Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
(Victor Gollancz, £10.99, 524 pages, trade paperback; hardback also available, £17.99; published 17 May 2001. Mass market paperback, £6.99, 616 pages, published 10 January 2002.)
Chasm City is a leap forward for Alastair Reynolds. His short stories have demonstrated his laconic mastery of the hardware of Hard SF; his first novel, Revelation Space, was replete with cosmic concepts and Gothic-exotic atmosphere; but now these technical sleights have structure. Where Revelation Space unburdened itself of its great fascinating freight of secret galactic history in fits and starts, jumping sometimes awkwardly between viewpoints and never quite cohering, Chasm City is unified, evolving precisely and craftily to a strange moving climax. Reynolds was a promising SF writer before; now he is an authentic novelist, at the forefront of British SF.
As the new book's publicity apparatus declares, Chasm City is set in the same universe as Revelation Space. Reynolds' future history, developed in these two novels and various well-regarded shorter pieces, is a fairly elaborate one, taking in the expansion of the human race into a Galaxy strangely barren (although not altogether) of intelligent life. All interstellar travel proceeds at inching sublight speeds; starships decay and mutate in the course of interminable voyages; colony worlds, separated from Earth and each other by great gulfs of time and space, are prone to lapses into technological dilapidation and savage internecine conflict; bizarre yet appallingly logical ideologies flourish among scattered posthuman clades (Bruce Sterling is Reynolds' most apparent genre muse, other than Larry Niven...). Hanging over this rather entropic scene are two threatening tendencies: the active hostility of certain ancient forces to the development of technologically capable sentient species, and the capacity of nasty biological and cybernetic plagues to spread across human space with predatory gusto. Revelation Space addressed the first menace, formulating its answer to the Fermi Paradox with apocalyptic conviction; now Chasm City visits the not unrelated plague front, and further of the future's enigmatic lacunae are filled in...
It should be emphasised that, while Chasm City does address some of the same grounding mysteries as Revelation Space, shares one of the latter's settings and even mentions one of its characters in passing, the new title stands on its own, and is quite different from its predecessor in both mood and substance. Revelation Space belongs to the subgenre of sprawling space opera, sallying forth into the territory of Stephen Baxter and Peter F. Hamilton; Chasm City is more contained, a cyperpunk-inflected thriller with a single (although complex) protagonist and a tone of hardboiled intrigue. The narrator is Tanner Mirabel, who, while at times seeming not to be Tanner Mirabel at all, in most important respects cleaves to the personality and skills of that individual, an expert assassin and security consultant native to the war-plagued backwater planet Sky's Edge. One of this world's innumerable vendettas has pitted Mirabel's reptile-besotted criminous employer, Cahuella, against a well-connected and resourceful foe, Argent Reivich; after Reivich engineers (or seems to engineer) the deaths of Cahuella and Cahuella's moll, whom Mirabel loved, the murderer flees, and Mirabel pursues him, up a space elevator (quickly destroyed by sabotage) and into the coldsleep of travel across the light years to the planet Yellowstone. A simple narrative of revenge then, one might think; but Reynolds is careful to complicate matters, at which he is pretty artful.
Double and triple exposures are cunningly rampant in Chasm City. As previously intimated, Mirabel has suspicious lapses into uncharacteristic attitudes and behaviour: he is sometimes good, highly unprofessional in a thug. Further, he has intensely verisimilitudinous sleeping and even waking dreams, amounting to a systematic recapitulation of the centuries-old life memories of Sky Haussmann, the notorious Machiavellian founder of the first colony back on Sky's Edge. Mirabel is thinking the thoughts of as many as three men at once; who is he, what is he really? And his vengeful progress brings him to the capital of Yellowstone, Chasm City, a place with its own acute identity crisis. Built in the upper sections of a great warm vent in the otherwise inhospitable planet's surface, the metropolis was until recently a utopia of abundance, a place of fantastic wealth and intellectual brilliance; but now an inexplicable "Melding Plague" has infected its infrastructure, corrupting its intricate nanotechnologies and converting Chasm City into a baroque Ballardian wasteland. The old and new Chasm Cities co-exist culturally and economically; the decadent aristocracy of the Canopy, clinging to the memory of their lapsed greatness, prey with fitful cruelty on the teeming populace of the lower levels, the Mulch, who surely represent Yellowstone's future. So: an avenger who does not know who he himself truly is must hunt a protean immortal adversary through a city longing to be what it is no longer; much intrigue, much inventiveness, and much suspenseful perplexity ensue in most generously proportioned doses, held together by a well-paced and cleverly structured plot. Alastair Reynolds has written a fine Long SF Novel at only the second attempt.
Chasm City's more specific triumphs are several. There is the sickening long decline of the colonization expedition to Sky's Edge, related in Mirabel's claustrophobic flashback episodes. There is the gritty evocation of the criminal culture that eventuates from Haussmann's bloody regime and that sires Mirabel. There is Chasm City itself, that overripe rich addition to SF's repertoire of wounded vast metropolises. There are its denizens, mad aesthetes, existentially depleted manhunters, porcine underpeople. There are the novel's aliens. And there is Mirabel himself, villain and hero all in one. It may be contended that Chasm City is in no basic sense original, that it recycles where it might innovate; but SF is a realm of common properties, standardised notions which all are free to use with whatever skill they possess; and Reynolds has skill in full and definite measure; and that skill's maturation is proving rapid. Watch out for his next one...
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.
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© Nick Gevers 19 May 2001