Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds

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Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds

Post by tanzeelat »

This is Reynold’s second novel and set in the same universe as his debut, Revelation Space. But that’s where all resemblance ends — Reynolds has not managed to capture the same feel in Chasm City as that of the earlier novel. There are shared locales, and the action takes place around a generation later in the same future history... But that’s about all.

Tanner Mirabel is security chief for arms-dealer Cahuello. When Cahuello is injured, and later dies, and his wife Gitta killed, by aristocrat Argent Reivich, Mirabel vows vengeance. He follows Reivich from his home world of Sky’s Edge, orbiting 61 Cygni A, to Yellowstone (Epsilon Eridani), and its capital, Chasm City. Mirabel’s narrative is a straight first-person noir-ish hunt through the mean streets of a city gone mad after a nanotech plague.
Interspersed with these is a third-person narrative detailing the life of Sky Haussman, captain of the first generation starship to arrive at 61 Cygni 400 years before. Haussman cheated to arrive first, and has been hated and revered ever since — so much so that a cult has grown up around him, which has appropriated Christian iconography (Haussman was crucified for his crimes). This narrative strand is allegedly the result of a viral infection of Mirabel by the Haussman cult, virally-programmed memories of their god. Except they don’t appear to follow the orthodox history. Nor, it transpires, is Mirabel all he seems.

Reynolds has built his story about an historical and a contemporary (within the universe of the story) puzzle. Both are linked and, in some respects, the contemporary puzzle is predicated on the historical puzzle. I managed to guess the answer to both, and the link, around halfway through the novel, but not because Reynolds was heavy-handed with his clues. When you have two unrelated narrative strands sharing a novel, their stories have to be linked in some fashion (it would be a very strange novel if they weren’t). And when both are presented as puzzles, then the solutions too must be linked. It’s simply a matter of spotting what could possibly link the two. In Chasm City’s case, the key word is identity.

It struck me that Reynolds wanted identity to be more of a motif throughout the novel than it actually was — the virally-programmed memories of Haussman that Mirabel suffers from comment directly on the subject. But a motif must at least come to some kind of conclusion, and in Chasm City that doesn’t happen. It just sort of sits there, informing the plot and colouring the narrative, but not actually acting in any way on the story.

Chasm City is a more claustrophobic novel than Revelation Space. It features far fewer locales, and very little of the story takes place in the wide, open, endless spaces of, er, Space. It is, perhaps, easier to impress when your horizons are limitless — the sense of wonder certainly comes easier (but the suspension of disbelief is correspondingly harder to maintain). And big landscapes are often the playground of big ideas. Chasm City is, by comparison, a small landscape, and its ideas are smaller. In that respect, it is a disappointment. If Reynolds had widened his remit at the novel’s dénouement... He does try: throwing in an ancient alien race, which explains a number of the sub-plots. But it’s the least-convincing aspect of the novel — in fact, in retrospect, it didn’t really need to be there at all.

It’s not that I think Chasm City is a poor science fiction novel. On the contrary, it is one of the better ones amongst those published recently. But Revelation Space promised more than Chasm City delivers.
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