Monday, May 25, 2015

Slow Bullets - Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds has been producing novels at a steady pace now since the turn of the century. He's also written quite a few pieces of short fiction. Slow Bullets is a new novella, published by Tachyon in June. The publisher was kind enough to provide me with an advance copy. It looks like they decided to keep with the old cover style. His UK publisher Gollancz recently changed the cover style for his novels. They kept the font but the dark covers have been dropped. Slow Bullets is uncut space opera and doesn't appear to be related to any of his other works. I also found it to be light on physics that are included in many of Reynold's other works. It could be considered a good starting point for readers wanting to explore his works.

An interstellar war is coming to an end but the fighting is confused and not quite finished. Scur, a soldier recruited against her will, finds herself in the hands of the enemy. Word of a ceasefire has reached them but the enemy soldiers are not quite done settling scores. When Scur's side comes looking for her, they are forced to cut their fun with her short and leave her to die. When Scur wakes up, she is healed and on board a spaceship. When she gets out of her pod, it is clear things are not right. She spots a group of people in pursuit of one of the crew members and decides to act. A decision with far-reaching consequences.

Slow Bullets feels like a story that grew in the telling. Reynolds puts in enough material for a novel and at one point, quite abruptly cuts off a few storylines so he can focus on the one of the main character. Reynolds has his reasons to do this but when I had finished it, I was left with the feeling that I had read a condensed novel rather than a novella. As such, it is structurally not the prettiest novella you'll ever encounter. Reynolds himself did better with Troika for instance. Or Diamond Dogs for that matter. Some of the things Reynolds didn't pursue in the story make me wonder what a novel about the inhabitants of the ship would have looked like.

The stuff he does deal with is very recognizably Reynolds though. It's space opera on a large canvas. Interstellar war, advanced space ships, and aliens that are so far removed from human experience as to be incomprehensible. The only thing that is missing really is the exotic physics that show up in many of his works. Which might indeed have been a bit too much for such a short work. The descriptions of the aliens reminded me a bit of the unfolding proton Cixin Liu comes up with in his novel The Three-Body Problem.

The entire novella is told from the point of view of Scur, who is also the narrator of the story. What she is mostly concerned with, besides surviving, is passing on knowledge. The ship they are on is slowly losing memory. It contains a vast amount of knowledge. More than can possibly be stored by more old-fashioned means. How to survive is not the real dilemma she faces. They have more than enough resources for that. What to take with them is the real issue. These people are from a time when information is stored in huge quantities. All the soldiers on the ship carry a storage device in their body that registers their exploits. To be reduced to writing or rely on memory is to give up a large part of their past and identity. For Scur, who has accepted the fact that she will not return to her old home again, this is the ultimate sacrifice to be made for survival.

Reynolds raises an interesting point here. With our increasing reliance on digital data storage, several experts have been warning in recent years that we are facing a huge loss of data. How long before our CD-ROMs or DVDs no longer work? How long before the software to process them is no longer available for the newer machines? Digital storage has advantages, especially in terms of physical space required and the possibilities for quick data retrieval, but it is vulnerable in its own way. Then again, is it really so bad  if we lose all the nonsense people are putting on their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds? Or the bazillion hazy holiday pictures quickly snapped with a crappy digital camera? Does losing that profoundly affect your identity? There is data and data, as Scur soon realizes. What to save when storage capacity is limited is another question that bugs Scur. Especially because the inhabitants of the space ship are from different worlds, with different world views and religions. A choice that is bound to cause conflict.

Perhaps it is fitting that Scur falls back on the oldest form of storytelling for her tale. She appears to tell it from memory. It is rough in a way, lacks detains in some places, but does manage to convey Scur's thoughts and emotions very effectively. A sharp contrast with the accurate data storage and rational analytic tools the ships computer works with. Having Scur tell the story this way is in effect a very interesting twist on the unreliable narrator technique.

Slow Bullets is a very enjoyable novella. Reynolds makes some bold choices over the course of the story and not everybody will like those. In the end I think it turned out quite well. The novella does not quite have the beauty of some of Reynold's other novellas but in a way the rough structure fits the story. It is different enough from much of Reynolds' other works that it will be interesting reading for people who have read his novels, but also contains enough recurring elements that to make it a decent entry point for new readers. It might not be the very best Reynolds has produced but it is not that far off either. You could do worse than pick up this novella.

Book Details
Title: Slow Bullets
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 192
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61696-194-7
First published: 2015

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