Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds

SlowAll readers enjoy a book at bedtime, the warm and comforting web of words which send the reader off to gentle sleep, whether it is a timeless fairy tale read to children, a familiar story revisited or the latest adventure with a favourite character, spending time catching up before lights out to wake refreshed and ready to face the challenges of a new day.

There is no such comfort for Scurelya Timsuk Shunde, a soldier in a war built on ancient grudges, factions splintered from ancient religious ideology. Captured in battle in the Wembere system by a notorious war criminal of the opposing faction, she is tortured by him, a slow bullet placed in her body without anaesthetic, then abandoned, left to die in agony.

But Scur is stubborn, fighting to the last, tearing her own leg open in order to remove the bullet before it kills her even as she passes out from the pain. When she awakes she is in a strange place, alive, her wounds apparently treated, in a place she does not recognise but soon ascertains to be a vessel, a skipship serving as carrier for prisoners of war awaiting processing and war criminals awaiting trial following the ceasefire.

Released from her hibernation berth by automated emergency process, Scur realises there is something very wrong on the ship where the awakening soldiers of both denominations far outnumber the crew, the windows show a planet which does not match their intended destination and, as the service technician with whom she forms a shaky friendship confirms, the navigation beacon network is gone, the universe beyond them silent. “If anyone was thinking of rescuing us, they’d be here already.”

A standalone novella from Reynolds unconnected to any of his previous works, It is ironic that while he has always avoided faster than light travel in his previous stories that now he has finally taken the step it has gone disastrously wrong for those carried by the prison ship Caprice and the result is the same as if they had done the transit in a more traditional lighthugger, displacement in space and time.

Hibernation during interplanetary transit had been a major plot thread in the backstory of Reynold’s 2001 novel Chasm City and it works out no better for those aboard the Caprice than it did for those unfortunates of the Santiago. Trapped on a semi-derelict hulk, the extent of the damage only becomes obvious the more the survivors explore, the computer systems failing in a drawn out death as vital functions are reallocated to long term storage, overwriting the archive material which should remain in the core, art, literature, textbooks, the history of their people, even the holy books which started the war in the first place.

It’s a race against the encroachment of the coming darkness of ignorance, knowledge gathered over centuries about to be wiped by degradation of the Caprice‘s systems but the violence of their previous divisions is still with them, and soon enough religion is taking hold, the burden of a history which is no longer relevant and which will kill them sooner or later if they continue to carry it.

Told in less than two hundred pages of large print, Slow Bullets feels curtailed, a synopsis of a much larger story bursting to escape as Scur tries to organise a grudging peace between the different factions at the same time as organising personal revenge, believing that the man who brutalised her is hiding somewhere within the darkened chambers of the Caprice.

With so much to cover in a brief time much of the text is necessarily expositional, but when he gets going Reynolds is never afraid to dump a terrifying conceptual image on the page, a threat unlike any he has presented before: “She’s trying to describe something language isn’t made to describe, something huge and alien.”

With aspects of the story recalling the free people of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, each of them carrying something precious and unique which would otherwise be destroyed, despite being a soldier who has been captured and tortured Scur still thinks well of people, realising that the enemy is not necessarily those who represent the opposing army but those on either side for whom it is a pleasure to burn rather than to build.

Written after the publication of On the Steel Breeze but before he commenced work on the concluding volume of Poseidon’s Children, Poseidon’s Wake, and contrasting the optimistic explorations of that trilogy, Slow Bullets is a big story which would have required considerable further development to support a full novel; that Reynolds is happy to release it in this form indicates he already has much bigger ideas in the pipeline.

Slow Bullets is released in early June

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