Slow Bullets

Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2017)

This seems to stand alone from any other Reynolds novels, but the future is immediately familiar: the narrator, Scur, is a foot soldier in a far-future war, forced to fight for a cause she cares nothing about. It’s the kind of war where there is no right or wrong side; a disinterested external observer could barely slip a cigarette paper between the two. All this is back story to the point where Scur is captured and tortured sadistically by someone from the other side. And then … Scur awakes on a badly damaged starship.

Somehow Scur was rescued, and patched up, and put on the ship in hibernation along with a thousand-odd other sleepers, for repatriation. Somewhere along the way the ship suffered severe damage. It crept to its original destination, but enough interesting things have been going on in the galaxy for the destination – in fact, for everything – to have changed significantly, and a very long time has passed. The only memories of the war, and the motivations for fighting it in the first place, survive in the heads of the people on board the ship.

Scur accidentally becomes a leader in the new ship-born society. Discovering that her torturer is also on board is just one of the problems that face her, but it serves as the catalyst for the main theme of the story.

A telling sign of bad science fiction (which this isn’t) is that a passing character can immediately fill the hero – and hence the viewers or readers – in on all the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of their society, as though your average Brit can immediately discourse on how our present constitutional monarchy has roots in Cromwell and the Restoration, or your average American can wax lyrical on how the political philosophy of Montesquieu on separation of powers ended up in the US Constitution. Scur is a handy and realistic corrective to this. She has a basic citizen’s understanding of how things are, but very little of why and what should be. And it’s coloured, of course, by having been caught up in a war that had no real purpose in the first place and which has brutalised the civilisation out of her. She, and her shipmates, essentially have to learn how to be civilised again, working it out from first principles.

The slow bullets of the title serve the same function as a soldier’s dog tags but are considerably higher tech. They are injected into the body, then (generating their own anaesthetic) work their way deep into the body core to make themselves as secure as they can. They contain the soldier’s biographical data and anything else that might come in handy. A handy breakthrough in the plot comes when Scur realises that as networkable computing devices, they can process data and hence act as a surrogate for the ship’s own fried network – though for some reason that is never really explained, they still need to be introduced into the user’s body first before they will work.

But they also represent the slow bullets that hit the characters and the readers as the story progresses. The realisation of shared and regained humanity; the preferability of civilisation over anarchy, for all the latter’s superficially appealing advantages of guilt-free vengeance and the rule of force.

This is a Locus Award winning novella, according to the cover, so you go in with reasonable expectations and are not disappointed. From a purely commercial point of view, paying the same sort of cover price for approximately 30,000 words as for a full-blown Reynolds novel may seem a bit steep – but that’s the harsh reality of publishing economics and not the author’s fault. Pound for pound it delivers everything that you normally expect from a Reynolds work, and is a necessary antidote to far too many power fantasy space operas.