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Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tachyon Publications Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616961930
Date: 09 June 2015 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Publisher's Book Page / Show Official Info /

One minute Scur is a soldier captured and tortured by a war criminal reviled by both her side and his, the next she's waking up on a ship bound for a penal planet, only to find it's thousands of years overdue. Scur, who has no idea how she wound up in hibernation with a bunch of people from both sides with little in common but their war crimes, has to find a way to meld the survivors into something besides a replay of a war long over. If that's not hard enough on its own, it's made considerably more difficult by the presence of her former tormentor, who's very, very good at being very, very bad. Unlike most of Reynolds novels, this isn't a doorstopper, but a fast paced 200 odd page adventure.

When a new Alistair Reynolds novel comes out, fans can be confident that it's going to be Space Opera of the highest quality, with a mix of propulsive plot and thought-provoking commentary on life, the universe, civilization, and the human condition. They can also expect that it's going to take more than a few pages to do it's job. Sometimes a few more pages than you might have time for.

Slow Bullets manages to fill the first bill, but in a novella (barely) length work. So barely that the editor had to ask Reynolds to trim 250-300 words(1) to make it fall within the rules. Hugo rules, anyway. It will be available from Tachyon Press(2) this June in paperback, as well as the usual online suspects in eBook, but it will also be out in a signed limited edition hardcover from WSFA Press this fall and available at Capclave, their annual convention.(3)(4)

Slow Bullets takes its name from a small memory module that soldiers in the future war that's just winding down at the beginning of the novel are injected with, which worms its way (slowly) into their bodies and records everything that happens to them, as well as carrying their life history. Sort of an embedded officer-cam-on-steroids, and handy for proving war crimes.

Just after peace breaks out, Scur is captured by Orvin, a hard-core bad guy from the other side. Unconcerned with whether or not the war is over, he proceeds to torture Scur, just for the fun of it, by injecting her with a second slow bullet programmed not to record, but to kill. Slowly. His fun is interrupted when someone overflies his position and he takes off, leaving Scur to die alone. Like all good heroes, Scur has no intention of dying and does what she must to survive.

...and then wakes up on a starship heading to a penal colony with a thousand other soldiers from both sides of the conflict. Scur hooks up with Prad, a crewman also revived, and together they put down a bit of chaos caused by other revivees who also don't care if the war is over. Soon they discover that the war has been over for a thousand years or more, and that they're on a nearly derelict ship that's dying around them by degrees, overwriting its memory core to preserve critical function. They also discover that galactic civilization has fallen silent while they were gone and they're truly on their own.

As Scur tells Prad, and her slow bullet confirms, she's not a war criminal, so her being on the ship must be a mistake. That wouldn't be as big a mistake as the one Orvin made leaving her to die, because he's on the ship too, and Scur is determined to turn the tables.

The story is told as a retrospective by Scur, and a number of the things she says at the outset only come clear at the end. For her character, Slow Bullets offers alpha and omega, or seems to, but it also describes a story universe that Reynolds could play in to his heart's content.

It's a good story, quite up to the authors usual quality, and offers some new ideas on the "waking up unexpectedly on a starship" theme, as did Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three(5) (2011), demonstrating that this field isn't nearly played out nearly three quarters of a century after A.E. van Vogt's "Far Centaurus"(6) where crewmen arrive at Alpha Centauri after taking the slow route only to find that the universe wasn't willing to wait for them to arrive.

Slow Bullets is a stand-alone novella, at least at the moment, and there are some significant differences between the physics here and in his Revelation Space universe. Not that they couldn't be ironed out if the author wanted to.

Links / References

(1) Editing in Process…Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds;
(2) Tachyon Press; Slow Bullets;
(3) Some disclosure is probably warranted here. WSFA Press also published the anthology I edified, Future Washington, and I’ve been a WSFA member from time to time. Oddly, I didn’t know they were doing a limited edition until after I’d read the story.
(4) Capclave 2015; Alisatair Reynolds GOH;
(5) SFRevu: Hull Zero Three: Greg Bear:
(6) Astounding Science Fiction, January 1944; “Far Centaurus”; A.E. Van Vogt:

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