One of the elements of SFF that I find most compelling is the propensity for a certain type of extreme narrative escalation. The way that the events of a hobbit’s birthday party, for example, can progress with logic and sensitivity to something as significant and large-scale as the battle of the Pelennor Fields and the re-establishment of a long-hidden royal lineage (J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). Or the way that a book beginning with a Cold War space race can end with the evolution of all humanity into a collective super-consciousness existing beyond material reality (Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End). Or how a man on a psychiatrist’s couch can be manipulated into using his dream-powers to alter the entire structure of human society (Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven).
I’m not talking about worldbuilding: slow, Wheel of Time-esque multi-volume accretions of fictional histories and book-length appendices of magic-system taxonomy or whatever. This has nothing to do with size. Rather, by “escalation,” I mean the process by which the traditional novelistic focus on individual lives can widen to encompass themes and events of broader societal and cultural significance; the concerns of the individual transcended by the social. Science fiction and fantasy, with their implicit interest in (imagined) societies, are genres well-placed to engineer this sort of narrative escalation, and Alastair Reynolds is especially good at it.
Indeed, part of what makes Reynolds’s new novel Slow Bullets so successful is this sense of escalation. What begins as run-of-the-mill space opera soon develops into a complex social thought experiment; an examination of the tyrannies of ambiguous language and the societal implications of textual preservation. It’s impressive that Reynolds manages all of this big-picture stuff within the scope of an uncharacteristically short novel (just shy of two hundred pages), and does so while simultaneously retaining a sense of intimacy through a well-realised narrator whose own struggles with memory act as a microcosm of the book’s wider sociological concerns. The novel is also interested in atavism (both technological and social), and so it’s fitting that Reynolds has appropriated the imagery and themes of an older literary tradition, gothic horror, to tell this story; only in place of a dilapidated monastery inhabited by reclusive monks, Slow Bullets gives us soldiers-turned-scribes entombed inside a vast and decaying spaceship. Architecture is important here, as is the intersection of technology with biology. There really is a lot going on; a fact belied by the book’s meagre page count. With so much to unpick, then, it’s probably best that we start at the very beginning and work forward from there.
Slow Bullets opens with our narrator, Scur, describing her treatment at the hands of Orvin, a sadistic war criminal who captures and tortures her despite the fact that their respective sides in an interstellar conflict have recently signed a peace agreement. This sets in motion a revenge narrative, with Scur promising violent retribution should she ever encounter her tormentor again. As part of the torture, Orvin has injected Scur with one of the titular “Slow Bullets”. These are data modules implanted into soldiers which contain information about their life’s history, their military records, images of loved ones, and so on. Crudely you might call them internal dog tags, only much more advanced. The bullet implanted into Scur by Orvin, however, is something sinister; “it’s going to hurt like the worst thing you’ve ever known” (p. 15), and after slowly travelling through her body, will kill her once it reaches her heart. It’s a gruesome opening, and sets the tone for a novel that never pulls its punches when it comes to depicting violence enacted upon the human body. Scur attempts to cut this bullet out of herself; she blacks out in the process, and so begins the novel proper.
Scur wakes up aboard the Caprice, a starship that’s been converted into a prisoner transport. She emerges from suspended animation along with a thousand other people. Some are civilians, but most are POWs from both sides in the aforementioned conflict. Scur has no memory of how she came aboard the “skipship” or why she is counted among the war criminals being sent to trial, “I am not one of them. I am—was—just a soldier” (p. 31). The more pressing concern, however, is that something has gone terribly wrong with the Caprice’s journey. Rather than being held in suspended animation for a couple of months, the survivors have been asleep for ... well, nobody knows, but it could be much, much longer. The ship is barely functioning around them, they don’t know where they are, and all traces of human civilization seem to have vanished from the galaxy.
This leaves the one thousand (or so) survivors facing the possibility that they are the only humans left alive anywhere. This is also where the thought experiment aspect of the novel comes into play. Unable to escape the Caprice, the inhabitants attempt to form a working society in the dereliction of the failing starship, even though this means forming alliances with their enemies, with the people they’ve been at war with for most of their lives. The initial panic is evocatively described, as is the coming-together of various factions and the attempts to maintain such tenets of civilization as democracy and justice (not that this new society works, necessarily, with everyone heroically falling into line for the greater good; there’s violence, there’re deaths).
It’s all very pacy, with much of the actual process behind these fledgling democracies glossed over in a matter of sentences. It’s a revelation-on-every-page sort of book. Fans of Alastair Reynolds looking for his characteristic descriptive depth and attention to technological detail might find themselves disappointed, but for what it’s worth I enjoyed this change of tempo, which, if anything, demonstrates Reynolds’s versatility as a stylist.
