‘Slow Bullets’ is the second of Alastair Reynolds’ novellas I’ve read recently, the other being ‘The Iron Tactician’ and, like that book, the scope of the tale comes across just as vast as his much fatter novels, with a sense of history and scale that place the tale as part of something far larger. In keeping with the size of this book, the action is limited to a single point-of-view character rather than multiple, interlocking strands. Scur is a soldier fighting at the tail end of a vast interstellar war who, instead of going home, awakes from a sleeping capsule on an interstellar ship full of soldiers and criminals in an unknown star system. She is soon thrust into the centre of the action in an attempt to stave off anarchy and discover where they are and why.
The story is written in the first person, with Scur as the narrator, and it’s obvious from the start that she is recording the tale for posterity, dropping hints that they will end up being on the ship for quite some time and that there will be no immediate and satisfactory resolution to their inexplicable exile. With a whole group of war criminals and soldiers mixing together, Alastair Reynolds sets things up for a very volatile situation, but Scur’s brevity of style, which is explained later in the story, means that not much time is spent on gratuitous detail. What we have instead is a picture of how these various factions, represented by a small group of main characters, come to terms with their situation and plan for their future.
The internal tensions of the ship are gradually supplemented by the discovery of new information about what has been happening in human space during the time Scur and the others were in hibernation. Some of the overall situation and background were similar to ‘The Iron Tactician’, starting with the derelict ship and continuing with other elements that would spoil the story were I to detail them here. It’s a very well constructed novella, though, building its own texture and history in a different direction to ‘The Iron Tactician’ and focusing on the conflicted character of Scur. The slow bullets of the title are a kind of implanted memory chip which initially seem a bit of a gimmick designed for the story, but they come to play a larger role both in the practical way the story plays out and in a symbolic sense. Some would rather their past be forgotten and, for others, it’s all they have. ‘Slow Bullets’ builds nicely to an almost profound conclusion and left a big impact despite its small size.
Gareth D Jones
(pub: Gollancz. 182 page small hardback. Price: £12.99 only (UK). ISBN: 978-1-473-21842-0)