Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

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I am not a particularly up-to-date person. I make no special efforts to keep on top of new books and my to-read list rarely has anything on it that’s being published this year. I pick up new books that pass through my hands at work, and because of work I am more in the loop than I would otherwise be, but it’s not my aim in life to be in-touch with the new. I can walk into a bookstore any day of the week and be joyously surprised by a new book by some author or other that I love. Life is good.

There are a few exceptions. While Sir Terry Pratchett lived and wrote I watched and waited for his next book always. And I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I am a big fan of Jo Walton, so I’m usually pretty up to speed on what’s coming from her direction. And I’m always waiting for Alastair Reynolds’ next book. (I look at this list and realise there’s not much sense to it – what about Rothfuss? Carey? Scalzi? Griffin/North? … all authors I love, all authors I keep my eye out for, all authors I follow online, and yet … and yet I can’t explain how they often sneak books past me, while I’m doodling about in my own little world humming the Big Bang theme tune. Go figure).

Anyway, back to the point. I was introduced to Alastair Reynolds’ books by an old work friend, T, who I’ve since lost touch with. He was a fellow Pratchett devotee and the first person since school that I’d met who loved the same sort of reading that I did. He introduced me to loads of great stuff, but I will always remember him for Reynolds. I read Pushing Ice and never looked back. (T, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, may the sun smile upon you all the days of your life!) Fast forward to now, or rather four weeks ago, and Slow Bullets finally comes in at the library for me. That it’s a novella makes me a little sad – Reynolds’ books are usually great slabs of story that I can get lost in for a week or more (I am a painfully slow reader – ‘tis my curse, ah me!) – I read it in about three hours or so, but it was as interesting and fun as everything else he’s written, and it’s a pretty good place to start for anyone reading this (I still kid myself that there’s someone out there reading this – ha!) that hasn’t yet discovered the great Mr Reynolds.

For something only 182 pages long there’s a lot packed into this story, and a lot that is touched on that I want to know everything else about. Briefly, Reynolds presents us with a universe that, like in a lot of his other books, humanity has thoroughly inhabited, only for a catastrophic event to occur that changes all the rules. His main character, Scur, and her fellow inhabitants on the Caprice (the ship’s name is a nice touch) awake after this event both devastatingly ignorant of what has happened and the time that has passed, and more technologically advanced than any other remaining pockets of humanity. In a crippled ship. The ship’s inhabitants also have a war criminal and a stowaway on board, a terrifyingly malfunctioning auto-surgeon (best scene!!!), some serious ideological differences to overcome, and a desperate race to save what they can of their cultural and technological knowledge as the Caprice loses its capacity to hold onto that information. It’s great stuff!

I have a final, not very relevant, thing to say. Something that I think Reynolds does wonderfully well is envision what alien races and our encounters with them might look like. While it’s not really the focus of this story, the alien race in Slow Bullets is as beyond understanding as any that have appeared in his other books. I love the worlds of Star Trek, Farscape and the like, choc-full of aliens that we have no real problems comprehending, interacting with and incorporating into our worldview, but I love that in Reynolds’ stories we don’t quite recognise what we’re looking at as another life form, we don’t quite get their attempts at communication. Reynolds’ aliens are as massive and unfathomable as, say, a whale or an octopus is to us now. In the same way that humanity can’t yet meaningfully and successfully communicate with any of the myriad species we share the planet with, so, in his books does Reynold’s imagine our struggle to understand the alien. Only we’re the smaller species, lagging behind, time-bound and insignificant. And perversely, I find that very hopeful.

 

Oh-oh-oh, and Slow Bullets can count as a Book Bingo achievement because it was published this year! In the bag!!

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