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Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds (2001) 616 p.

I first read Revelation Space nearly eight years ago and didn’t much care for it; it had some promising aspects but was weighed down by stilted dialogue, shallow characters and a bloated prose style. But since then I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of Reynolds’ other novels and collections of his short stories – particularly Pushing Ice, House of Suns and Terminal World, all of which ended up on my end-of-year best books lists. He’s never written a truly amazing 10/10 five-star book, but he consistently writes 8/10 four-star books that are engrossing, page-turning potboilers, which is frankly good enough for me in the sea of crap that’s out there.

So I figured it was worth going back and actually finishing the Revelation Space trilogy – which I’ll still do, even though it turns out his second novel Chasm City is set in the same universe but is actually a stand-alone story taking place centuries beforehand. Rather than the blockbuster saving-the-world stakes of Revelation Space, Chasm City is a more personal story of vengeance, as former soldier and bodyguard Tanner Mirabel travels from his war-torn home of Sky’s Edge to the planet of Yellowstone, in pursuit of the man who killed his boss’ wife. (Who, of course, Mirabel was himself in love with – take away the sci-fi setting and Chasm City’s plot is basically a Liam Neeson film). Yellowstone is the epicentre of human civilisation, an almost post-scarcity society of unparalleled wealth and prosperity, but the novel begins with an introductory document greeting incoming travellers awakening after decades of interstellar hibernation:

Dear Newcomer,

Welcome to the Epsilon Eridani system.

Despite all that has happened, we hope your stay here will be a pleasant one. For your information we have compiled this document to explain some of the key events in our recent history. It is intended that this information will ease your transition into a culture which may be markedly different from the one you were expecting to find when you embarked at your point of origin. It is important that you realise that others have come before you. Their experiences have helped us shape this document in a manner designed to minimise the shock of cultural adjustment. We have found that attempts to gloss over or understate the truth of what happened – of what continues to happen – are ultimately harmful; that the best approach – based on a statistical study of cases such as yours – is to present the facts in as open and honest manner as possible.

Let us therefore begin the process of adjustment.

As an “easing” that’s right up there with “are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?” What has occurred, it transpires, is something the locals call the Melding Plague: a virus that warps and mutates advanced nanotechnology, which in a utopian interplanetary society that was heavily dependent on such technology turned out to be a Big Problem. Chasm City, the largest on Yellowstone, is now a semi-post-apocalyptic ruin in which the lucky survivors (of which there are still millions) have removed their swish sci-fi implants and rely on more fundamental technology like bulky mobile phones and honest-to-god steam power. (This clash of high-tech and low-tech clearly fascinated Reynolds, since he returned to it in Terminal World.) The city itself is a decaying wreck, the orbital habitats once known as the Glitter Band reduced to a derelict ring called the Rust Belt, and the amoral upper crust are all addicted to a mysterious drug called Dream Fuel and man-hunting the povvos in their spare time.

There was a discussion on Twitter the other day I can no longer find in which somebody referred to Dune – both the recent Villeneuve adaptation and the franchise – as “mostly vibes,” and not as an insult. Alastair Reynolds’ books, I think – certainly the Revelation Space universe – have fantastic vibes; a science fiction approach to the aesthetics of gothic horror that I haven’t seen done this well since twenty years prior in the film Alien. (Yes, it’s weird to think this 2001 book sits almost precisely halfway between 1979’s Alien and us.) I don’t remember much of the plot from Revelation Space, but I remember its atmosphere. I remember the gargantuan, Gormenghast-esque spaceship with a miniscule crew spending decades to travel between stars; I remember the archaeological dig of an extinct alien species whose myths hinted at some terrible and vengeful god; I remember the impression that humanity’s scattered, isolated colonies were all authoritarian dictatorships, their little remaining statecraft consisting mostly of threats and coercion. If you think about the logistics of it too much it falls apart (how do they still have expensive restaurants for the rich and thus currency, or capitalism at all?) but Chasm City’s best aspect is simply the general atmosphere of this husk of a city, its golden age come to an abrupt end, an awful alien place of sulphur and dirt and gross inequality. It’s also in small glimpses we get of Revelation Space’s main plot, which subscribes to the Dark Forest answer to the Fermi paradox; one of the novel’s creepiest moments comes as a character encounters one of the universe’s exceptionally rare intelligent alien life forms, dubbed ‘grubs,’ which explains why its species has become so reclusive and reluctant to contact others:

“Then we did find other grubs. But they weren’t like us. Not like grubs at all, really. They didn’t want to… tolerate us. They were like a void warren but… empty. Just the void warren.”
A ship with no living things aboard it.
“Machine intelligences?”
The mouth smiled again. It was quite obscene, really. “Yes. Machine intelligences. Hungry machines. Machines that eat grubs. Machines that eat us.”

Chasm City is also a dual story, as Mirabel is infected with an engineered virus shortly before departing for Yellowstone, which starts giving him flashbacks to the life of his home planet’s founder: Sky Hausmann, a captain aboard a fleet of five sleeper/generational starships launched from Earth on a journey which will take centuries. As the ships’ societies gradually begin to drift apart and they develop into a sort of cold war, Sky realises that old ghost stories about a mysterious sixth ship trailing the fleet are actually true – a dark and silent vessel has been shadowing them for generations. Suspecting that perhaps the vessels of the fleet broke into outright conflict in the past, only for this to be erased from history, and that this ghost ship is a derelict shell, he leads a small expedition to it and finds something even stranger and more frightening than he could’ve imagined. This is where Reynolds really excels across all his fiction: at creating a sci-fi mystery, a foreboding sense of horror at the unknown dangers of the big, strange galaxy. Chasm City has many of the same issues as Revelation Space – paper-thin characters and overly expository dialogue chief among them – but it’s still a pretty enjoyable dark sci-fi adventure, and I’m looking forward to getting back into the story of the main trilogy with Redemption Ark.

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November 2021