Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Book Review | Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

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.


It was a long war. A hard war. A sprawling war between hundreds of worlds, in which millions of lives were lost... and for what?

For all the usual reasons, really. Power. Pennies. Practicalities. Politics. But at bottom, words were what caused the war between the Central Worlds and the Peripheral Systems: the words of two essentially identical texts, precious as they proved to people on both sides of the divide.

But now the war is over.
There was a problem, though. The skipships were the only way to send messages as faster than light speeds, so it took time for the news to spread. To begin with, not everyone believed that the ceasefire was real. Even when neutral peacekeepers came in to our system, the fighting continued. (p.10)
Scurelya Timsuk Shunde, the not-entirely-reliable narrator of Alastair Reynolds' new novella, is a soldier captured after the close of this conflict by a man who takes pleasure in other people's pain.

For a time, Orvin is content to torture her, but as peacekeepers close in on his position, he shoots Scur with a slow bullet—a dog tag with onboard storage—that he's modified to make as horrible as possible:
"Normally there's not much pain. The medics use a topical anaesthetic to numb the entry area, and the slow bullet puts out another type of drug as it travels through your insides. It goes very slowly, too—or at least it's meant to. Hence the name, of course. And it avoids damaging any vital organs or circulatory structures as it progresses to its destination, deep enough inside your chest that it can't be removed without complicated surgery. But this one's different. It's going to hurt like the worst thing you've ever known and it's going to keep burrowing through you until it reaches your heart." 
Orvin let out a little laugh. "Why not?" (pp.14-15)
Scur doesn't expect to survive this evil ordeal, but she does. Just.

Later—exactly how long later I ain't saying—she awakens in a hibo capsule on a skipship packed full of prisoners of war. Immediately, one wonders: why is she among them? It must be a mistake. Either that or Scur isn't the telling us the whole story...

There are more pressing matters at hand, however, than Scur's indeterminate sincerity. Something's gone wrong, you see. The ship isn't where it's supposed to be, or when; it's drifting in deep space and unable to communicate the details of its strange situation—not because the necessary systems have been damaged, but because, in all the unfathomable vastness of the galaxy, there doesn't seem to be a single sign of life left.

That is assuming the readings are right—and they mightn't be. They were taken by Prad, an engineer pressganged into Scur's service who has every reason to deceive the war criminals on the skipship. But most of the other crewmembers who might've had a clue what to do died in their hibos, so Scur has to take his explanation on faith—just as we've had to swallow hers whole—the better to save the last remnants of the human race.

The last remnants of the human race are more interested in infighting, unfortunately, than in agreeing to disagree over their differences. And as if Scur didn't have enough to deal with, somewhere among them is a man who means to murder her. An old enemy, as it were.

Obviously, I'm talking about Orvin.

Slow Bullets represents an embarrassment of riches in its setting and its story, not to mention the many facets of the metaphor its telling title describes, which comes to mean misery, memory and more. It's a tremendously impressive novella in that sense; wicked ambitious... yet its beginning and ending—the mark it ultimately makes—depend to a certain extent upon the dynamic between our heroine and the aforementioned hellion.

Scur herself is fascinating from the start, beyond which she benefits from a healthy helping of development—and add to that the questions readers have to ask about her veracity. "You will have to take my word about these things," (p.10) she assets at the outset of the text. I didn't—not for a single frickin' minute—which led, inevitably, to a certain sense of tension. Orvin, unfortunately, is on the page so rarely that he can't hold up his half of the bargain, and when he is depicted, it's with a broad brush at best:
He was a big man, taller and broader than any soldier in [Scur's] unit. His skin was the colour and texture of meat. His face also seemed too small for his head. It was as if his eyes and nose and mouth were no quite in proportion to the rest of him." (p.11)
Make of that what you may. Me, I had Orvin figured for a villain from the first, and alas, that's all he ever is. As Scur says—albeit about another character—he "had been shaped for this one purpose, engineered like a tool to do one thing and do it properly." (p.124) In his defence, Orvin does indeed do one thing... but that's it for him.

To make matters worse, Orvin—or the absence of Orvin—is one of the more memorable characters in this narrative. The others are similarly slight, or thinner still. Prad, for instance, plays his supporting part so passively that he feels more like a font of information than a living, breathing being. All the same, I'd take him over the Trinity—the representatives Scur arranges to speak for the opposing forces that find themselves sharing the skipship—and they're meant to be major players.

In a standard short story, I dare say this lacking lot could come off okay, but in a novella approximately ten times the length of said, they drag down what is otherwise—and let me stress this especially—an excellent effort from one of British science fiction's finest.

The plot is punchy, stuffed full of surprises that speak to the text's deceptive depth, and deftly executed excepting an ending that feels unearned. Even better: the big, bold ideas Alastair Reynolds must be most known for come thick and fast—from the slow bullets themselves to a race of aliens made of mirror glass, there's more than enough to distract from the undercooked cast.


Slow Bullets
by Alastair Reynolds

US Publication: June 2015, Tachyon

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