the Gideon Stones, an alien technology that is supposed to help in the fight against the Inhibitors. The protagonists sacrifice a lot to get their hands on them, and in the process, they destroy countless lives. The author also sacrifices a lot of paper to describe how they got the stones. The entire episode is highly entertaining, but at the end the stones fizzle out. They are used for a completely unrelated task, once, and then they disappear from the narrative. There are other instances of these wild goose chases as well, and so if the reader expects Chekhov’s gun somewhere, he’ll be often disappointed.

Still, this seems to be par for the course for Reynolds’ writing. Even his standalone novels often suffer from these problems. What seems to be new, or at least better evolved, is the amount of humanity the author displays. Indifference to one’s suffering and death is somehow scaled down. The question of one’s identity is superbly presented, on two main levels. First, through the changing identity of Warren, as his memories come back. He goes from a benevolent leader of a group of survivors to a ruthless tactician who has no qualms about sacrificing his own people. His goal to kill Glass changes as well, but in the opposite direction. Second, there is the question of who a person is when Warren and Glass merge their minds in a single body. Reynolds wisely avoids most of the inner dialogue and conflict (unlike Muir in Harrow the Ninth, where it was very distracting), and instead focuses on the acceptance of others. He also hints at an even more confusing identity when Lady Arek absorbs some parts of Warren’s mind and starts to narrate the rest of the book…

Humanity is really in the spotlight with the hyperpigs, though. These are humanoid beings with pig genes. They have some physical aspects of pigs, but a keen mind, a moral compass and often a sense of inferiority. In this book, they are presented as the basest of victims, but a few of them become truly exceptional. Through their victimhood, suffering and impostor syndrome, the author, via his human protagonists, elevates them to full humanity. The moral of the story thus becomes that anyone with a sound moral direction and will to live is human, regardless of physical or mental characteristics. The story may fill the blanks in Absolution Gap, where the defeat of the Inhibitors is omitted, but the essence of the book is in redefining what means to be human within the Revelation Space universe.

Inhibitor Phase is a surprisingly good improvement over the other three books in the main Revelation Space storyline. It fills the gap left between the main story and the epilogue of the previous book. Moreover, it shows the author’s evolution in humanizing its characters, giving them a slightly simpler storyline, and toning down a little on the technological wizardry. This makes the book more accessible for readers new to this universe, and because it can be read as a standalone, it also gives people a good idea of what to expect if they decide to dive into the Revelation Space series. People who want a space opera with a cold and ruthless universe, gothic, almost Gigeresque visuals, and an expansive story that spans centuries and lightyears, can do worse than start with this book.

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