Review: Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds

Posted: June 16, 2016 in Book Reviews, Religion, Science Fiction
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Slow Bullets cover(Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds; Tachyon, 2015, 190 pp., $14.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

(mild spoilers to follow)

Before starting on the review proper, I should mention that, despite its page count, this is a novella, not a novel: I’d estimate that it only runs to about 47,000 words. To stretch this to novel size, the publisher used a not especially space-economical font (looks like Times Roman), fairly large type (looks like 12-point), wide margins, both headers and footers (which reduces the number of lines per page), and wide leading (space between lines — looks like 16 points). Put this in a more standard format with a more economical font, and it’d probably run to about 120 or 125  pages.

The story itself opens with its narrator and lead character, Scur, being tortured by a war criminal, Orvin, on a battlefield, after a ceasefire has been declared.  The story then quickly jumps to Scur awakening on a malfunctioning prison ship, the Caprice, orbiting an ice-bound planet. As she quickly discovers, the ship is filled with three classes of people, in addition to its small crew:, it contains war criminals and ordinary soldiers from both sides of the conflict, including Orvin, and a complement of civilian passengers. Once awake, Scur and Prad, a crew member and engineer, quickly discover that they’re cut off from the rest of the human-inhabited worlds and that they’ve been in orbit for at least several centuries.

Shortly after, the most significant problem with the ship’s malfunctions surfaces: it’s very gradually losing long-term memory, and there’s nothing that can be done to arrest the problem. So, what to do? One of the solutions is to begin physically engraving portions of the remaining knowledge into the physical surfaces of the ship.

At that point, the central conflict of Slow Bullets arises: the two sets of soldiers and war criminals hold to two varying versions of “The Book.” The two Books share common stories and characters, but parts of the Books differ considerably. They both contain good and bad ideas, good and bad commands — love your brother, but murder nonbelievers, etc. — and there’s little to distinguish true believers in either version: they’re both vicious fanatics. In other words, the less literally their adherents take the Books, the better, more humane people they are.

But what to do about the Books and those carving passages from them into Caprice’s walls? Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that I very much endorse Reynolds’ implied solution.

I also endorse his implied solution to past wrongs: forgive, forget, and work together to make a better world. And if you can’t forgive and forget, part company.

This takes us roughly halfway through Slow Bullets. Read it if you want to see how these conflicts work out.

There are problems with the book, though. One is the characterization. The primary character and narrator, Scur, is one-dimensional — always angry, extremely so. Thus it’s hard to buy her eventual, partial evolution. The secondary characters are little more than names, including the only other real character, Prad, who is so passive it’s again hard to buy.

Another problem is the introduction of malevolent, inconceivably advanced aliens, aliens so advanced that “language can’t describe” them. This is a problem because there’s no need for them. They serve a function in the text, but there are other obvious ways to fulfill that purpose without introducing this gratuitous, fantastical element. (The physical results would be different, but the essential moral/philosophical questions would remain the same, and the tale would be more plausible.)

Despite these problems, the virtues of Slow Bullets — the quality of the writing, the page-turner plot, Reynolds’ treatment of big issues — outweigh its defects.

Recommended.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover

 

 

 

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