Worldbuilding

Building Baubles: How Revenger Fails at Technology

A dark ship against the background of space, from the cover of Revenger.

Arr me hearties, climb aboard this here pirate spaceship and prepare to have yer buckles thoroughly swashed! Today we’re taking a deep dive into the worldbuilding of Revenger, a space opera novel by Alistair Reynolds. Don’t worry, I promise there won’t be any more attempts at a pirate accent.

Revenger is a tale of two sisters and their adventures aboard treasure-hunting sunjammers, complete with weird aliens and questionable economics. It’s also the first book in a trilogy, but with so much worldbuilding crammed into Revenger’s roughly 130,000 words, we have plenty to discuss.

The Good

A ship in front of a colorful space background.

While Revenger’s plot and characters are both thoroughly mediocre, there’s a lot to recommend its worldbuilding. Space opera is a flexible subgenre, and rather than follow in the footsteps of near-ish future novels like The Expanse or even mid-millennium entries like Star Trek, Reynolds sets his story millions of years after the present day. That’s a consequential choice, and at least a few of its implications work out in Revenger’s favor.

The Future Is Weird

Being set millions of years in the future, Revenger’s world is not like our own. Humanity lives on a vast system of artificial worlds that come in all shapes and sizes, seemingly constructed from planetary debris. Did that debris come from a destroyed Earth? No one knows! It’s been so long that the system’s origins are lost to time. If it was Earth, though, then someone must have cleaned up Sol’s other planets, too, as they’re nowhere to be found.

This is a genuinely strange place to find yourself in, and it creates a sense of wonder, like anything can happen. Reynolds reinforces that feeling with vast differences in tech level, as some people have fancy gadgets from previous civilizations while others must make do with the less advanced stuff that humans can currently produce. We’re told that humanity has actually populated these worlds several times, each occupation being wiped out under mysterious circumstances and then replaced by a new one.

This is a great source of novelty, but it also gives Reynolds cover for some important conceits. For example, the ships in this setting all use solar sails, darting around and tacking into the wind like actual sailing ships do on Earth. Unfortunately, that’s not how solar sails work. While it is possible to shrink a spacecraft’s orbit using some fancy math, it’s not a direct process as portrayed in this story. But as Revenger’s world is so clearly weird and different from our own, it’s easy to slide this inaccuracy under the rug. I appreciate sailing spaceships as much as the next scifi fan, and I appreciate the book’s helping me to suspend my disbelief. Plus, the term “sunjammer” is just so cool.

Edit: Clarified the issues with solar tacking.

Loot Is Inexhaustible

Once our heroes leave home and join a sunjammer crew, they set off to salvage valuable tech from the ruins of previous civilizations. Such expeditions are a major industry in Revenger, and the treasure brought back seems to be humanity’s main economic driver. This premise is no doubt familiar to most roleplayers out there, but it’s tricky to employ in novels. Realistically, any treasure that did exist would be quickly snapped up, and there certainly wouldn’t be enough to sustain multiple adventures.

At least, that’s what it’s like in the real world. In Revenger, the solar system is dotted with special loot-filled worlds called baubles, each of which is protected by an impenetrable energy field. These fields open occasionally, but only for very short periods, putting a limit on how much loot anyone can get out of it. This is a pretty solid explanation for why the hidden treasure hasn’t all been dug up in a frantic gold rush, leaving Reynolds with lots of fodder for future adventures.

Of course, it does raise the question of why anyone would bother to encase these caches in impenetrable energy fields that occasionally open for short periods. Any explanation would probably feel contrived, but that’s okay because the setting’s far future timeline makes readers less likely to ask such questions. It’s been millions of years – who knows what might have happened?

The Setting Is Deep

Beyond its strangeness, the first thing that hits you about Revenger’s setting is its size. Not only does it span an entire solar system, but it’s a crowded solar system. Each artificial world is small but densely populated, and there seems to be thousands of them. What governments exist are entirely local, so each world can provide a fresh adventure. And for each world, there’s an untold number of baubles, creating a setting where the heroes could fly forever and not reach the end of it.

And that’s just the human stuff; I haven’t even gotten to the aliens yet. Did I mention there are aliens? Well, there are aliens. They don’t play a big role in the first book’s plot, and they’re very mysterious, but they’re around. All we really know is that these aliens offer services that humans can’t do themselves, like advanced medical treatment. But it’s really unclear why they do this or why they accept payment in human money.

