Alastair Reynolds is best known for his sprawling and complex space opera novels, yet I've always been impressed by his short fiction. So when the folks at Tachyon Publications offered me an early read of his upcoming novella, Slow Bullets, I was happy to oblige! Somehow, even with a much lower wordcount, the author is always able to come up with something that packs a powerful punch. And I'm pleased to report that the same can be said of his latest work.
Here's the blurb:
From the author of the Revelation Space series comes an interstellar adventure of war, identity, betrayal, and the preservation of civilization itself. A vast conflict, one that has encompassed hundreds of worlds and solar systems, appears to be finally at an end. A conscripted soldier is beginning to consider her life after the war and the family she has left behind. But for Scur—and for humanity—peace is not to be. On the brink of the ceasefire, Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal, and left for dead in the ruins of a bunker. She revives aboard a prisoner transport vessel. Something has gone terribly wrong with the ship. Passengers—combatants from both sides of the war—are waking up from hibernation far too soon. Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognizable. And Scur will be reacquainted with her old enemy, but with much higher stakes than just her own life.
As stated above, Reynolds is known for his long and imaginative science fiction novels exploring various themes through multiple characters over convoluted story arcs. The novella format precludes something on such a grand scale, but that doesn't mean that Slow Bullets cannot be vast in scope and vision. True, the setting is more or less limited to what is essentially a closed society trapped aboard a damaged ship. But trust Reynolds to have a few tricks and unexpected surprises up his sleeve. Something went terribly wrong and everyone on board came out of hibernation far into the future, and they may not have that much time to try to find a way to repair the disabled vessel before it's too late.
The somewhat dark and melancholy tone sets the mood perfectly, and one gets the feeling that this won't be one of those "all's well that ends well" kind of tales. The story is told from Scur's first-person narrative. She proves to be an engaging main protagonist, if a sometimes unreliable narrator. She tells her story is a very dispassionate fashion, and yet you realize that she isn't always telling us everything. It's unclear whether or not Scur really suffers from widespread memory loss, and she appears to want to keep her dark past hidden from the reader.
Slow Bullets explores a number of themes such as religion, identity, and memory. Deep down, the novella is a reflection on how our personal memories shape our own identity and make us who we truly are. There is continuous suspense, as it dawns on everyone aboard the ship that their days might be numbered. Soon, they must make the decision to abandon their own pasts, their memories, and by doing so their own identities, in order to build any sort of future for mankind.
What starts off as a tale of revenge and survival evolves into something more poignant, more satisfying. Slow Bullets demonstrates yet again that great things do indeed come in small packages. This novella should please Reynolds' long-time fans and offers a good jumping point for newbies wanting to give this author a shot.