In fact, Slow Bullets has a lot of very nice stylistic touches. It’s peppered with expressive little descriptions, such as this one about a book whose pages “detached too easily, the way wings come off an insect” (p. 13). I was also struck by the way that biological imagery is used to describe technology: slow bullets move by “contracting and extending like a mechanical maggot” (p. 16), hibernation capsules enclose “like an egg” (p. 21), and an automated surgeon-machine reminds Scur of “the hinged mouthparts of a flytrap” (p. 74). All of which sinister language reflects the relationship the crew have with the failing tech that surrounds them: dependency mixed with danger. The only complaint I have about style is that there are a few too many infodumps, which have the potential to interrupt the otherwise swift flow of Reynolds’s prose.
No one who’s read more than a handful of novels will be surprised to learn that Orvin, Scur’s one-time torturer, is also one of the survivors living aboard the Caprice. This discovery marks the point at which Scur’s personal revenge narrative is interrupted by a societal one, as she wrestles with, on the one hand, her desire to inflict horrific violence upon her enemy and, on the other, the societal pressure to exact a more civilized form of justice. Initially her craving for revenge is unequivocal in the face of this pressure: “Organise yourselves however the fuck you like. I don’t care. I just want Orvin and some time alone with him” (p. 55). And this creates an unnerving sense of dissonance for the reader: we want the new society of the Caprice to succeed, yet we’re also rooting for our narrator’s personal vendetta; we want her to take thrilling advantage of the situation’s potential for lawlessness.
This also marks the point at which the novel more earnestly appropriates its fascinating gothic horror aesthetic. Orvin goes into hiding in order to escape justice, only emerging to assault members of the ship’s community. The image of a dangerous figure stalking the decaying, catacomb-like corridors of the Caprice not only calls to mind the ghosts of classic haunted house mysteries (albeit transposed to something more tangibly physical), but also more modern SFnal iterations of the haunting trope, such as Ridley Scott’s Alien. This adds another horror-fictional element to those that’re already in play, namely the darkness, claustrophobia, and unknowableness of the setting. For Scur, of course, this haunting is more than figurative; it is, literally, her past arriving to torment and disturb her. Slow Bullets also employs the gothic literary device of using architecture as a mirror of its protagonist's psychosocial circumstances. The unexplored, maze-like depths of the ship are metaphor for the mysteries of the survivors’ wider situation, and the disrepair of the Caprice not only echoes the atavism of society, but also speaks to time’s corrosion of human creations and, on a more personal level, of memory. All of which brings me nicely to my next point.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, memory plays a significant role in Slow Bullets. This is intimated in subtle ways from the beginning of the novel (which I’ll come to shortly), but it’s not until later that the focus shifts from memory as a narratorial curiosity, to memory as a major element of the plotting. The inhabitants of the Caprice eventually realise that the ship’s internal memory is failing, and will have decayed completely in a few years’ time. With the death of the ship’s memory, all extant records of pre-Caprice human society will be lost forever.
Every single piece of information not absolutely vital to the continued functioning of the ship will have been overwritten. Our history. Our art. Our science and medicine. Our music. Images of your homeworlds – people we knew and loved. Anything that isn’t in our heads, it’s gone for good. (p. 83)
Their ad-hoc solution to this problem is to take what tools they have at their disposal and begin carving any records they can into the walls of the ship: be they works of medicine, poetry, engineering, history, autobiography, etc. “We had nothing that could mark a surface in the same manner as ink, but many tools that could scratch a line” (p. 109). It’s a race against time to preserve as much knowledge as possible, and no primacy is given to information of a practical use over, say, that which is purely cultural or artistic in nature. The image of hundreds of prisoner-scribes chiselling away at the guts of the spaceship, spending years covering walls, floors, and ceilings with text is incredibly striking, and the Romantic, monk-like devotion to the task of scribing amid ruin functions as another call-back to the gothic. (If you want to produce a very twee reading of the book, you could probably argue that this also serves as a warning against our current reliance on the digitization of texts, but I wouldn’t tug at that thread too hard.)
The textual preservation of knowledge, however, is problematised when it becomes apparent that texts aren’t perfect parcels of objective meaning that exist in isolation from social contexts and mores. Violence erupts over which interpretation of a religious text should be inscribed onto the ship. Various onboard factions want to ensure that their version of “the Book” is preserved, but, obviously, there’s no way to decide which edition is the correct one, the most true, the most worthy of preservation. Similarly, as soldiers give up their Slow Bullets to be over-written with information about humanity’s history, they find themselves tabulae rasae. “We were free to invent our pasts, to lie about what we had done or perhaps failed to do” (p. 100). The fact that scribes are liberated to invent their own personal histories obviously further muddies the claims that what they’re doing is preserving a factual record of their pasts for posterity.