Revenger’s setting is deep in time as well as space. The long history of humanity’s spacefaring civilization means there’s no shortage of different eras to mine for content. On one expedition, the heroes might find robots that are just a few thousand years old. On another, they might uncover super weapons that are closer to a million. All of this comes together to create a world with nearly endless potential for adventure, just the thing for an author planning a long series.

The Bad

Two ships against a colorful space background.

The positive points I’ve just gone through are all broad strokes. Conceptually, Revenger’s premise allows for a near infinite variety of cool worldbuilding. Unfortunately, when we zoom in, almost none of the details actually work.

Scifi Tech Is Useless

Once our heroic sisters set sail for spaceborne adventure, their official job title is “bone reader.” You see, each ship has a skull-like device on board, though whether it’s an actual skull or just some creepy tech isn’t clear. Regardless, only certain people can interface with the skull, and the job is so important that bone readers get preferential treatment. More than once, we are told that bone reading is the most important job on the ship.

So, what do these skulls do, exactly? It turns out they’re essentially magic radios. That’s useful, certainly, but considering that most sunjammers operate alone, it hardly seems to rank as more important than most other jobs. But wait, it gets weirder: ships in this setting also have regular radios. At least, they have a device for inter-ship communication that doesn’t require special talent to use. Whether it uses actual radio waves, I have no idea.

Hang on, why would sunjammers hire special bone readers when they could just use the radio? We’re told that the skulls are more secure, so captains can use them to trade secrets. But we’re also told that bone readers are constantly listening in on each other’s transmissions, which doesn’t sound very secure. Also, we never actually see any instances of captains trading valuable information, which makes sense since all of them are constantly trying to one-up each other.

The last possible justification for the skull is that it isn’t limited by the speed of light the way a radio is. The book is vague on this point, but I think that’s supposed to be the case. Even so, it hardly warrants the bone reader’s supposed importance, especially since sunjammers go to such lengths to avoid each other. Communication is only important if you have someone to communicate with!

Mundane Technology Is Missing

While Revenger doesn’t do a great job portraying scifi tech, I assure you its portrayal of regular tech is even worse. Most immediately, no one in this setting seems to understand how radios work. There’s zero encryption, which I’m guessing is in there to make the skulls seem more important, but it also puts these far future humans well behind the tech of World War One. It also seems like spacesuit radios can’t transmit farther than a few dozen meters, which is important to the plot as it’s the only way to justify why certain characters don’t call for help when threatened. I don’t know the range on modern spacesuit radios, but I can pick up a pair of 30+ mile walkie talkies online for less than $70, so this seems strange.

A number of other basic technologies are missing as well. Handheld guns are completely absent, with everyone using crossbows instead. Not only is it hard to believe that firearms would just vanish, but crossbows are so awkward to use in close quarters that I’d expect most sunjammer crews to go with knives instead. Granted, these crossbows are described as having “barrels,” so maybe this is just a terminology problem. Don’t worry, we get to the terminology.

The last conspicuous absence is computers. Everyone seems to write by hand, with great emphasis being placed on books. I don’t know how that can possibly work when the setting also has interplanetary stock markets updated in real time. Do they have broadcasters relaying the prices over magic radios? That sounds really inefficient to say the least.

In fairness, scifi settings almost always require some technical inconsistencies to function. Revenger’s unusual premise even gives it extra room to suspend our disbelief, which is how the solar sails get away with acting like wind sails. But these basic absences go far beyond that conceit. It’s like a medieval fantasy setting without torches. Fire exists, sticks exist, pitch exists, but everyone just blunders around in the dark anyway.

The Bigotry Is Disappointingly Familiar

Earlier, I praised Revenger for its unusual world. Unfortunately, while the setting’s material conditions are strange and new, its social conditions are something we’ve all seen before: pseudo-Victorian. The beginning is especially Victorian, with a pair of aristocratic young women running away from their controlling father so they can live a life of adventure. They talk to a creepy old lady who tells them about their special powers, but otherwise, everyone they see is a man, from the ship’s officers to the constables who are sent after them. Even the characters’ accents, while not actually Victorian, would be more at home in a steampunk story than one set millions of years in the future.

Once the sisters are actually onboard a sunjammer, we see that some of the crew are women, which is nice. In fact, it’s nearly a 50/50 split. And yet, all the captains we hear about are men. The only exception is the evil pirate captain, and the narration makes a big deal about how disturbingly unfeminine she is. Not only is it irritating to see the same gender biases so far in the future, but it doesn’t even make sense. If this is the kind of world where only men get to be captains, there certainly wouldn’t be gender parity in the rest of the crew. And at the end, when the protagonist becomes a captain in her own right, no one objects? Is it because she’s not like other girls?

