The stereotypical space-opera universe is dotted with alien civilisations which are basically humanity's peers. Maybe they're a bit beyond us - or behind us - but in essence they have the same goals as us, the same sort of societies, and they use the same sort of technology to do the same sort of things. It isn't plausible. The galaxy is ancient, and aliens - if there are any - have had ample time to develop beyond anything we can imagine. If they are out there, they must have passed our level of sophistication hundreds of millions of years ago. This is often called the Fermi Paradox - if there are aliens out there, why haven't we seen them? why hasn't their transcendantly superior technology allowed them to conquer the Galaxy while our single-celled ancestors were frolicking in the seas? It's bothered (some) scientists for decades, and it's just beginning to bother sci-fi writers. Alastair Reynolds' Inhibitor saga (of which Redemption Ark is the third) is the first novel I've ever read which really, sincerely, convincingly addresses the problem... and his answer is terrifying. Long ago, in Reynold's cosmos, someone decided that intelligent life was dangerous, and that someone seeded the Galaxy with killing machines that would prevent it ever arising. In Redemption Ark, humanity is just beginning to come to the attention of these machines. Life-destroying robot fleets aren't new in sci-fi (think Benford, think Saberhagen) but no other writer has motivated it as plausibly as Reynolds does, or linked it as neatly into our current picture of the Galaxy. What makes the novel as frightening (and thrilling) as any Tom Clancy nightmare-scenario plot, is that the Fermi Paradox really is a paradox... and Reynold's solution is as likely as any other to be true. "Do you have trouble sleeping at night?" asks one of Reynolds' characters, to another character who's about to be confronted with the truth about the galaxy. "I'm afraid all that's about to change."
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