Another trio of reviews for Alastair Reynolds’ “fast paced” SLOW BULLETS.
SLOW BULLETS is the latest release from the acclaimed sci-fi writer Alastair Reynolds. Released by Tachyon Publications, Slow Bullets falls outside of Reynolds’ usual publishing schedule, and this is reflected in its rather modest page count. While Reynolds’ shorter fiction output is often a highlight of my reading, I have never really been able to connect with any of his novel-length works. This was my main concern going in to this novella, but one that was ultimately unfounded: SLOW BULLETS captured my attention and did not let up until the ride was over.
SLOW BULLETS is an interesting novella, one that deals with very real topics that are present in day-to-day life. It’s a story that delivers on many counts, from its strong cast of characters, to the fascinating and barely touched-upon universe it is set within. I enjoyed this novella very much, and I’ve come away with a renewed interest in reading some more of Reynolds’ previous works.
One minute Scur is a soldier captured and tortured by a war criminal reviled by both her side and his, the next she’s waking up on a ship bound for a penal planet, only to find it’s thousands of years overdue. Scur, who has no idea how she wound up in hibernation with a bunch of people from both sides with little in common but their war crimes, has to find a way to meld the survivors into something besides a replay of a war long over. If that’s not hard enough on its own, it’s made considerably more difficult by the presence of her former tormentor, who’s very, very good at being very, very bad. Unlike most of Reynolds novels, this isn’t a doorstopper, but a fast paced 200 odd page adventure.
It’s a good story, quite up to the authors usual quality, and offers some new ideas on the “waking up unexpectedly on a starship” theme, as did Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three (2011), demonstrating that this field isn’t nearly played out nearly three quarters of a century after A.E. van Vogt’s “Far Centaurus" where crewmen arrive at Alpha Centauri after taking the slow route only to find that the universe wasn’t willing to wait for them to arrive.
The pace of the novella is never less than breakneck, even if the incidents being discussed don’t fit neatly into conventional action beats. Reynolds sketches the evolution of this unconventional, highly combustible society with a sure hand, eliding unnecessary detail while laying out the key components in stark detail. There’s no wasted space here, no digressions into pointless technobabble or infodump for the sake of showing off the world building. Indeed, even the slow bullets of the title get described as much by implication as by exposition, which can lead an unwary reader to assume they’re stumbled into a segment in an ongoing series. The fact that the ideas of the book are so big—the source and implications of the untimely ice age, the scale of the just-ended war, the questions of faith and memory and society that drive the action onboard ship – that it seems impossible for them to be given their due in something novella length. And yet Reynolds manages it while effortlessly sidestepping the more conventional questions one would expect him to have to answer—what happened to the ship, the larger details of the war—remain thoroughly sidelined. It is enough that things have happened, and SLOW BULLETS looks resolutely to the future instead of shoring up its universe’s past.
At its core, SLOW BULLETS is a hopeful book, a cry against the darkness of seeming inevitable destruction. Scur and her shipmates, against all odds, manage to create something in the midst of a scenario primed instead for bloody destruction, and they give freely of themselves to do so. The greater good is ultimately affirmed as something worth striving and sacrificing for, even if the personal cost is high. But that doesn’t mean it’s a happy or cheerful book, rather just an eminently worthwhile one.
For more about SLOW BULLETS, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover art by Thomas Canty.
Design by Elizabeth Story.