Fiction Reviews

Slow Bullets

(2015) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £12.99, hrdbk, 182pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21842-0


This is a novella; it received a Locus Award and made the short list for a Hugo in 2016. For those interested such things, SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) define a novel as having at least 40,000 words and a novella as being shorter but having at least 17,500 words. The page count would imply that this is a novel but the pages are a little smaller than many hardbacks and the font size is quite large, thus filling the pages quickly. This is the first British edition, published in 2017, though it was originally published in the US by Tachyon Publications in 2015.

The war which raged across the regions of space occupied by man has finally come to an end. There being no method of instant communication, the news has to be spread by sending skipships to all corners and the warring factions persuaded that it is all over and they can go home in peace. It is on such a mission that Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal and left for dead. She awakes to find herself in a hibo capsule on a Peacekeeper military transport ship though clearly something is wrong; one is normally awoken at the end of the journey but hers and other capsules have opened themselves and there is the sound of fighting in the distance. She realises that the other passengers are as disorientated as she is and, sticking to their wartime sides, conflict has broken out. She soon finds Prad, a ship’s technician, who reveals that he too woke unexpectedly and the ship is in severe straits; systems are failing all over the place or have already failed and parts of the ship cannot even be accessed. Furthermore, of the thousand hibo capsules on board, nearly a third have failed and their occupants are dead.

Scur brokers a peace between the two warring sides and the Peacekeeper crew by forcing them to realise that they can either continue the war and kill each other or else pull together for their mutual benefit - it will take ‘all hands on deck’ if they are to survive whatever has gone wrong. They are in orbit round an unknown planet, not their expected destination of Tottori. The navigation systems cannot locate their position and, indeed, can find no trace of the thousands of navigation beacons that are scattered throughout known space. Eventually they realise that something went very wrong with their skip; they are now well over a thousand years, maybe two thousand or more, in their future - and there is no sign of mankind anywhere. As they work on repairs, they further come to realise that the planet below them is in fact Tottori but it is suffering an ice age, its remaining population reduced to a low technology society, and it becomes apparent that the rest of the occupied worlds have suffered a similar fate. If they can fix it, they may have the last working spaceship and the future of mankind is clearly in their hands.

The slow bullets of the title, by the way, are a data storage technology used by the military to store information for and about their people. The bullet is injected into the body and makes its way slowly to the chest, where it can be used to identify and inform the user, sort of like a very high-tech dog tag. With the ship’s memory systems failing, every soldier has to sacrifice his or her stored personal memories and recordings if the ship is to save its vital files and keep working.

The story is neither demanding nor deep and the pages turned quickly and easily; indeed I read it over a very long coffee (in a thermal mug) during a quiet, sunny afternoon in the garden. It is a nice little story, ideal for a restful break or when wanting to pass the time day.

Peter Tyers

See also Mark's review of Slow Bullets.


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