Chasm City

by Alastair Reynolds

Published by Gollancz

524 pages, 2002

Buy it online




Travels With Al

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


If Frank Herbert had come of age in the era of cyberpunk, his worlds might have looked like this, with a layer of Raymond Chandler thrown in for good measure. An intelligent, complicated and deliciously convoluted novel, Chasm City reminds the reader again and again that fiction isn't only about the destination. For a book to really work on all levels, the journey must be fascinating, as well.

In Chasm City the journey is riveting. Alastair Reynolds has reason to know space more intimately than most novelists and he doesn't stint on the details. The resulting story is richly imagined and beautifully realized: elements of the very best science fiction novels of all time stewed to perfection by Reynolds' own rich imagination and experience. A satisfying blend.

Professional solider Tanner Mirabel doesn't even remember his name, let alone his mission, when he wakes up in a space hospice after a 15-year journey spent in cryosleep. This amnesia is common to "slush puppies" he's told. And, in most cases, at least functional recall will be possible, if only he rests. Rest isn't in the cards, however, as he begins to remember the reason for his journey: He's come this almost unthinkable distance to kill Argent Reivich, the man responsible for the death of his employer and his employer's wife back on their home world, Sky's Edge. Mirabel feels that it's likely Reivich came on the same vessel as Mirabel, but was thawed and made his way through the hospice more quickly. To track his man, Mirabel needs to get underway before the trail grows too cold.

Bothersome, at least, is the fact that, since his reawakening, Mirabel has been having disturbing dreams about the crucified anti-hero Sky Haussmann, the historical figure who did the unthinkable in order to be the first to bring his ship from Earth to the then-uninhabited planet later nicknamed Sky's Edge. The most unsettling element of Mirabel's dreams is the fact that they contain data not included in historical records. The sum total of the facts creates a chilling picture of Haussmann and leaves even more unanswered questions for Mirabel.

The dream sequences create the novel's major subplot. They begin in Haussmann's childhood and continue in chronological order every time Mirabel closes his eyes. After awhile Mirabel's sleep isn't even necessary: the dream episodes imbed themselves in waking moments.

To complicate Mirabel's mission still further is the fact that Chasm City, and the whole Epsilon Eridani system, has been terribly altered in the time it took for Mirabel to travel there. Seven years prior to Mirabel's arrival a technological catastrophe -- the Melding Plague -- caused the once conspicuously affluent city to become an almost comic parody of itself. The plague was "... not quite a biological virus, not quite a software virus, but a strange and shifting chimera of the two." The society that the Melding Plague attacked was "supersaturated by trillions of tiny machines. ... They swarmed tirelessly through our blood. ... They clotted our brains, linking us into the Demarchy's web of near-instantaneous decision-making. We moved through virtual environments woven by direct manipulation of the brain's sensory mechanisms. ... We forged and sculpted matter on the scale of mountains..."

The Melding Plague, of course, changed all of that. Millions died and those that remain have been forced to reinvent every aspect of their existence. As a result, Chasm City is a brooding shadow of its former golden glory. The socially elite physically separated above the rest of the city in an area known as The Canopy: a place you generally don't get to without an invitation. And, of course, it's the place where Mirabel must follow Reivich in order to kill him, without an invitation.

The plot is intricate and, as promised, convoluted. However, Reynolds manages its unraveling with dark and gritty charm. As intricate as the plot, however, are the worlds Reynolds invents with such fluidity. Wholly imagined distant worlds filled with the wonders that might rationally separate us from our descendants half a millennium -- and a couple of galaxies -- into the future.

Born in Wales in 1966, Reynolds is an astrophysicist who works with the European Space Agency in Holland. Clearly, Reynolds knows space as well as anyone has a right to and his writing is not at all what you'd expect from someone with a Ph.D. in astronomy. Reynolds' prose is elegant and smart, the pacing in Chasm City is brilliant and the action is nonstop.

Chasm City is Reynolds' second novel. The first, Revelation Space, is set in the same well-imagined universe, but Chasm City is in no way a sequel. You will recognize some place names, the family names of some aristocrats, some of the technologies and the noirish qualities prevalent in this universe, but reading the first book is not required to understand what's happening in the second. A third book, Redemption Ark, is completed and will be published in the United Kingdom in 2002 and will follow with a US publication in 2003. Alastair Reynolds is well on his way. | January 2002


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.