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All the Merry Men Drowned in the Sea


By Alastair Reynolds 

8 Mar, 2017

Space Opera That Doesn't Suck


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Alastair Reynold’s 2016 Revenger is a standalone SF novel.

Eager to escape her foolish father and his incredibly creepy associate Doctor Morcenx, teenaged Adrana Ness talks her way onto Captain Rackamore’s light-sail spacecraft. Rather than abandon her younger sister Fura to Morcenx, Adrana convinces her sister to accompany her into deepest space in search of freedom and fortune.

What they get is death and corruption but hey, A for effort.

The solar system in which the girls live has been well used. Their native Congregation is a mere two millennia old; it is only the latest of a long sequence of civilizations that have risen and collapsed on the myriad of worldlets orbiting the Old Sun. Many of the vanished cultures were considerably more advanced than the Congregation. Their relics remain.

Of the fifty million potentially habitable worlds, the Congregation occupies only seventeen thousand. The others are (as yet) beyond the Congregation’s ability to colonize—but not beyond the ability of the foolhardy to explore. Monetta’s Mourn is just one of the many ships whose crews brave the dangers of once-occupied worlds in search of treasure. It’s a dangerous life and the turnover in crew is always high.

That’s good news for the Ness sisters. The siblings have it comparatively easy; their ability to use the remnants of cybernetic enhancements found in ancient bones as communications devices makes them far too valuable to risk on missions into old worlds.

Bosa Sennan’s Nightjammer chose a different route to riches than Monetta’s Mourn. Let other ships spend their lives searching for treasure. Nightjammer preys on the successful, taking their hard-earned goods and whichever crew members Bosa thinks can be useful. Bosa leaves behind only wreckage and corpses. As for those captured … that may be a fate worse than death.

Bosa makes two mistakes when she targets Monetta’s Mourn. The first is that she kidnaps Adrana to serve as Nightjammer’s new bonereader. The second is that she does not succeed in killing young Fura. Fura is young and trapped on a dead ship, but she is also very, very determined. She will have her sister back. If anyone in the Old Solar System gets in her way? Too bad for them.


It may be that this novel will be followed by sequels that will subvert some of what Fura tells us in this one, but I’ve seen nothing official to that effect.

On its own, the subplot about the alien Crawlies, the hint that they have subverted the interplanetary banking system, and the malevolent end to which they are said to be working … well, all that is extremely disquieting. I would have been happy not to read it. It is very likely that the parallels with various antisemitic slanders are merely an unhappy coincidence, but I would rather not be a position to wonder.

It’s true that some of what we learn about the Crawlies comes from an extremely unreliable source, but there were other hints that the Crawlies engineered the financial crisis that allowed them to take over the banks. The Crawlie subplot is inextricably entangled in the greater plot. It cannot be simply ignored, as much as I may have wished to do so.

The one upside to the Crawlie subplot is that it did distract me somewhat from another issue. Most of the ships in the novel use lightsails. They are propelled by light pressure and, if they rely only on sunlight or starlight, need vast sails. Stealth in space is difficult to do. Managing to pull it off using ungainly vessels with reflective sails the size of Prince Edward Island is a remarkable feat. Yet the pirate Bosa is said to do this over and over.

Reynolds has opted here for a synthesis of the three possible solutions to the problem of technological progress from the perspective of an SF author. The first is that progress will continue more or less unchecked, in which case one ends up writing about people whose machines may well be incomprehensible to us. The second is that progress contains the seeds of its own doom; every advanced civilization has the ability to destroy itself and eventually it does. The third solution is that progress could stall.

We see all three in this setting. Many of the empty worlds contain relics of advanced technology indistinguishable from magic. Also, every culture prior to the Congregation has died out (one of them seems to have vanished because it blew apart the planet from which the worldlets were made). The Congregation seems to be content to focus not on R&D but rather digging up the treasures of the past.

There’s been some discussion about whether this is a young adult novel or not. I thought it was. The protagonist is a teen arguably short of her majority, forced by circumstance to find her own way in life. Her father is an example of the YA principle that if you cannot prevent parents from interfering with the plot by simply killing them or sending them on a lengthy expedition to darkest Mars, you must make them as obstructive as possible. The parents cannot be the drama-killing solution to the problem at hand if they are the problem at hand! The authority figures who might be expected to help Fura either die or are, like her father, people to be avoided. Most importantly, the book will probably sell much better if placed on the YA shelves.

What might confuse some people is that coming of age novels usually involve going from naïveté to wisdom, whereas Fura progresses from ignorance to bloody-handed ruthlessness. Having been failed by the authorities in her life, she becomes a teenaged Ahab, so focused on her end that all means become acceptable. Forced to fight a monster, she becomes one herself. Other books aimed at teens, books like Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game, also feature protagonists who enthusiastically commit war-crimes. Where Revenger is different is that Reynolds refrains from prettying up the resulting carnage.

The result is grim but I would guess from the success of books likeThe Hunger Games that teens don’t have a problem with grim.

Revenger is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com