Slow Bullets | Alastair Reynolds | 2017 (US: 2015) | UK: Gollancz; US: Tachyon Publications | 192p | Review copy | Buy the book
Mankind has settled vast numbers of solar systems but war between the Central Planets and the Peripheral Planets has torn humanity in two. Conscription and censorship are paramount, correct behaviour and morals are ensured by the insertion of a ‘slow bullet’ deep within the chest of each soldier. The bullet contains the memories and beliefs of that soldier – it is their identity. It is readable by the government who have the power, if the bullet is found wanting, to destroy it and its host.
Against all odds peace is breaking out but many on both sides are too entrenched in war to want it to end. Scur is one of the soldiers to be caught in the last outbreak, captured by the other side and tortured by one of its war criminals. But before death can claim her, Scur – and her torturer Orvin – is fetched aboard the Caprice, a prisoner transport starship, carrying war criminals and citizens from both sides. Unconsciousness claims her instantly but there comes a time when she and everyone else on the vessel wakes up, climbs out of their pods, and finds themselves in a whole load of trouble.
Slow Bullets might be a short read, under 200 pages, but it is full of grand themes and ideas. Lost in space, the crew and ‘passengers’ of the Caprice must make a society of themselves, learning to get along with those they would and could have killed just a short time before. Soldiers and civilians must find a way to get along and, just as importantly, keep the Caprice moving. There is a strong sense that humanity’s slate has been wiped clean, it is up to these war criminals to start afresh, to relearn their culture, to find things in common with their enemy, to move away from their dependency on the bullets which identify them for what they used to be in their previous life.
Scur is our narrator and she has a fascinating voice. It’s possible that she is not as reliable as she seems but as she talks directly to us, whomever we might be, it is clear that she wants to be sincere. But Scur is driven by thoughts of vengeance against Orvin. She carries the bloodlust of the past with her and it fights against her other side of peacekeeper. This conflict drives Scur on and we see it well through the eyes of Prad, a ship’s engineer, who plays an important role in holding the novella together, providing an impartial perspective that we can empathise with.
As you’d expect from an Alastair Reynolds story, no matter its length, there are shocks and surprises in store and some of them are great. In fact, they are so compelling that they made me wish that Slow Bullets were an awful lot longer. There is a force in this universe that I would like to learn much more about. I’d also like to spend more time with the ship as it ‘skips’ its way across solar systems.
The brevity of the novella meant I was left wanting more but that is a tribute to the imaginative powers and storytelling prowess of Alastair Reynolds, one of my very favourite writers who proves time after time why that is the case.
Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children 1)
On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children 2)
Poseidon’s Wake (Poseidon’s Children 3)