ALASTAIR REYNOLDS’S SLOW BULLETS opens with poetry and a war crime.
The poet is Giresun, the fictional poet laureate for the Central Worlds, one side in a bloody sectarian conflict. Although the novel’s narrator, a former soldier called Scur, fought instead for the Peripheral Systems (where reading the enemy’s “propaganda” was illegal), the poet was especially meaningful to her family and to the soldier herself as a link to long-lost loved ones.
The war crime is perpetrated at the conflict’s end: Scur grimly reports her own capture and subsequent torture by a group of renegade soldiers, led by the infamous war criminal Orvin. Though the details evoke a rape, the instrument of Scur’s torment is technological: the slow bullets that give the novella its name.
Readers unfamiliar with the larger body of the Reynolds’s work — a dozen novels and an impressive number of short stories, novellas, and collections — may be startled by the prose, which is disarmingly clinical, punctuated by instances of visceral phrasing. Some readers may find themselves thrown off balance by the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness — or by the abrupt shift in circumstances that immediately follows: Scur awakens on an apparently derelict ship, surrounded by feuding soldiers from both sides of the conflict, and with no memory of how she came to be there. Readers familiar with Reynolds’s work, however, will know that these two threads must be intertwined. Reynolds is practiced in tying together apparently unrelated elements, and by the end of the story, the text irrevocably links bullet and poet.
Reynolds is best known for the Revelation Space sequence, a loose collection of novels and short stories that chart humanity’s subluminal diaspora through the galaxy, and the more recent Poseidon’s Children novels, which explore successive generations of an influential family as humanity moves out through the solar system and beyond. His work also includes a number of stand-alone stories like Slow Bullets. Though Reynolds is an astronomer and sometimes praised as a writer of the science-fiction-as-grand-thought-experiment school, his writing rarely engages in the pedantry or technical explication that so much “hard” SF does. Instead, he places compelling characters in anxious circumstances and explores the intersection of future technology and age-old human drives. As a whole, his writing mixes spartan style, provocative ideas, and flashes of dark humor. Many of the thematic elements engaged here — the perversion of technology to serve the basest instincts, the difficulty of achieving a meaningful peace after war, and the isolating effects of travel between stars — he has first explored elsewhere.
Slow Bullets, however, marks a development in Reynolds’s writing. As a storyteller, we see him experimenting with both the form and manner of narrative. We come to understand that the text’s “flaws” (that it is often repetitive and sometimes obtuse) are deliberate artifacts of its narration, a glimpse into the inner workings of Scur’s mind and motivations. As a writer, we see a more overtly thoughtful work examining the philosophical, technological, and social issues of memory. Most immediately, Scur is haunted by memories of lost family, Giresun’s verse, and Orvin’s torment. The war criminal is hiding somewhere aboard the ship, and Scur’s quest for vengeance quickly draws in others. However, Orvin is not the only such criminal. With the exception of the hopelessly outnumbered ship’s crew and civilian population, all aboard are dressed identically, and although it is known some are honest veterans and some are prisoners, the ability to distinguish friend from foe and good from wicked is a separate problem of memory. The only record of who is who lies in the burrowing cyberware slow bullet each soldier carries inside, and even this is not infallible. More often, the survivors must rely on what others are willing to reveal about themselves to sort out the criminals, who the ship’s crew call “dregs.”
“I’m one of those dregs,” Spry said, surprising all of us with his frankness. “I’m perfectly happy to admit it. During the war I served under a superior officer who committed numerous acts against the laws of war. She executed soldiers without due regard for military process. She murdered civilians. So I killed her, and a number of men and women protecting her. That makes me a military criminal, by the laws of my own side. A traitor and murderer.”
“Do you regret what you did?” I asked.
“Only that I didn’t act sooner, and that I didn’t take down a few more of the fuckers while I was at it. I regret that I allowed some of them a relatively painless death.”
I decided that I liked Spry’s honest absence of contrition. I should have found it much harder to trust him if he had produced a show of remorse.
Through Scur’s quick intervention, a shaky détente is reached. However, the survivors face threats from not only one another, but also from the implacable collapse of the vessel’s systems, and, specifically, its memory storage. The ship is, both literally and figuratively, losing its mind. Marooned on the failing ship, Scur and her patchwork society undertake a desperate measure to fight against the inevitable loss of their shared cultural memory by carving the information into the ship’s bulkheads.
We had nothing that could mark a surface in the same manner as ink, but many tools that could scratch a line. So they took their slates, called up a record from memory, and engraved it into metal with sweat and muscle. […]
It was easy to be selective, in those early days. Most people were keen to preserve some record that was of personal significance. A memory of their homeworlds, or even the region or city that they held most dear. They could not go into any sort of detail, but this was a start, a tangible blow against the ship’s own forgetting.
This race to remember soon invokes memories perhaps better forgotten. When the words of one side’s religious text appear on the walls, it strains the fragile peace that has been forged. As a narrator, Scur repeatedly stresses that the two rival sects share prophets, tenants, and sometimes even scripture (significantly, the texts of both sides are referred to simply as “the Book”); however, the differences that exist between them are enough to incite bitter animosity. Though Slow Bullets reflects on the power of faith to incite violence, it is not anti-religious: it neither presents religion as inherently antithetical to rational science nor as a naïve relic of a primitive past. However, Reynolds chooses a narrator who, while connected to both faiths, believes in neither. Similarly, though the text examines the cycle of violence and the inability to move beyond conflict, it isn’t really about war or peace; instead, it examines the festering memories of old hatreds. For some, it may be difficult to see all of this as more than a heavy-handed critique of contemporary events. Though the parallels to long-standing conflicts in Ireland, the Middle East, and elsewhere are too clear to ignore, a reading as purely some sort of SF allegory is overly reductive.
The immediate dangers faced by the castaways obscure even grander threats. Prad, Scur’s ally among the ship’s crew, uncovers increasingly strange details of the ship’s circumstances in his quest to discover how the ship was marooned in the first place. In doing so, he finds increasing levels of catastrophe: to the ship and crew, to the world they orbit, to the society they left behind. Though Prad’s role within the narrative may seem contrived, it speaks to metatextual issues raised by Slow Bullets. Reynolds is often positioned at the forefront of the “new” space opera, a hazy region of fiction that revisits and reimagines the conventions of the Golden Age and New Wave SF movements. Were this an “old” space opera, the transcription effort — or any of the subsequent threats the castaways face —would force them to grudgingly abandon their grievances and come together, becoming a plucky and eccentric but functional whole. Obviously, this is not such a story. Indeed, Prad’s revelations systematically invoke the clichéd threats of space operas (the failing ship, the alien menace, the apocalyptic catastrophe, both the dangerous renegade and the hidden enemy, etc.) as potential resolutions to the survivors’ simmering tensions, only to show that each fails to allow them to move past their mutual animosity. Ultimately, the only hope for real peace emerges through Scur’s deeply symbolic and highly intimate act of sacrifice.
Like so much of Reynolds’s other writing, the message of Slow Bullets is ultimately ambivalent. Although Reynolds excels at weaving different threads together, his knots are convoluted, difficult things. Again, were this an “old” space opera, Scur’s exploits in unifying the crew and forging a tentative peace would be heroic. Instead, a twist or two at the end reminds the reader that Reynolds is too pragmatic to write anything so unequivocal. Slow Bullets is a story of revenge and redemption, high-tech problems and low-tech solutions, and the preservation of memory through surrendering the past — the failure to forgive but the possibility to forget.