Fiction Reviews

Slow Bullets

(2015) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 182pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21843-7


Alastair Reynolds has been writing award winning very long books for years: his unrelated Revelation Space series is right at the forefront of British SF. But sometimes long is just too long. I’m sure I’m not the only one put off by doorstep novels. You know the ones – small type, thin paper, hundreds (if not thousands) of pages of densely packed hard SF. The clutch of prizes he’s won suggests Reynolds is good at those, but his work has been too daunting for me – until now. Slow Bullets is much, much shorter. Even the cover admits it’s a novella (though it still manages to cover 182 pages, albeit larger than Reynolds-normal typeface and generous margins) and you can certainly read it in a longish sitting. A rough wordcount guess would be about 50,000 words, which is Christmas Carol, Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men territory. A rounded story, certainly, but without the multiple point of view characters and elaborate subplots which bedevil longer works.

I like the length. It gives the story a pace and a snappiness that stretching it out would lose. It doesn’t spend ages building a rich, complex world but sticks to the basics. Big war in space, in the far future. Two sides, split on religious lines (same prophets, different Book. Familiar?). The war ends – but nobody tells the story’s bad guy, Orvin, or maybe he just doesn’t care as he inserts a ‘slow bullet’ into an opponent, Scur’s, leg, intending to kill her in unhurried agony. And then Scur, Orvin and a bunch of other people from the war wake up in a prisoner transport ship, lost in space. Scur is driven by a desire for revenge but there are other, more pressing questions. Who are they? How do they survive (and stop killing each other)? What is their purpose?

The ‘slow bullets’ are a reference to memory implants/recording devices inserted deep inside the ex-military occupants of the ship. Their exact purpose is not made implicit, but they turn the soldiers into walking black boxes: hugely useful for determining what actually happens in the heat of the battle. They have a large part to play in this story, but the novella’s not rally about the tech, interesting though it is. Like all good books, this is about the characters and their journey. Because this is stripped-down Reynolds, we don’t learn much about the backgrounds of Scur, Orvin and the civilian technician we spend time with, Prad. But we don’t really need to. Scur is a survivor with a fondness for illegal poetry (ie the poetry of the other side). She’s also not much of a believer – pragmatic, caught up in events she can barely control. So she’s relatable. So is Prad; a civilian out of his depth, not caring about the war, just trying to survive. And Orvin? We never learn what makes him a cruel psychopath. Maybe he’s a creation of the war. But we see him being cruel and psychopathic, and that’s enough. How can that be turned to Scur and Prad’s advantage given their new and uncertain position?

Fast, exciting and ultimately satisfying; Slow Bullets is good enough to persuade me to dig out my unread copy of Revelation Space.  Recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

See also Peter's review of Slow Bullets.


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