Science fiction in its best forms pushes the boundaries of the possible for those individuals who have relatively open minds. That's especially true for the sci-fi subgenre called “hard science fiction,” which builds its stories around known scientific principles and logic. This not to say hard science fiction novels and movies don't include incredible futuristic technology and bizarre situations, they just have to be within the realm of the possible given current knowledge.
In other words popular culture favorites like Star Trek and Star Wars are more accurately defined as science fantasy since they require faster-than-light propulsion (FTL), various forms of extrasensory preconceptions, and near human-like aliens among other impossibilities. \When the legendary Arthur C. Clarke first made this distinction clear to me, I about had a fit with what I thought was an insult to my beloved Star Trek. But he was absolutely correct, anyone can create a space opera fantasy but I have found that stories which built within the realm of what is possible far more satisfying.
This is proven with the Alastair Reynolds novel, Revelation Space. The novel begins in the twenty-sixth century with three seemingly separate story-lines that eventually merge.
The first story-line begins on a planet called Resurgam in the real-life Delta Pavonis star system. A guy by the name of Dan Sylveste is leading an archaeological colony researching the long extinct Amarantin species. Over the years since they arrived on Resurgam, Dan Sylveste has come to believe the Amarantin had developed a technological civilization before their sun had a massive flare and essentially barbecued anything and everything on the surface a million years ago. More importantly, Dan has a strong hypothesis that the flare wasn't a natural disaster, that some intelligence was responsible.
The second story-line centers around Ilia Volyova, who is part of a crew of the starship Nostalgia for Infinity. A massive sub-light vessel called a lighthugger since it came come extremely close to the speed of light. See the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity all have nanotechnology augmentation devices in their brains and bodies, but in the captain's case he was infected with the “Melding Plague” which mutates both the nanotech and human cells. So Ilia and the rest of the crew want to find Dan Sylveste, who also happens to have considerable knowledge on how to treat the Melding Plague.
At first, the good crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity believes Dan Sylveste is on the colony planet, Yellowstone orbiting the star Epsilon Eridani. This is because with no FTL technology information can be decades out of date by the time it becomes generally known.
The third story-line involves Ana Khouri who is a bit of an accidental castaway on the colony planet Yellowstone. She was originally from a planet called Sky's Edge in a different star system but through a complex set of events, mainly a planetary civil war, is put in long-term hibernation. Hibernation chambers get mixed up and Ana wakes up on a completely different planet decades later. Oh yeah, she's married and her husband's chamber is either still on Sky's Edge or sent God knows where.
While on Yellowstone, Ana has to make a living and gets hired by a mysterious figure known as the Mademoiselle to infiltrate the incoming Nostalgia for Infinity, fly with them to Resurgam and kill Dan Sylveste.
While Dan Sylveste might seem a popular guy, he's a bit of an asshole with numerous people who literally hate his ass. The first being his ex-wife who lead a rebellion on the newly colonized Resurgam years before, stole the starship that brought them there, and high-tailed out of the system to never be heard from again.
Next, Dan's sparkling personality eventually lead to yet another rebellion overthrowing the colonial government he setup and controlled. Which I can't really blame since Resurgam is far from being a garden spot. The planetary atmosphere isn't directly breathable and the surface more or less looks like a heavily burned bagel covered in dust. The rest of the humans on the fledgling colony are tired of digging in the dust and want to turn their attention to terraforming the planet.
After the second coup, Dan is a prisoner of the new government but finds time to fall in love with the daughter of the man who took over and marries her. At the wedding there is yet another coup with Dan and his new wife, a lady named Pascale about the only people who escape the attack.
When the Nostalgia for Infinity arrives at Resurgam the crew radios down demanding that they cough up Sylveste. There are of course issues, this third colonial government tells Nostalgia to go to hell. Illia in turns hacks into the planetary internet altering records to “create” a fake outpost and nukes it from space. This justifiably terrifies the government who quickly offer up Dan and Pascale.
Dan Sylveste being a really clever asshole is brought aboard Nostalgia for Infinity with the crew not knowing he has smuggled microscopic amounts of antimatter hidden inside his own nanotech implants. You might say big deal, but the antimatter is more than enough to destroy the ship.
Dan makes a deal with the crew to not blow up the ship and try to save their captain if they take him to the nearby dwarf planet Cerberus which orbits a neutron star. Dan believes Cerberus is the key to unraveling what happened to the Amarantin.
I'm stopping here because the rest of the novel is about as mind blowing as they come without actually having to cleanup all the blood, bone, and goo off the floor and walls.
One of the real scientific topics the novel touches on is the Fermi Paradox. In summary, a bunch of real life top-notch scientists were having lunch on day and began puzzling over the fact that a starfaring species could colonize the galaxy in a couple of million years just zooming along at ten-percent the speed of light. Throw in a few other adventurous species doing the same and there should be ample evidence of alien civilization even here in our own solar system.
So between bites of his Ruben sandwich, Enrico Fermi asks just where in the Hell is everyone. Decades later numerous smart men and women have pondered the question with most possible answers not very comforting and a few outright scary. Yes, this plays to the extinct Amarantin species in the book.
Another fascinating point of the book is the Melding Plague. Here in the real world nanoscopic particles used in various industrial and even household applications are already a health concern. Like microplastic trash, our bodies don't have a means to flush such artificial substances from our bodies. Nanoparticles could be totally benign but in all likelihood they will eventually be found to cause major health concerns.
Now add only slightly futuristic nanotechnology with the particles programmed to perform certain helpful tasks, like destroy cancer cells for example. Imagine billions of smart particles running threw a human body with bad programming, instead of destroying cancer cells they decide to go rogue and eat all the healthy cells.
One of the darkest nightmares of nanotechnology is the Grey Goo scenario where not only are the nanoparticles programmable, but can build new more versions of themselves from any convenient material. We're talking anything from steel, concrete, or even human tissue. Speculation has it that such a “plague” could go exponential and turn the entire surface of the planet into a massive sea of Grey Goo.
The level of universe building in Revelation Space is fantastic. The author, Alastair Reynolds is a master at painting a complex but grounded work of science fiction. The human societies occupying the universe of Revelation Space are in no way places I would like to live. But that makes them even more plausible in my mind given that human nature more or less stays the same in his twenty-sixth century.
If you're a fan of great science fiction go buy or borrow this book. Oh yeah, its part of a trilogy and the second book is even better in my opinion.