Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 998
Reynold's debut novel is billed on its cover as "the first great science fiction novel of the century". Leaving aside pedantic dissections of this based on its date of publication, this is only a little over the top; it is one of the best attempts to combine hard science fiction with intelligent characterisation that I have read, and it contains a fascinating depiction of life a few hundred years in the future that is much more unlike our own than many writers ever manage.
The story starts off, as several science fiction novels have before, at an archaeological dig into alien artefacts from a vanished race. This is a fertile beginning, and related scenarios have produced wildly different stories (as Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Frederick Pohl's Gateway and Paul J. McAuley's Four Hundred Billion Stars testify). In this case, the Amarantin were a birdlike people who were wiped out by some kind of anomalous event in their star, but they have left tantalising clues that somehow a pre-technological people had actually mastered space flight.
The dig, run by the leader of a colony on the Amarantin planet set up for the purpose, runs into trouble when dissension among the colonists leads to a coup. This leader, Dan Sylvestre, is a member of a powerful family, who is, in the other main facets of the plot, being pursued by an assassin and by the crew of an Iain M. Banks - like spaceship who want him for the medical knowledge contained in a computer simulation of his father. (The relationship between Dan and his father is very complicated, and is central to the depiction of the main character.)
This excellent novel paints a convincing picture of a possible future, of some of the ways in which humanity might change. In five hundred years, people will be at least as incomprehensible to use as our way of life would be to an Elizbethan, but not many science fiction authors make much of this. Indeed, given the speed of current developments in the biological and computer sciences, the sort of advances depicted by Reynolds and their psychological consequences may well be with us sooner than this.