Alastair Reynolds burst onto the science fiction world with his debut novel Revelation Space back in 2000. This book became the first in what would be called the Revelation Space series which included the sequels Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, the adjacent book Chasm City along with a bunch of short stories, and his Prefect books (Aurora Rising and Elysium Fire) set in an earlier time. That series introduced a storied and complex universe, complete with massive structures, inscrutable aliens and an existential threat to humanity.
Inhibitor Phase opens some time after the events of the Revelation Space trilogy. The Inhibitors, also known as wolves, have all but wiped out humanity. Living a hand to mouth existence on a small out of the way rock is one of the last vestiges of human civilisation led by a man called Miguel de Ruyter. But Miguel is not all that he seems and soon he is hijacked and taken on a quest to save the universe from the Inhibitors. Along the way he will face ridiculously painful challenges, find out who he really is, gather allies (some of whom will be familiar to series fans) and make some peace with his past.
It is always a risk revisiting or rebooting old franchises. The question is whether to go somewhere new or just play on greatest hits. In Inhibitor Phase, Reynolds takes the latter route, perhaps hoping that readers are keen to remember the earlier series through a new book rather than perhaps reading them again. As such he takes his protagonist (who has strong links to the characters of the original books and ends up aligning himself with some of them) back to locations from earlier books – dispatches from the long ago Martian war, the Rust Belt, Chasm City and the mainly water planet of Ararat. While this is helpful for readers who may only vaguely remember the original series, Inhibitor Phase fails to really deliver anything new. Even its structure feels old fashioned – go on a seemingly impossible quest to get a macguffin, go on a couple of side quests related to the macguffin, go on another quest to use macguffin. All of this spiced up with big Reynolds-style galactic set pieces, eldritch weapons, life threatening situations and opportunities for side characters to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
It has been a long time between Revelation Space books and there have been plenty of other space operas since that have clearly been influenced by them (including some by Reynolds himself). Those later authors have built on Reynolds approach and ideas to deliver new forms of space opera. So that while the original trilogy was indeed revelatory at the time, revisiting these books through Inhibitor Phase unfortunately reveals more of their cracks and ponderousness rather than celebrating their achievement.
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