SLOW BULLETS by Alastair Reynolds.
Gollancz, London. 16th February 2016. £12.95 paperback, £6.99 e-book.
182 page. ISBN: 978-1-473-21842-0
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan.
There is almost a sub-genre of SF which deals exclusively with war scenarios. These might be between aliens and humans or between human colonies. As with all these adventures, various assumptions are made, one of which being a method of interstellar travel which gets ships from one place to another quickly. There is no point in sending out the troops when the enemy may have extinguished itself before the force arrives. Readers don’t worry about the technology involved; it is the action that counts, and the number of corpses that results. This is not normally the territory that Alastair Reynolds usually ventures into so it is refreshing to find that in this novelette, this is just the background against which the characters have been shaped.
As the story opens, a ceasefire has been declared. The factions are no longer officially at war. Always, though, there are renegades who will push the limits, feigning ignorance about the actual state of affairs, simply because they enjoy what they do and don’t see why they have to stop. Orvin likes hurting people. On the cusp of peace he has captured Scur, a soldier from the other side. He knows all about her because all soldiers are fitted with slow bullets. These devices are a futuristic version of dog tags. They contain all information about the person they are inside and it can easily be read. Normally, they move at a very slow speed through the body so that the tissues are barely disrupted. Orvin’s method of torture is to insert one going faster and causing excruciating pain during its passage. When Orvin has to leave in a hurry she has the opportunity to try and cut it out.
This is just a precursor to real action and an introduction to the device which is to play an essential part in the plot. Scur wakes up aboard a military prison shop. She and the other ‘passengers’ are being transported as cargo to Tottori in hibernation. What initially seems to be a simple problem with the ship becomes more serious as she and the remnants of crew discover that they have been drifting in orbit for hundreds of years, that all the surviving sleepers are being revived. Amongst them are war criminals from both sides, as well as civilians, and to them the reasons (basically very trivial) of the conflict are clear in their minds as well as the hatred for their perceived enemies. Among them is Orvin. Scur and her new colleagues have multiple problems to solve if they are to survive, the biggest one is to overcome the problem that the ships systems are slowly leaking information and they need to find ways of preserving it. To do that a compromise needs to be found so that the different factions are able to work together.
In this book, Reynolds wraps a number of themes in a relatively few pages. Some of them will feel like familiar tropes from the SF catalogue but it is the way that he deals with them that is original. For those who do not want to face one of Reynolds’ huge tomes as an introduction to his work, this a good place to start to get an idea of his style and ingenuity before embarking on such as Revelation Space series. Then get stuck in to the rest of his oeuvre.
Originally published in 2015 as a chap-book by Tachyon Press, it has already accumulated a number of well-deserved awards and nominations.