Novella: Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

December 13, 2015

Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets (2015) is a solid example of far-future space opera that reflects insightfully on the intractable issues of the present. In the dying moments of an intergalactic war between the Central Worlds and the Peripheral Systems, a soldier named Scur barely survives a brutal session of torture. Afterwards she’s revived, disoriented and confused, on a prison ship called the Caprice. She learns from crewmember Prad that she, along with various combatants and refugees, was slated for transport to planet Tottori. But something’s gone wrong with the ship, awakening the prisoners from their hibernation capsules, and chaos reigns as prisoners from both sides of the conflict threaten to renew the war on a new stage. Scur lands in the unenviable position of having to keep the prisoners from killing each other, even as she solves the mystery of what’s happened to them all.

Hard science fiction isn’t usually my favorite flavor of the genre, but Reynolds executes it adroitly, layering cosmic mysteries and SFnal puzzles over a religious conflict rather reminiscent of the world’s current ideological strife. The “slow bullets” of the title, miniature implants that contain the soldiers’ records and memories, are an effective metaphor for the harbored grudges and resentments that have plagued human history, and one that Reynolds spins in a clever new direction in the closing pages. The characters aren’t particularly memorable, and the dialogue doesn’t extend itself much beyond stilted problem-solving, but overall it’s a brisk, engaging read, that renders its earnest message accessibly and quite effectively.