During a weird detour in the plot, we see another aspect of Victorian sexism rearing its ugly head, as the protagonist is captured by a bounty hunter and returned to her father. Once there, she’s given drugs to alter her memories and halt her physical aging so she won’t technically become an adult. While the story never directly says that this is done because of the protagonist’s gender, it is strongly reminiscent of practices like locking women away for being “hysterical.” It’s also very difficult to imagine this happening to a male protagonist.

Taken together, it feels like Revenger wanted to have the effects of sexism, but Reynolds wouldn’t fully commit. It’s certainly not the most sexist setting I’ve ever read, but the refusal to acknowledge it is aggravating. The specific type of sexism involved also makes the story feel weirdly old-fashioned, seriously clashing with its far future premise.

Terminology Is Confusing

When a story is set in a world as unusual as Revenger’s, it pays to make things as easy for readers to understand as possible. Reynolds does not do that. Part of this is down to wordcraft, with the narration throwing out information far faster than readers can absorb it. But terminology is also a big contributor, with the book expecting you to remember a vast number of new vocabulary items. Here’s a few of them so you can see what I’m talking about:

  • Baubles
  • Gubbins
  • Lung stuff
  • Swallower
  • Integrator
  • Ghosties
  • Squawk
  • Glowey
  • Crawlies
  • Hardshells
  • Monkies
  • Clackers
  • Quoins
  • Swirly

The first thing you notice is that some of these sound more than a little silly. “Lung stuff” is used instead of “air” and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s supposed to be funny? No one in the story calls food “tummy stuff” or blood “vein stuff.” Other terms like “ghosties” and “crawlies” are only a little less silly, giving the dialogue a childish quality.

Beyond the silliness, many of these terms are hard to figure out. An “integrator” seems to be the ship’s engineer, possibly because they’re supposed to integrate different types of systems together. What was wrong with “engineer”? The “Swirly” seems to be what they call the Milky Way, which is counterintuitive since from the characters’ perspective, the Milky Way looks like a band across the sky, not a spiral as viewed from the outside. I still don’t know what a “gubbin” is, even though the characters say it all the time.

Even if all of these terms were easy to understand, there would still be way too many of them. Settings gain novelty from having unusual things, not by calling things unusual names. Nor does inventing a bunch of unnecessary terminology make the story feel more futuristic. In millions of years, it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone is speaking modern English, so this is all being translated for the reader anyway.

Piracy Is Misunderstood

Piracy features heavily in Revenger. In fact, the main villain is a pirate, along with her pirate crew. So it’s disappointing that the novel seems to have no understanding of how pirates actually operate.

The short version is that pirates want to take another ship’s stuff, or possibly the entire ship, with as little cost to themselves as possible. Pirates will fight when they have to, but they’d rather avoid it, since getting shot isn’t profitable. There will be variations depending on specific circumstances, but the general model was as true for historical pirates like Cheng I Sao and Bartholomew Roberts as it is for modern pirates today.

As such, pirates will generally try to intimidate their victims into surrendering so no fight is necessary. The pirates in Revenger do not do that. Instead, they proceed immediately to the “murder everyone” option, which means the target crew has no choice but to fight back. Then Revenger’s pirates go even further, making it clear that they like to torture captives before murdering them. So now the defending crews have every incentive to fight to the death.

This is the opposite of what pirates want, and it’s hard to believe they’ve made it so far without being destroyed. Even if the pirates are better armed than their targets, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets a lucky shot, which would be far less likely if fighting weren’t necessary. The only explanation offered is that these pirates are just super evil. So evil that they go against their own best interests, apparently. In a final twist, the characters even claim that these pirates purposely cultivate an intimidating reputation, but it’s not clear why, since they never use it.

The Economy Is Broken

Normally, a setting’s economy can stay in the background and not draw too much attention. But Revenger puts the economy right in the spotlight, and oh boy is it a mess. First, the main currency are these coin-like objects called “quoins,” because intuitive spelling is for nerds I guess. Quoins come in many denominations, but the characters often treat them as being interchangeable. At one point, a character is impressed that she’s being paid six quoins, even though she hasn’t looked at their values. Reminds me of the time I got paid six bills for a job and then took off before checking to see if they were ones or hundreds.

