Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review - Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Short review: War turns to exile, and revenge turns into a quest to save humankind. Slow bullets are repeatedly used as a metaphor.

A terrible war
A ship of war criminals
Humanity's hope

Full review: Scurelya Timsuk Shunde was a soldier conscripted into the great war between Central and Peripheral over which Book was the right one. In the waning days of the war she was captured by a Central war criminal named Orvin and tortured. Her life is saved when a passing Peacekeeper transport scares Orvin and his followers away, leaving her to die. Instead of dying, Scurelya, now calling herself Scur, survives, intent on living so as to be able to make good on her threat to exact revenge against Orvin. And then everything changes, and almost everything that mattered before is swept away, leaving only the will to survive behind. Slow Bullets is a fairly short work, but it manages to pack an enormous amount of activity into its pages, in large part because even when you strip humans down to an almost raw survival situation, they are still messy and irrational creatures.

The novella takes its name from the implants the soldiers in the conflict carry inside of them, the "slow bullets" that serve as identifying devices encoded with the record of every soldier's background, service history, and other personal information. These devices are implanted under the skin and work their way into the recipient's rib cage, requiring life-threatening surgery to remove, and can apparently explode and kill their bearer under certain conditions. Orvin's method of torture involves painfully implanting a second slow bullet into Scur's leg and waiting for it to grind its way through her body until it reaches her chest and explodes, a particularly cruel means of execution. As he watches her die, he taunts her by destroying her copy of the Book, a religious text that apparently was the root cause of the war, although this seems to have little effect on Scur. It is only when Ovid panics that Scur is able to try to save her life with some impromptu self-surgery.

The primary shift takes place at the moment Scur begins to cut into her own leg to remove the offending slow bullet, when Scur's memories, and the story, leap to her waking up in a hibo capsule with a healed leg and no idea how she got there. As she explores her new environment, she meets up with and more or less saves a crew member named Prad - and then forces him to help her at gunpoint. It turns out that she is on a ship populated mostly with war criminals from both sides in the recent conflict who are being shipped across interstellar space for unclear reasons. As the story progresses, it turns out that the journey in the "skipship" has gone terribly awry: Prad cannot locate the normal navigational signals to identify where they are, and the ship's systems reset, so he cannot figure out how long their journey took. Not only that, the ship is malfunctioning, and while the ship's systems can keep its inhabitants alive for the foreseeable future, they are cannibalizing the vessel's long-term memory, progressively destroying the vast stores of information contained therein.

Scur uses some strong arm tactics to create an uneasy truce between the three factions on the ship, and then they learn the disheartening truth: The ship is in the right place, but the reason they could not recognize the planet they are orbiting is that they were lost for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The question becomes not merely one of survival, but what does survival actually mean. Is it enough for humans to survive if all of their art, science, history, and culture is lost? Soon the survivors accidentally stumble upon a project Scur hopes will unite them - carving the rapidly disappearing knowledge contained in the ship's memory banks into the walls of the ship, and although this will only allow them to preserve a tiny fraction of what is contained in them, it is at least some way to fight against the darkness.

But the troubles of the past follow Scur and her compatriots even centuries into the future. One of the first things erased from the ship's data banks were all copies of the Book - an action that Scur believes was not accidental, and suspects that Prad instigated. Unfortunately, the knowledge of the book is still stored in yet another databank: The memories of many of the former passengers on the ship, and when an anonymous individual inscribes the opening passages to their portion of the Book on the walls of the ship, old hatreds flare up and the ship's complement begins to fracture along religious lines. Some knowledge, it seems, is too dangerous to bring forward from the past. Reynolds is careful not to specify what is in either version of the Book, or to describe the differences between the two faiths, leaving it to the reader to fill in the blanks, but when Scur recalls her father telling her "many of their prophets are our prophets" it is all to easy to fill in the sometimes bloody disputes between, for example, Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, or Christianity and Islam. In response to the budding religious conflict, Scur takes a bold action and has the data on her slow bullet - the only record of her parents, childhood, and the rest of her past - overwritten with material from the dying memories of the ship, becoming in effect a living shell for a piece of her civilization's history.

This event brings the central metaphor of the story to the fore, a metaphor that recurs multiple times, and is delivered with the subtlety of a hammer blow. Each former soldier who has their slow bullet erased and then filled with data from the ship's eroding database becomes, quite literally, the bearer of their people's cultural legacy, as does every civilian who accepts a cleaned and loaded slow bullet from one of the soldiers who didn't survive the journey. But the people carrying a slow bullet aren't the only "slow bullets" in the story. Murash, who came from the planet below and hid away on the ship when she found she could not return, is her own kind of "slow bullet", imparting the information in her head to the nascent society of the ship's complement, telling them of the inscrutable aliens that wrecked human society, and thereby changing their view of the world. But Murash is only an accidental "slow bullet", whereas Orvin is intentionally transformed into one by Scur when she forces him down to the frozen planet to serve as a catalyst for rebuilding civilization. Eventually, the symbolism becomes incredibly heavy-handed when, in a scene set long after the events that make up the bulk of the book, Scur recounts how the ship had jumped through hundreds of systems and apparently dropped off one or two people on each to serve as a kernel about which that would could rebuild from its primitive degenerated state.

Slow Bullets has, at its core, a thoughtful idea about how little things can work big changes over time. Even the ship itself becomes a metaphorical "slow bullet" as it moves through space after being inscribed with thousands and thousands of lines of information. The problem with the book is that it takes that one idea and pounds it so hard that the reader comes away almost suffering from blunt force trauma. One almost wishes that this had been a longer work, so Reynolds could have dealt with the big idea in a more subtle manner, although that may have resulted in trying to stretch too little material into too many pages. As it is, Slow Bullets is a decent story with a well-drawn cast of characters, enough conflict to keep the story moving, and a centerpiece metaphor that is simultaneously perfectly on point, and also overused. But the story is also about how merely surviving - existing from one moment to the next - is not enough, and that is what saves it from being merely ordinary. The will to survive is driven by a cause, whether an intensely selfish and personal cause such as revenge, or an altruistic one like becoming the agent of the resurrection of human civilization. In a way, this story is like Scur: Interesting enough to be engaging, yet deeply flawed at the same time.

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