Sunday, January 3, 2010

Chasm City - Alastair Reynolds

I began last year's reviewing with an Alastair Reynolds review, I began Random Comments with an Alastair Reynolds review so I figured I might as well start 2010 with an Alastair Reynolds book as well. Not that he did anything to deserve it but apparently I associate his book with beginnings. Chasm City is his second novel and it's set in his Revelation Space universe. Unlike Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, which have to be read in that order, this book is a standalone and can be read without any prior knowledge of the Revelation Space universe. I enjoyed Chasm City tremendously. Had I finished it last year it would probably have been on the best of 2009 list.

When we meet Tanner Mirabel he has quite a history as a soldier, mercenary and security specialist behind him. His planet, Sky's Edge, has been at war pretty much since its colonization and is considered something of a backwater by it's neighbours. Technology is behinds centuries if it doesn't have military applications. Tanner is not interested in the war though, he is on a manhunt. His target is a local aristocrat who's family has been wiped out using weapons Tanner's boss Cahuella sold to a third party. That they were not intended for Reivich's enemies is no mitigating factor, a vendetta is born. Reivich has managed to kill Cahuella and his wife Gitta, whom Tanner sworn to protect. Tanner is still alive though, an oversight Reivich is going to regret.

His hunt takes Tanner to another system. When he he is woken from cryogenic suspension after a fifteen year trip he suffers from amnesia and despite a desire not to let the trail grow cold he is forced to take at least some time to recover. A virus created by one of the religious orders, or perhaps one should say personality cults, on his home planet is further complicating matters. It is engineered to inspire religious feelings in those who contract it by letting them relive the life of the object of their worship, a man named Sky Haussmann, in their dreams. Tanner struggles to regain his memory and keep Haussmann's personality at bay but his objective remains clear. He needs to find Reivich.

What struck me most about this book is the vast improvement in the writing. Reynolds' first novel Revelation Space was a good read but it had some pacing problems as well as a number of awkward dialogues. There is no trace of that in Chasm City. It is something of a different beast though. Where Revelation Space is a space opera with a large scope and equally large cast, Chasm City is basically Tanner's story. If you're a big fan of Space Opera five hundred pages on one main character may be a bit too much.

For me Tanner was a great character however. I can't go into too much detail without major spoilers but Tanner certainly faces some stiff challenges in this book. The combination of amnesia combined with the viral infection making hem relive another man's life turn his life into a struggle to maintain his identity. On top of that he is dropped into a strange environment without preparation. Certainly, he has heard of Chasm City and its orbiting band of Demarchist habitats a place of wonders, decadence, vast riches and advanced technology. By the time he arrives the melding plague, a major plot element in the Revelation Space trilogy, has struck and the Glitter Belt has been renamed Rust Belt.

Chasm City has changed beyond recognition. With all advanced technology failing the city has had to rely on simpler and older forms of technology to keep the planet's hostile environment at bay. The city is largely powered by steam engines powered by the rising heat and gasses from the planet's interior. The buildings, once infused with technology have taken on grotesque forms. It gives the whole city a bit of a steampunk atmosphere. Even if Tanner hits rock bottom in a city where the rich live in the clouds, we don't quite get to see the hard, dark place Scorpio remembers in later books.

Before turning to writing full time, Reynolds worked for ESA. His expertise in physics and astronomy clearly shows in his books. Chasm City does not contain quite as much technical details as other books I have read by Reynolds. In part this is because the story does not have quite so much space travel in it. The scenes we see of Haussmann's live contains most of the science I suppose. In the Revelation Space trilogy the physics got sufficiently exotic that I was unable to distinguish it from technobabble at some points, only to find out later that there was indeed a theoretical basis for it. In Chasm City Reynolds goes easy on us. Not that there isn't still quite a bit of physics hidden here and there in the book, but a lot of science is more biology and physiology. Things I find easier to understand at the intuitive level.

I have a few of Reynolds novels still on the to read list but at the moment Chasm City is the best of the bunch I have read. A standalone but set in his best known setting, this novel is also a very good place to start if you haven't read any of his books. Not quite as dark as some of his other books, it does still incorporate a suspense/mystery element as well as a lot of hard science fiction and closer look at one of his most interesting locations and it's society. If you only read one Alastair Reynolds novel, Chasm City has to be it. A highly recommended read.

Book Details
Title: Chasm City
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 524
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-441-00912-3
First published: 2001

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