Friday, March 13, 2020

Birthday Review: Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds

Today is Alastair Reynolds' birthday. Last year I presented a collection of my reviews of his short fiction, so here instead is a review, from my old blog, of his second novel, Chasm City.

I have a copy of Alastair Reynolds' second novel, Chasm City, just out in England, for review at SF Site.  (Presumably it won't be published in the US until next year: his first novel, Revelation Space, published last year by Victor Gollancz, has just recently been published in the States.) Like Revelation Space it is very long (in this case over 260,000 words), and it is set in the same future.  Chasm City is the main city of the planet Yellowstone, which orbits Epsilon Eridani.  Some 7 years prior to the action of the book, it was devastated by the Melding Plague, which destroyed the nanomachines on which much of the high-tech infrastructure depended.  This places it some time prior to most of the action of Revelation Space.  (That book had a couple of threads on Yellowstone, one a flashback to decades prior to the Melding Plague, and one occurring a few years after the action of Chasm City. Most of Revelation Space is set still a few decades later, however.  Because travel in Reynolds' universe is restricted to sub-light speeds, and because his novels feature characters going between star systems, they tend to take place over long time frames.)  Tanner Mirabel comes to Yellowstone from Sky's Edge (a planet of 61 Cygni A -- it's nice to see all these classic SFnal star systems: Delta Pavonis also figures in Revelation Space), looking to kill Argent Reivich, who had killed the woman Tanner loved. 

The story unfolds in three threads, all nominally from Tanner's POV.  The first thread takes place over a rather short period in Chasm City as he looks for Reivich.  Another tells, in flashbacks, of Tanner's association with the arms dealer Cahuella back on Sky's Edge, and Cahuella's wife Gitta, and Reivich's attempt on Cahuella's life (in revenge for Cahuella supplying the weapons that killed Reivich's family), which led to Gitta's death.  Finally, Tanner has apparently been infected with an "indoctrination virus", which implants memories of Sky Hausmann, the sometimes revered, sometimes hated, last Captain of the first ship to reach Sky's Edge.  As those memories return to Tanner, at first in dreams, later more insistently, he learns a somewhat different, much stranger, story of the journey of the colonizing generation starships from Earth to 61 Cygni.

This is a better novel than Revelation Space, but it does have faults. First the good stuff: it's full of neat SFnal ideas, not necessarily brilliantly new, but very well realized: the generation ships (treated rather differently than usual in SF), some genetic technology, some alien ecosystem stuff, even a hint of a communication system reminiscent of the Dirac Communicator in James Blish's "Beep".  It sets up expectations for a pretty spectacular closing revelation, tying together the three threads, and pretty much delivers on those expectations.  The resolution had elements that I expected, and were nicely foreshadowed, plus elements that were a great surprise, but which still worked for me.  Thus, I'd say, that in terms of large-scale plot and setting, the book works very well.  As for the prose, it is sound, serviceable, hard SF prose: nothing impressive, but not too clunky either. The faults, then, lie in some small-scale plot elements, and in characterization. The plot, particularly Tanner's attempts to find Reivich, depends on a lot of implausible coincidence, or luck, or super-powerful characters who still don't kill their rivals when reasonably they should, or secret organizations suddenly being penetrated by little more than brandishing a gun in the face of underlings.  More tellingly, the characters are a bit undermotivated, and they are pretty much all evil and violent, but not really presented in such a way.  More than several times, we are told that such and such a character, single-mindedly bent on killing several other characters, is really not bad and is justified in so doing.  This seems to represent an awfully cynical view of humanity: everyone is purely out for number one, everyone is pretty much ready to kill anyone in their way.  Most particularly, the main character or characters (we can include Sky Hausmann), are objectively quite villainous, yet presented (well, not Sky, but Tanner) as quite sympathetic, in a way that doesn't really work.  Particularly as Tanner seems to have little enough trouble getting women to fall in love with him.  I should say that to an extent Reynolds gives explanations of some of these things (which it would be a spoiler to reveal), but that I was still not convinced.

On balance, though, a pretty impressive book.  The faults are the faults of much SF, especially hard SF, and the virtues are the virtues of the same sort of SF.  It doesn't, then, transcend its subgenre at all, but it does do very well within those boundaries.  And for a long book it reads smoothly enough, and keeps the interest.

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