Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry. A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.
If it’s possible to feel intense, visceral hate for a fictional character, one that exists only in the pages of a book, then this is what I felt for Grafenwalder, the protagonist of this story. He’s one of the spoiled wealthy individuals belonging to the Circle, a club of collectors of rare animals: in the Circle, status is defined by the number of one-of-a-kind specimens one is able to collect, the members striving to outdo one another not only in the uniqueness of their find, but in the way the hapless creatures are displayed, so that the shock value of each presentation is often achieved at the expense of the captured being.
And I consciously use the word ‘being’ because the prizes Grafenwalder is so proud of are not necessarily animals as such – not that such exhibits would be less monstrous in that case, considering the thoughtless cruelty the man shows toward his captives – but also sentient creatures from different evolutionary paths, or former human beings twisted into nightmarish shapes by surgery or genetic modifications, to the point of not being recognizable as human anymore.
Lately, Grafenwalder found himself in competition with Ursula Goodglass, a recent member of the Circle and therefore, in his eyes, an outsider in need of a lesson in humility: when he learns that the woman acquired a rare amadryad at the same time he did, he bribes the transport’s captain to kill the creature destined to Goodglass, and once the brief satisfaction for this low trick does not yield the expected results he vows to shock her and everyone else with a truly unique specimen.
The genetically engineered beings called Denizens that were showcased in the story A Spy in Europa have now become something of a myth, but through a shady dealer Grafenwalder manages to acquire what might be the very last one, preparing a special glass cage where the conditions of pressure and temperatures found on Jovian satellite can be replicated: here is where the base nature of the man’s spirit is shown in all its disgusting detail, and the cruelty he visits on the poor Denizen made me sick to my stomach. But even the very rich and powerful are not exempt from retribution…
This is not an easy story to read – or at least it was not for me – but I appreciated how Reynolds managed to keep a sort of detachment from what he describes. Still, I’m going to have a few nightmares about this one for a while…