Of course, they do, but I think that some people assign too much importance to the characters when considering the merits of a given book. You all probably know by now that Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds has been my latest hyper-fixation. On a few occasions, I’ve gone over to Reddit or to the books’ wiki to see if any fanart made depicting the ships or technology in the books. During these trips, I came across a few comments from people whose main criticism of the books concerns the depth of the characters or lack thereof.
Personally, I like the characters, we may not often get to see a detailed view of what is going on inside their heads, but we also don’t need to. The novels and short stories set in the Revelation Space Universe cover a period of time extending out to 40,000 CE. The fastest a ship can go is just below the speed of light. It takes decades to travel between planets, and the characters of the novel face enemies that can tear planets apart. The scale of these stories is just too large for the characters to matter very much. Sure, they play an important role in events, but the effects of their actions will be relatively small in the end.
And there is another reason why we might not completely understand the characters; they are old. Many of the characters have already led extensive lives by the time we meet them. They’ve been traveling the stars for decades. They don’t experience time the way we do. Travel at relativistic speeds will change them; it separates them from everyone they had known before. There isn’t time to see all the past events of their lives, and the motivations of someone who has lived 400 years separated by time and space from everyone they have ever known will have a psychology that is much different than ours.
As examples, I am going to look at three criticisms that I came across online and talk about why I don’t think they are fair.
The Single Mindedness of Dan Sylvest
Dan Sylvest is one of the POV characters in “Revelation Space.” He’s about 200 years old by the time we meet him, and he is the scion of a very wealthy family from the planet of Yellowstone. When we see him, he is first leading and then loses a colony on the world of Resurgam, a colony that he founded to study an extinct alien race known as the Amarantin. There are other things about him, he resents his father Calvin, who he speaks with frequently as a computer simulation, he’s been married a few times, and he has shown a willingness to risk his life and the lives of others in pursuit of his scientific goals. I’ve seen some complain that he does not get much character development in the book and that his wife Pascal is flat and basically just someone for Dan to lecture about his discoveries.
None of these complaints are really that valid. Dan is a POV character, yes, but he is also incredibly arrogant and, as we find out later, driven by an alien memetic virus that has inspired his obsessions in order to push towards a particular goal. In that context, his behaviors and apparent lack of depth make sense. He is someone who makes everything about himself and his work. Of course his wife seems flat, we see things from his POV, and he really just likes to talk at her. Let’s not forget that he was driven by an alien virus that did its best to ensure that he only focused on a single objective. Dan is not a character who is written poorly. He does exactly what the story needs of him.
Ana Khouri’s Lost Husband and her Role as an “Action Girl”
On her home planet of Sky’s Edge, Ana was a soldier; almost everyone was. She and her husband were both soldiers who were wounded, and after they were wounded and brought to orbit for treatment. Things did not end well for the couple after this, as a clerical error caused Ana to be shipped to Yellowstone, a thirty-year round trip that ensured that even if she tried to return home to her husband, he would be either dead or remarried by the time she arrived. When we first meet her, she is working as an assassin and offered a job in which she has to travel to a different planet to kill Dan Sylvest, and in return, she will be reunited with her husband, who, as it turns out, was in hibernation on Yellowstone the entire time. She does not complete her mission because, in the process, she discovers that she has become involved in something much larger than a pair of starstruck lovers. She also realized that her mysterious employer might have lied about their ability to bring her husband back. Some have complained that Ana’s husband rarely comes up for how important he was to her, but it’s also important to remember by the time we meet Ana, she has come to terms with what happened. She has accepted that she will never see him again. He’s basically dead to her. Her husband does come in later books, however, when she initially resists taking a new lover.
Skade and the Night Council
Skade is a conjoiner, one who hears a voice in her head that she believes to be the “Night Council” and extremely classified group within the conjoiners. She is willing to do bad things for good reasons, and the things she does cause respected leaders among the conjoiners like Clavain and Remontoire to defect in order to oppose her. Eventually, this conflict evolves into a personal vendetta against Clavain. Some have said that Skade’s death was anticlimactic and that her inclusion in the story introduced unresolved plotlines. But I think that was the point. Skade may have been trying to save her fellow conjoiners, but in doing so, she strayed far from what a conjoiner was supposed to be, and it destroyed her.
Finally, my last argument against the criticism that these characters are flat is that a single book in the series might cover many decades. By necessity, a great deal of interactions between characters is going to take place off-screen. I’m okay with that, and personally, I think Reynolds does a great job deciding what needs to be shown and what does not.