Friday, June 19, 2015

REVIEW: Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is one of my favorite science fiction authors, having discovered his excellent novels set in the Revelation Space universe about six years ago. His second novel, Chasm City, is probably one of my all-time favorites and I have basically read every single one of the dozen books he has put out (skipping the short story collections).

So while I'm waiting anxiously for the third and final book of his Poseidon's Children trilogy (following Blue Remembered Earth and On The Steel Breeze) to be released in the United States next year I was pleased to learn that there was a new work of fiction that was being released this year. It's called Slow Bullets and it's a novella (a short book, roughly 40,000 words). Thanks to the good people at Tachyon Publications, I was able to get my hands on a review copy and read it within weeks of its official release on June 9, 2015.

The blurb for Slow Bullets make it clear we are in for more of the thought-provoking hard sci-fi for which Reynolds is well-known:
From the author of the Revelation Space series comes an interstellar adventure of war, identity, betrayal, and the preservation of civilization itself.  
A vast conflict, one that has encompassed hundreds of worlds and solar systems, appears to be finally at an end. A conscripted soldier is beginning to consider her life after the war and the family she has left behind. But for Scur—and for humanity—peace is not to be. 
On the brink of the ceasefire, Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal, and left for dead in the ruins of a bunker. She revives aboard a prisoner transport vessel. Something has gone terribly wrong with the ship.  
Passengers—combatants from both sides of the war—are waking up from hibernation far too soon. Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognizable. And Scur will be reacquainted with her old enemy, but with much higher stakes than just her own life.

This blurb describes the set up of the story very nicely. As with most Reynolds' work, there is a lot more going on here than just the situation of a group of former combatants stuck on a crippled space ship.

I will try to review the novella without providing too many spoilers but if you don't want to know anything more about the story in Slow Bullets, I would suggest you stop reading at the end of the paragraph and read the book for yourself. As a Reynolds fan I would rank Slow Bullets below any of his Revelation Space books but right in the mix of some of his "middling" works (which for me would be Century Rain, House of Suns and Pushing Ice). The writing is strong, the story is interesting and one identifies and sympathizes with the situations the characters find themselves in.

Okay, for those of you still reading this review I'll get into more specifics. The main character of Scur is not someone I identified with. She (which is an interesting choice, even though there is almost no aspect of the character which appears to be gendered in any way) is a former soldier and since we get access to her inner thoughts, we know she has a violent nature. At the same time, she is always trying to make the best of a bad situation, and she tends to assume the mantle of leadership, which seems to be a good thing. The character I really enjoyed was Prad, the most technologically able member of the surviving crew (at least I guess he is, since we never hear from any other crew members). Together Scur and Prad organize the inhabitants of the ship Caprice into some semblance of a society.

However, the magnitude of their predicament becomes clear (the Caprice has been traveling for literally hundreds and, possibly thousands, of years) a sense of fatalism came over me as  the reader. Then we learn that not only have all the survivors been effectively transported forward in time so that everyone (and most societies) that they all came from have irrevocably lost, but that while the people on Caprice were in hibernation there was an apocalyptic first-contact event with an alien species that caused a galaxy-wide technological collapse known as the Sickening. The Caprice may literally be humanity's one remaining ship with interstellar capability, and it is rapidly losing its capacity to store data, and  within 1000 days basically all of the humanity's knowledge may be lost because the ship needs that storage space to operate effectively.

This last situation is just one of the many interesting philosophical dilemmas that one expects from Reynolds. What knowledge should be saved? Who decides? There is an interesting side plot about religion, in that the two warring factions (remember the Caprice was a prison ship with soldiers captured from both sides) each worship two slightly different versions of The Book, and when they realize only some knowledge can be saved, of course tension arises over what version of The Book should be preserved, or if more practical knowledge, like setting bone fractures should take precedence.

Overall, although I am not in the regular practice of reading novellas, I would still recommend Slow Bullets, especially for someone who is just getting their feet wet with reading "hard sci-fi" in the Reynolds mode. Don't let the term "hard sci-fi" scare you away either; I think this is a good place to start for anyone who likes science fiction, period, primarily due to its length, but afterwards I would strongly encourage you to pick up Chasm City or The Prefect.

Title: Slow Bullets.
Alastair Reynolds.
Paperback: 192 pages.
Date Published: June 9, 2015.
Date Read: June 19, 2015.

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).


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