A cause greater than revenge, love, or recollection (4/5)
I’ve been a big fan of Alastair Reynolds ever since 2007 when I spent twenty days reading through the entire Revelation Space trilogy: Revelation Space (2000), Redemption Ark (2002), and Absolution Gap (2003). Since then, I’ve read nearly everything the man has written, minus the Dr. Who novel and the sequels to Blue Remembered Earth (2012), which is also the last novel of his I’ve read. I was certainly eager to return to the mind of Reynolds, ripe with noir space horror.
Though much of Reynolds’ work is rather lengthy, Slow Bullets is a slim volume on par with a novella (a little less than 40,000 words). Its compact size doesn’t leave out any of the expectations associated with Reynolds’ work—a combination a distant future humanity, a large-scale war, the gritty reality of the grassroots, and greater mysteries of Man.
Typically, when I read a book’s synopsis that contains the words “vast conflict” or “conscripted soldier”, I immediately place the book back on the shelf; I’m not at all into novels glorifying soldiers or war (though some novels redeem themselves in one way or another). Thankfully, Slow Bullets doesn’t focus on the command structure of the military or the tactics of the battlefield; rather, the focal point of the story is on one solider, a woman named Scur, and her self-imposed parallel responsibilities of revenge upon her torturer and keeping peace and order.
A vast conflict, as stated above, between the Central Worlds and the Peripheral Systems had been drawn out yet comes to a near-end with the recently agreed upon ceasefire. News of the ceasefire, like their trans-dimensional skipships, takes time to cross space, which is unfortunate for Scur because she has just crossed paths with the notorious Orvin. His reputation is so bad, in fact, that both sides of the war would like to see him one. For scur, physical pain from her torturer is only the beginning of a pain that will stretch into her future and Man’s future.
All soldiers have slow bullets buried within them, a capsule safely embedded in their chests that hold data about their respective history, career, and family. These slow bullets burrow through skin, painfully, only to stop once it reaches its destination in the chest. It’s a necessary pain with anesthesia, but what Orvin has in store for Scur is an unnecessary evil: an un-anesthetized slow bullet shot burrowing, grinding, shredding through her thigh on its way to penetrate her heart. Her torture begun, the pain reels through her but her captors’ intentions are cut short when they flee from an oncoming raid, leaving her with the excruciating pain and certain death. Her one recourse: cut through her own flesh to dig out the slow bullet.
And so, the novella is off to a start like the draw of a whip; the snap of which comes when Scur awakens from hibo sleep in her capsule with no memory of having come aboard any ship. Much like on the battlefield, Scur adapts to the unfamiliar situation by assuming her role as scout, voracious for information. Her first opportunity comes in the shape of Prad, a man being chased through the corridors of the same ship. She comes to learn that she is a prisoner, a war criminal, on route to Tottori for a tribunal on her crimes, of which she is aware.
Prad is one of the members of staff on the prisoner ship Caprice, a massive ship converted from a luxury liner touring the stars. He savvy with the technology of the ship, all of which seem to be on the fritz. Together, they witness through the ship’s camera other prisoners waking up and fighting among themselves. Seeing the violence as senseless, Prad assists Scur in announcing that everyone should segregate themselves by their affiliation, one torus for each affiliation: Central Worlds’ soldier, Peripheral Systems’ soldiers, and civilians. She also organizes a council with representatives from each, thereby forming a Trinity with Scur as the temporary dictator; her first order of business: find and kill Orvin, the man who left her in pain and for dead.
Within Caprice, tempers are dampened by a shared dilemma: Why hasn’t anyone rescued them yet? Outside Caprice, a planet that resembles Tottori seems aged, rugged, and colder than it should be… and where are the industrial sectors of the great planet? Without the ubiquitous NavNet to suggest their location, without any timing device to suggest how much time has passed, without a shred of datum as to what has happened, the unwilling residents-cum-prisoners hold on to the threads of their tripartite union by their joint endeavors alone. While they look for Orvin, they also search for an additional passenger, an interloper from a docked spacecraft—merely a cramped, one-person capsule.
This plot builds steadily with Reynolds taking great care in applying his skill at pacing; variables in the story surmount while one truth after another are unknotted from the tangle… the when, where, and the why stagger the minds of Scur, the Trinity, and the captives—of time and space—within the Caprice. Once their joint projects conclude, tensions once again arise with the memory that differences ought to split and the differences ought to remain. Tentatively peaceful, the Trinity mulls solutions; Scur mulls over possible recourse for her own prisoner; and the Caprice mulls over its continual and progressive loss of data.
However, not all the dealt cards that lay facedown are reveled toward the end. Though only 190 pages, a great amount of detail is infused in Reynolds’ world-building. It isn’t unnecessarily over-detailed, nor are crucial factors in the frisson glazed over. One point of difference between the Central Worlds and Peripheral Systems is their belief in The Book, a semi-religious or cultural text that differs between the two sides; each has their own Book, each has their own allegiance. Atop this split in culture that divides the people aboard the Caprice, Scur straddles her own two-sided gulf between who she is and who she should be; this gorge of responsibility and identity deepens as she learns more of their shared plight.
Eventually, the “slow bullets” come back into play. Scur’s own military slow bullet holds pictures of her mother and father, so it symbolizes her connection with her past. Everyone else also has this connection to their own past. The ship’s data tablets can read information on the bullets and write information onto them. Scur’s greatest triumph is deciding her personal history and Man’s future, but this may not be a shared decision, nor may it placate the friction developing between the two sides, but Scur herself sees a selfless solution. As the narrator, she ends the novel with saying (190):
I called myself Scur. I was a soldier in the war.
I set my hand to these words.
These parting words and the final section of the novella offer a glimpse into her actions, her memories, and her motivations throughout the story. The conclusion isn’t a jolting twist, but it is a turn of finesse.