Saturday, June 25, 2016

Review of Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds

Space opera is like a cockroach. It just won’t die. Defying the ages and epochs of science fiction, it propagates itself at varying rates, a thread through the rope of genre, forever onward. And the base product remains identifiable throughout. A vast scope of planets and systems, cultures and aliens. Various evolutions of mankind, contemporary to unrecognizable. Technological innovation at each stop on the Action City line (usually in the areas of weapons and space propulsion, strangely enough). Simplistic political dichotomies providing tension... And given the sustained longevity, people do not get sick of it. Great-great-great-great grandson to E.E. “Roach” Smith’s Doc Lensman is Alastair Reynolds’ 2001 Chasm City.

Manhunts a la Robert Sheckley’s “The Seventh Victim”; head implants and cybertech via William Gibson’s Neuromancer; body upgrades, and new religions and cultures courtesy of Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix; space elevators from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise; immortality drugs and giant worms a la Frank Herbert’s Dune; a murky revenge quest echoing strongly of Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series—and on and on goes the list of clearly identifiable genre influences on Chasm City. Such combinations possible to be wielded in original fashion, Reynolds chooses to travel the more (if not most) conventional byways of science fiction. Then again, it’s space opera; roach DNA has long been known.

But all is not imitation—or is it? Using a bifurcated narrative structure, Reynolds tells two tales at once, their convergence a seeming inevitability. One fork in the trail describes the life of Sky Haussmann, a young man raised aboard a group of generation starships headed toward an uninhabited planet on a mission of colonization. Events beyond anyone’s predilection occurring en route, Sky’s childhood dissolves into a mess of politics and rebellion. The other fork tells the tale of one Tanner Mirabel. Mercenary for hire, Mirabel starts the story with one mission: kill Reivich. Enlisting the help of friends, illicit weapons, and a seemingly bottomless pocket funding his attempts, things get interesting when he awakens after a lengthy bout of cryo-sleep onboard an interstellar cruiser with a nano-plague in his brain. Ridding himself of the disease’s effects while trying to get Reivich into his gunsights proves troublesome, a fact exacerbated by the fact Reivich has dragged him Chasm City, a formerly opulent city now in deep decay. Chasm City not easy on the locals, being an offworlder proves even more dangerous, putting in jeopardy not only Mirabel’s mission, but his very life.

In Tanner Mirabel, Reynolds does his best to right a gray, perhaps even slightly dark, character. He’s a gun for hire, does what his contract requires regardless the consequences, and is on a mission of revenge nearly the entire novel. Where the characterization falls apart is Reynolds’ insistence on adherence to plot. One scene, for example, sees the supposedly indifferent Mirabel interfering with a charlatan attempting to fleece fellow passengers. Would a true cold-hearted killer give a damn, let alone risk his life, over a handful people losing a few dollars? Given this and other such scenes’ importance to the plot (aka as the god space opera acknowledges beyond all other deities), it seems clear what was key to Reynolds—contrivance valued above granularity.

This is important to note given the bifurcated storyline, and its intended effect. Seemingly an emulation of the narrative structure of Iain Banks Use of Weapons, Reynolds’ adherence to plot above character does not allow the big reveals to be very big. I will not spoil the story for those unable to put one and one (not even two and two) together, but suffice to say the underlying reality of the situation is telegraphed in the least subtle ways the length of the novel, emphasized by the lack of complete coherence at the character level. Where Banks’ story resolves itself in surprising fashion upon the final chapter, a surprise that feeds logically back through the entire book, I have doubts Chasm City does the same for the majority of readers—this coming from a person who is terrible at predicting endings. Reynolds would later find his feet in this area (see, for example, his short story “A Murmuration” which properly weighs character vs. plot to complement the effect of each). But for just his second novel, Chasm City is lacking in awareness of not only how Banks accomplished what he did, but qualities of literature at large that make a story a lucid success.

Taken simply as the next great-great-great grandson of space opera, Chasm City can be thoroughly enjoyed. Reynolds has studied the ancestry and delivers a tried-and-true story that tweeks all the pleasure points avid readers in the sub-genre expect. Femme fatales, good guys vs. bad guys, crosses and double-crosses, chases scenes, assassinations, firefights, and supertech—it’s got all the right ingredients. Readers looking for a novel with deeper substance and finer control of the art of writing, however, will need to look elsewhere. Compared to Revelation Space, however, it should be noted that Chasm City is less bloated. There is more story per page, which is something.

No comments:

Post a Comment