On the nitrogen-methane world of Yellowstone, within the domed enclosure of Chasm City, humans had perfected a utopian civilization founded on nanotechnology. During the twenty-sixth century, Chasm City was considered the apex of cultural and technological achievement in human space. Immortality was taken as a basic right and the buildings themselves grew like trees.
Newcomer Tanner Mirabel, combat veteran turned security consultant, finds something different when he arrives from the war torn, balkanized world of Sky's Edge. The Melding Plague, which targets nanotechnology, has shoved Chasm City back toward medieval squalor. He finds a world where victims trapped in diseased buildings are sought after as trendy artwork. Those who still possess their implants follow two paths. The Hermetics hide within self contained, pyramid shaped palanquins, while others resort to the illicit and hard to obtain Dream Fuel to shield themselves from the remnants of the plague.
Mirabel didn't arrive at Chasm City entirely by choice. He did board the only space elevator on Sky's Edge in pursuit of his target, Argent Reivich, who in turn was trying to escape to Yellowstone aboard the lighthugger Orvieto. He didn't count on someone using a nuclear weapon to sever the space elevator while he was still on it. Waking up fifteen years later in Yellowstone's Epsilon Eridani system with cryosleep-induced memory loss wasn't part of his plans either.
The story is told from Mirabel's perspective, and much of it concerns the past that has brought him to Chasm City, which he reconstructs after he awakens. He relates to the reader that his reason for wanting to kill Reivich is purely professional. Reivich killed Mirabel's employer, a shady black market weapons broker known as Cahuella. It does not matter to Mirabel that Reivich's family was killed by a faction using illegal weapons supplied by Cahuella. On Sky's Edge, such acts of betrayal and blood revenge are the norm. Mirabel is accustomed to it, and, as a combat sniper, he has sometimes played a part in the violent cycle.
When Mirabel is thawed from cryosleep, he finds himself in the care of the Ice Mendicants on their orbital habitat above Yellowstone. The Ice Mendicants are a quasi-religious order dedicated to helping interstellar travelers recover from cryosleep induced traumas. While Mirabel is there, he has more to deal with than merely reassembling his memory. Shortly after awakening, he discovers a red sore in the palm of his hand that weeps blood on occasion. It is the first symptom of an Indoctrinational Virus created by one of the religious orders on Sky's Edge dedicated to the world's founding father, Sky Haussmann.
The Indoctrinational Virus asserts itself in the form of a biographical retelling of Sky Haussmann's life during Mirabel's dreams. Mirabel relates these dreams to the reader in the same manner as his own personal experiences as a combat sniper, and later as Cahuella's security consultant. Starting from Haussmann's early childhood aboard the generational starship Santiago, we follow him into adulthood. We watch as Haussmann manipulates shipboard politics to achieve command of his home vessel, and leads it on a course to war with the other three vessels of the Flotilla. The Flotilla, which launched from Earth in cooperation, will arrive at Sky's Edge in a state of civil war. Haussman's story helps to fill in backstory by explaining the roots of the wars that have torn apart Sky's Edge, but it also helps the reader see Mirabel in a new perspective. His controlled, professional approach to matters military is quite unlike Haussman's sociopathic quest for power. Reynolds moves smoothly between the narratives, keeping the reader straight on all the details.
During his time on Idlewild, the Mendicants' habitat, Mirabel receives kind and caring treatment from his nurse Amelia. When Mirabel learns that she is being tormented by one of her fellow Mendicants, he decides to do something about it. The encounter with her tormentor ends before it even begins. As partial payment for his care, Mirabel, displaying his skill as a patient teacher, passes on his deadly craft to Amelia in case she has any more problems after he leaves for the planet surface.
While he trains Amelia, Mirabel is drawn once again into his memories, and this time he does more than reassemble them. He recalls his last pupil, Cahuella's mistress Gitta. Mirabel, oddly, was uncomfortable with training Gitta how to use firearms, in part due to his own disdain for weapons. He was also uncomfortable because training her implied that he might somehow fail in his security tasks. Only then would Gitta need to protect herself. Her status as Cahuella's mistress didn't ease his mind either, but he trained her to the best of both their abilities.
As he trains Amelia, just as he had trained Gitta, Mirabel discovers something new about his last teaching assignment: the primary source of his discomfort was unrequited love. Gitta's death in the same ambush that killed Cahuella, is what drives him off Idlewild toward Chasm City. He has learned from the Mendicants that Reivich is already there and he feels honor bound to finish his mission.
Only after Mirabel truly understands why he has come to Chasm City does Reynolds finally bring the reader to this wondrous, broken place, so different from Sky's Edge, yet, since the Plague, marked by violence sadly reminiscent of the world Mirabel has left behind. He arrives in Chasm City aboard a maglev train converted into a steam locomotive. The post Melding Plague society is a clash between the surviving remnants of twenty-sixth century technology and reemergent pre-nanotech artifacts most readers will find familiar. Without any connections in the city, he is deposited onto the ground level, known as the Mulch. Above in the heights of the enclosure known as the Mosquito Net, are the bourgeois wealthy, bored, post humans of the Canopy. Chasm City is a sociologist's dream laboratory of contrasts between third world, sewer drenched squalor in the Mulch and first world disdain above. The two populations interact only when the post humans descend into the Mulch for the Game, which involves hunting down human prey.
Mirabel reasons that Reivich, wealthy on Sky's Edge, must have connections in the Canopy. Now, he just has to find a way to get up there.
Alastair Reynolds has created two technologically and culturally contemporary guides to Chasm City's advanced civilization for the reader in Tanner Mirabel and his dream state companion, Sky Haussmann. Both come from cultures with twenty-first century levels of technology, so both experience the same awe at the vastness of interstellar space that we do. Mirabel, who is used to seeing one lighthugger starship around Sky's Edge every decade, simply cannot fathom the thousands of mile long, diamond hulled vessels in orbit around Yellowstone. When Haussmann describes the interior of the interplanetary freighter turned generational starship Santiago, the reader finds familiar artifacts of technology. The soldiers of Sky's Edge bear a resemblance to U.S. soldiers, though they are beefed up on muscle enhancing drugs to look like Terminator clones.
Mirabel, however, is not the typical combat veteran in this story. He is not an emotional cripple, nor is he a Rambo super soldier. When force is required, Mirabel uses only that amount of force needed for the task and no more. He does not engage in senseless violence for its own sake. He is human and is prone to brooding over his situation. He experiences doubt, but his only source of remorse is Gitta's death and his failure to protect her.
Chasm City is an indirect prequel to Reynolds's first novel, Revelation Space. Those who have read the first novel will find considerable improvement in Reynolds' already considerable storytelling skill. The novel stands alone on its own strength, and it is possible to read the novels out of sequence without any appreciable trouble. Finally, pure science fans will be pleased to know that the laws of physics are not broken here.
Your Norton Anti-virus won't help you in Chasm City, but the experience is worth the danger.
It has my recommendation.
Copyright © 2003 Steven Francis Murphy
Steven Francis Murphy is a veteran of the First Gulf War, a European Historian, and an aspiring science fiction writer. He works as a lowly security guard at his day job and lives in North Kansas City, Missouri. His reviews and fiction have appeared at the science fiction webzine Bewildering Stories and he is a serial poster at Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine's Reader's Forum. This is his first review for Strange Horizons.