Later, we learn that these quoins are some kind of ancient technology that can’t be replicated, so no one can create more of them. The only source of new quoins comes from adventurers bringing more back from baubles. So it’s somewhere between the gold standard and a physical version of Bitcoin, where no one has any control over the money supply except for random infusions that may or may not cause wild inflation. Likewise, if no one finds any quoins for a while, as the population continues to grow, that could lead to deflation as there isn’t enough currency to go around. It’s difficult to believe such a system would last, let alone be adopted by every human polity.

But that all pales in comparison to the weirdest reveal: it turns out that the aliens who run the banks have their own uses for the quoins, so every quoin deposited is out of circulation forever. How does anyone withdraw money? How has no one noticed that the alien banks are just hoovering up quoins and never giving them out again? Maybe the banks only take a small percentage of their quoins out of circulation, but at that point, it would make more sense to buy or trade for them.

What We Can Learn

A large space station above a planet.

Even though Revenger’s setting falls apart more and more as we zoom in, there are still lessons to be learned from it, both good and bad.

Plan for the Future

It’s fine for stories to be one-offs or part of a short series, but for authors who want to go further, it pays to plan ahead. The most impressive aspect of Revenger’s setting is how much room there is to tell further stories. The protagonist has only explored a tiny corner of the inhabited system, so who knows what else is waiting out there?

If Reynolds needs content for more books, all he has to do is have the hero sail a couple worlds over, and then he’ll be in completely uncharted territory. Sure, pirates were the problem before, but now there’s a warlord pressing all sunjammers into their fleet, or maybe there’s a robot army on the hunt for dirty organics. Plus, he’s got those aliens to serve as bad guys once he’s exhausted the human options. The possibilities are nearly endless.

What’s more, the independent nature of human worlds means that Reynolds doesn’t need a complete write-up of the entire setting. He can make them up as he goes, offering great flexibility. This type of worldbuilding allows an author to keep telling stories far beyond what’s possible in a more limited setting, where the different plots will quickly step on each other’s toes.

Protagonist Abilities Should Be Cool

Spec fic has a long tradition of giving the hero a special ability, and with good reason. Special powers are great for both novelty and wish fulfillment, but perhaps more importantly, powers make it easy to give the hero agency while still being in over their head. Sure, Frodo doesn’t have the skill of Aragorn or Legolas, but he’s the one best suited to carry the One Ring, so his choices still affect the story.

While the most common problem with special powers is that authors make them overpowered, the opposite is also possible, and that’s what happens in Revenger. Bone reading is a practically useless ability, since at best it mimics the shipboard radio. The only time this ability ever helps the hero out is when she and her sister use it to lure the villain into an ambush. But that only works because the sister has earned the villain’s trust and is working on the villain’s ship. At that point, she could have done the same thing as a radio operator.

Not only does such a useless ability raise logical questions, but it takes all the wind (or solar radiation) out of the protagonist’s sails. Her power no longer provides any vicarious enjoyment, nor does it allow her any agency when surrounded by more experienced crewmates. Ironically, Revenger had another option that could have worked much better: bauble reading. This is the skill of predicting when a bauble’s protective fields will drop and for how long. Unlike bone reading, it has a clear use. Too bad we’re never shown how it works, even though the second most important character is a bauble reader. We’re just given vague tidbits about “auguries,” which I hope means that someone on the ship is sacrificing a goat to study the entrails.

Don’t Break the World to Prop Up the Plot

Remember all that weirdness with radios in this setting? As far as I can tell, that’s exclusively to patch a hole in the hero’s terrible plan for taking on the villain. First, they have to lure the villain onto their ship and defeat her in hand-to-hand. Fine. But they have no plan for dealing with the villain’s ship, which can blast them the moment it learns something is wrong. For this to work, it must be impossible for the villain or her minions to contact their ship, which is why their radios have less range than modern walkie talkies.

The same thing happens with the story’s pirates. We need a reason for the evil pirate to slaughter our hero’s entire crew, but the obvious thing to do in that situation is surrender and let the pirates take whatever they like. Instead of figuring out a good reason for the crew not to surrender, Reynolds turns his pirates into reavers.

We see it a third time in the Victorian sexism plot. Since the protagonist is nearly an adult, her father wanting her to stay home shouldn’t be a major issue. To make that conflict important, Reynolds invokes tropes that simply don’t fit in this far future setting. In this case, I wouldn’t be surprised if Revenger started out as Victorian steampunk and was revised into far future space opera somewhere along the way.

