Tachyon Publications / June, 2015 / Cover by Thomas Canty
Slow Bullets (2015) is a mystery, the kind where science is used to shed some light on the superbly engrossing puzzle presented and without devolving into technical minutiae. It’s also a character study of a group of humans trying desperately to retain whatever shreds of societal cohesion with which they find themselves, a nascent stability already stretched to near breaking point from the outset. At its heart, though, it is a story ultimately about memory and the preservation of knowledge.
While there isn’t much action to speak of, the pace moves along well and interest never wanes. There are moments where one keenly feels the efforts of a makeshift community trying not just to survive but also attempting to stave off a desolate sense of hopelessness. Their near-explosive apprehension for an uncertain future teeters on a fulcrum, dangerously balanced against an ad hoc political hierarchy subjected to ever mounting pressures. And the need for stability dictates that they secure something of themselves in the form of records, even incorporating methods that would have been easily comprehensible to the myth-making primitive man. At first, the records are of a more personal nature. Later, the information is pertinent for group survival, not just practicalities but also of culture.
The story itself is ‘fairly straightforward’: the background being a large scale interstellar war between two groups hinted to be tainted, in part, by religious motivation. A ceasefire is at hand, but the vast gulfs of space and time make for cumbersome, unreliable and tardy dissemination of news, so some skirmishes continue unabated. While the story starts planet-side, the bulk of it is set on a mysteriously deteriorating transport vessel. Narrated in first person, Scur is (was) a conscripted soldier parleying between two factions previously at war whilst ironically pursuing a vendetta against an individual responsible for her suffering during ceasefire.
The ‘slow bullets’ refer to data/memory repositories embedded within the bodies of soldiers, and the paradox of the phrase is fleshed out through a number of motifs in the narrative. Reynolds plays with the idea of memory and identity, showing that conflicts ultimately stem from differences in identity, itself rooted in various cultural constructs built up over memory. How to reconcile the two when we cling so dearly to them, especially in a form as volatile as faith? Reynolds offers a logical, yet profoundly unsettling solution: in dire straits, erase that which causes conflict to start anew. Whether we can wilfully accept such erasure when what we expunge is so fundamentally tied to our sense of self is altogether another matter, in spite of its otherwise strong, latent potential for conflict. This is partly illustrated by Scur’s struggle between her desire for vengeance and the necessity for compromise so as to rise to the call thrust upon her by circumstance for a greater purpose.
Reynolds reminds us again of his ever growing proficiency at balancing hard SF elements with his characters and the impressions of humanity his writing can evoke. Some truly fascinating concepts of cosmic magnitude are introduced in rudimentary form, but rather than exploring those, Reynolds decides to focus instead on the intensely human aspect of the story: the struggle to preserve civilisation against the force of entropy, that most implacable of enemies. As ever, Reynolds is adept at delineating the nuances of human psychology and motives, and he does so here with a greater intimacy and ethical poignancy than he’s previously displayed. What surprises is the presence of FTL. It’s a trope that Reynolds rarely indulges in, although the narrative does end up presenting justification for necessitating the mechanism.
Despite Slow Bullets being only novella length, there’s enough conceptual material here to have it fleshed out into a novel more than double its current size. A longer work would have allowed some of the grander themes and secondary characters to be treated with more than economical depth, yet its very compactness sharpens the work’s thematic focus and highlights the unreliability of a past and future when, to a significant extent, both individual and collective memory have been intentionally excised. Like Reynolds’ growing body of Merlin stories, one can only hope this tale is the first of more to come in this particular mise en scène that will expand on the cosmic themes briefly and so tantalisingly presented.
For anyone new to Alastair Reynolds, this short work is an excellent starting point to get a taste. And for those who have enjoyed his Pushing Ice, this story will hold appeal. It incorporates a similar vibe with scenarios that test the bounds of human perseverance and depict the indomitable spirit that impels us to strive on whatever the odds, because, really, that’s all we can ever do.
© 2015 Nirvan Jain
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.