This problematic serves to highlight not only the unreliable, ambiguous nature of language and its attendant inability to articulate objective truths (if such things exist), but the uncertainty over how future generations will read and interpret the texts we leave them: how will selection bias at this point affect the future comprehension of history and culture? Additionally, whole tracts of text are polished off the walls of the ship, only to be replaced with more text in turn. So not only has a spaceship been repurposed as a manuscript, but that same document is over-written when the whim arises. The name Caprice, then, is markedly apposite: this isn’t just a spaceship as society, or a spaceship as a memorial; this is a spaceship as palimpsest.
Slow Bullets literalises the critical-theoretical maxim that everything can be read as a “text.” As befits my argument about escalation, it’s not just the walls of the ship that are carved upon: soon enough everything is textualised: the bullets inside the soldiers are over-written, the dead are recycled. “We can skin him. Make paper from his flesh, ink from his blood” (p. 144), and even the living volunteer their bodies as texts:
We would end up inscribing every available surface of the ship, so why not extend that thoroughness to our own bodies as well? I had lines [...] cut into my arms, my shoulders, across my back. (p. 160)
The crew of the ship are creating physical texts in an effort to preserve human knowledge, but in doing so only prove that texts are amorphous and impermanent things, prone to (mis/)interpretation, forgery, re-writing and deletion.
The overarching tone of Slow Bullets, then, is one of tragic irony. The Caprice-ians' assertion that they are making indelible, accurate records (“we can’t tolerate mistakes” [p. 112]) is contradicted by how the novel itself treats texts. One character even comments on the inability of language to explain their situation; “She’s trying to describe something language isn’t made to describe” (p. 118). All of the texts the survivors produce are, ultimately, unstable. Not only, as we’ve seen, are they up for interpretation and forgery, but they’re also physically transient: the walls can be polished blank, the slow bullets over-written; the survivors’ text-scarred bodies will die. Perhaps, deep down, they all know this. Maybe creating texts is just another way in which the survivors are performing society.
This would all be so much bathos, of course, if the novel presented itself matter-of-factly as an unequivocal, representational record. Reynolds’s masterstroke, however, is to reflect this thematic concern for unstable texts by filtering the story through an unreliable narrator, making Slow Bullets itself something ambiguous and difficult to pin down. Scur, narrating from some future point, begins her story by telling us about her favourite poem, which is “about death and remembrance” (p. 10). This microcosmically echoes the themes of the novel, certainly, but remembrance, it turns out, isn’t as straightforward a thing as Scur would have us believe. Her narration is frequently inconsistent and contradictory. She hubristically announces that she can “be perfectly sure of [her]self” (p. 100), yet phrases of an "I don’t remember" variety become refrain-like throughout the novel. “I should remember, but I do not” (p. 189). At one point her very identity is questioned: “So Scur is what she calls herself now?” (p. 141). We’re also never given any explanation as to why, despite her protestations of innocence, she’s counted among the war criminals onboard the ship. This is Scur’s memory, but memories are biased, unreliable and prone to fanciful invention. With Scur as our only point of entry into this world, we can’t trust anything we read.
Memory has been a career-long preoccupation for Alastair Reynolds. House of Suns has that brilliant moment when the protagonists discover they were complicit in a horrific crime many years ago, and which has since been erased from their memories: a moment that forces the reader to morally re-conceptualize most of the book’s cast. Terminal World is set on a planet in humanity’s far future that has lost its own history and fallen into almost total decay; it features a troupe of characters who struggle (in a Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun way) against the remnants of high technology and the weight of a past they can’t possibly understand. But Slow Bullets is the first instance of memory affecting his work on such a metafictional level. The contradictions and ambiguities aren’t mistakes on Reynolds’s part, but aspects of the book’s identity as a holograph within the story. By which I mean this: supposedly we, as readers, aren’t reading a book, but living aboard the Caprice at some point in Scur’s future: we are standing in front of the wall upon which she has inscribed her life’s story, her testimony. The reader is positioned as somehow present inside the text. We might imagine Scur’s wall to be faded in places, edited and buffed in others, strewn with marginalia and varying qualities of craftsmanship. Maybe it’s been re-written a hundred times by a hundred people, which would account for the places in which her own story is ambiguous (why would she include such things herself?). For Scur, writing this story is a beautiful, life-long endeavour, but its eventual value is as a testament to the inconsistencies and unknowableness of memory.
Slow Bullets is a huge leap forward for Alastair Reynolds; the culmination of a long-term interest in how memory affects society. It begins as that most strikingly individualistic of genres, the revenge narrative, and escalates until it’s questioning not just the individual’s place in society, but how societies are formed and function, and how they record themselves. There’s a profound sadness that underlines all of this, however, because the ultimate concern of Slow Bullets isn’t memory or text or society: it’s how time wears all of these things away.