Just like plot and character, plot and setting must work together to create a greater whole. If the setting’s integrity must be compromised for the plot to work, then something needs to change. The setting can be changed to better accommodate the plot, the plot can be revised so it fits with the setting, or there can be a mix of both. Ad hoc compromises might solve the immediate problems, but they create deeper ones that undermine the story’s foundation. That’s actually a pretty good summation of Revenger’s worldbuilding: rich and deep at first glance, but increasingly broken the closer you look.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    If the story had started out as Steampunk, that would actually explain a couple of things (such as the radio range). Why not keep it Steampunk, then? Steampunk is still cool (it is, isn’t it?).

    I do like the setting, because it would work wonderfully for a series – you can have a lot of different stories in this setting, because every world will be different. Yes, there’s the holes in the setting which might get weird, but this is a space opera, not hard scifi.

    It’s fun that this comes at a time when I’m reading two collections of Steampunk Sherlock Holmes stories, because all of them I’ve read so far (they’re all pretty different, since each is by another author) have a lot of interesting parts and seem better put together than this book. Currently, I’m in one where Victorians have conquered the moon (The Moooooooon!), whereas before it I had one where it was all about industrial espionage.

    • GeniusLemur

      Maybe the author heard/was told by their agent/was told by their publisher that steampunk was passe, but space opera was hot, and rewrote accordingly?

      • Cay Reet

        Possible.

        Yet, in this case, they would have had to rewrite more severely than they did – like completely taking out that ‘keeping the MC drugged’ plot (which makes more sense in a Victorian Steampunk setting than in a space opera). Not to mention that in a Steampunk setting on earth, a short-range radio and a mysterious long-range device (those skulls) makes sense, but in a space setting where space travel is old, someone would have invented long-range radio.

  2. Faoladh

    To be sure, it is quite possible—and necessary—to use a form of tacking with solar sails. Here’s an article from a wiki specifically about solar sails which discusses the matter. There’s also discussion of the process on Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets pages, surely the definitive online discussion resource of future space technology for writers, worldbuilders, and the like.

  3. Crovet

    I really missed this series of posts, it has been months since the last one. As a worldbuilding enthusiast, i really appreciate these analyses.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    With respect to space sails that can thrust towards the sun, a better idea is magnetic sails as opposed to the more traditional photon ones, because you can run the magnetic field to be either attractive or repulsive. While an attractive field requires more energy to run, it has the advantage of allowing you to travel towards the sun rather than merely away from it. The other option based on solar thrust would be gravity slingshots around planets to change your direction back into the inner solar system while getting a slight speed boost, but I take it this setting doesn’t have planets that would allow this in the first place. Space sails also have acceleration that is only good when compared to ion engines, at least when using natural sources.

    This does lead to the best option when using space sails, which is to use artificial sources of thrust instead of natural ones. A network of lasers around the solar system could easily allow quite rapid travel, due to the concentrated thrust when compared with the sun. This would also serve as a more useful purpose to their bone reading, in which they can use it to communicate with the laser stations rather than just communicating with other ships. It would make the character that is capable of this truly the most vital person on the ship. This could also help explain why such valuable resources are still untapped, as there are locations that are more risky given spotty laser coverage in certain areas.

  5. Abs

    Hey, uh, you can use a solar sail to move closer to a star, tacking (angling a mirror so as to reduce your orbital velocity and reduce your aphelion) is a standard and viable manoeuvre and solar sails wouldn’t be in use irl as a method of propulsion if you couldn’t.

  6. Jeppsson

    I count myself as a big Reynolds fan. Only thing I’ve read by him and just didn’t like is ”Terminal World”, which had a cool world (though with tech that seemed more magic and weird than his usual hard sci-fi), but no working plot. Haven’t read this one, though.

    And I’m surprised to read about the sexism issues! One thing I appreciate with Reynolds is that he normally has lots of female characters (some non-binary ones also pop up in the Poseidon’s Children series), but they’re just written like people, and he doesn’t make a deal out of their gender.

    Maybe he should stick to settings a few centuries off? Because come to think of it, that’s one thing uniting the fairly dark Revelation Space universe and the somewhat lighter Poseidon’s Children universe, and those settings contain all those novels and stories I really like, whereas Terminal World was supposed to be waaay off in the future.

  7. Prince Infidel

    This book sounds interesting, but the setting sounds very familiar. Most of the details described sound a lot (& I do mean A LOT) like the Starjammer setting for Dungeons & Dragons. Even the cool name for their space vehicles is similar.

    That isn’t inherently bad per se, but it does detract from the novelty of the setting for me.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah, in retrospect it does seem a lot like Starjammer. I haven’t read much of that setting so I didn’t think much of it.

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