Thursday, September 8, 2011

2001 BSFA – CHASM CITY by Alastair Reynolds

As I said back in my review for Hyperion, I have a soft spot for space opera. There’s something about vistas on different worlds, big lumbering spaceships, and people running around with blasters or ray-guns that lowers my reader defenses. I’ve readily admitted that I’m unduly hard on high fantasy; well, it’s the opposite for me and space opera. I’m not trying to jump into the “fantasy sucks” arguments that flare up now and then from sf fandom; it’s purely a personal preference thing. The ‘80s were a second golden age for the sub-genre, with several post-Star Wars winners culminating in the inspiring originality of Hyperion. Things fell off a bit in the ‘90s, but Vinge and Bujold kept things going.  Since then, though…well, A Deepness in the Sky was the last space opera to win the Hugo, and even digging into the other awards, this will be one of the last space opera novels I cover. That said, Reynolds is representative of a group of authors, mostly British, carrying the genre forward in the twenty-first century.

This is my first Reynolds novel, so I can’t say a whole lot about the Revelation Space setting in which it, and the majority of his work, takes place. Humans have spread to other planets, they’ve run into signs of other intelligences, but not many living representatives, nano-machines and all sorts of transhuman augmentation exists, but faster-than-light travel doesn’t seem to. It seems that the mood is what most sets Reynolds apart though. Space isn’t a pleasant place, and human beings aren’t particularly pleasant either. Betrayal, violence, war, and societal collapse seem to overshadow humanity among the stars.

That’s certainly true of the two settings in Chasm City. It starts with Tanner Mirabel on the war-torn planet of Journey’s End. He’s a mercenary/veteran who’s involved in some old grudges that lead him to survive a massive, space-elevator-destroying attack in an early action set-piece. Tanner then awakes with partial amnesia near the thriving planet of Yellowstone, still pursuing the old grudge. Tanner thought Yellowstone was thriving, but a machine-infecting virus has laid the planet low. The virus causes machines to go crazy, and it’s killed many people, interfered with the life-extending treatments of many more, destroyed an orbital district around Yellowstone, and turned the capital of Chasm City into an anarchic, dystopian disaster. This doesn’t put Tanner off of his plans to execute his old enemy though, and he continues to Chasm City and gets himself into all sorts of tricky situations, including a most dangerous “Game,” some high-risk surgery, long falls from damaged cable cars, and lots and lots of firefights.

All the while, Tanner has flashbacks to the life of the venerated founder of his faction from Journey’s End, named Sky Hausmann. As these memories pop up through the book, we learn about the planet’s colonization, the origins of its conflicts, the results of mistakes while working with anti-matter fuel, a few facts about alien life, and the truth about Sky Hausmann.

I really wanted to like this rare, award-winning space opera of the last decade, and I thought I very much would early in the book. Reynolds does some pretty solid world-building, quickly establishing his dark take on humanity in space and painting the ruined Chasm City itself with rich, moody details. The novel did lose me at some point in the second half though. It’s a little too long, and a little too obsessed with dramatic twists over solid storytelling. There are just so many odd turns in the end, and some rely on big contrivances (without spoiling things too much: Tanner runs into a galactic rarity TWICE in two very different places). I stopped caring the third time someone was NOT WHO WE THOUGHT THERE WERE, and there were two or three such BIG REVELATIONS left (is this why it’s called “revelation” space?). Reynolds’ love of the grim and gritty didn’t help either - almost all of the surprises reveal that characters are actually terrible. I don’t mind a little darkness; I just got bored with its relentlessness here. The biggest twists have to do with Tanner’s lost memories (you know when a character acquires amnesia that there are some surprises on the way), but I wasn’t particularly interested in them. I wasn’t involved in Tanner, and I didn’t care about his true story.

There’s some solid world-building and fun action here, but I was not impressed overall. More varied character work, less misdirection, and more streamlined storytelling might have kept me in Reynolds’ world a little longer. Also, as with A Deepness in the Sky, I don’t think an sf novice would stand a chance here, and that, in my opinion, goes a long way towards explaining space opera's fade.

Grade: B-


  1. Excellent assessment... I just finished this one and also came away feeling mixed at best. It was entertaining enough, but got to be a bit of a slog, despite some creative ideas.

    I think the book bloat of late (it is rare that you see a fantasy or sci-fi novel under 500 pages, and most are just one in a series) is a bit of a problem for space opera, which tends to be more about cool ideas that any rich thematic material. And 700 pages of cool ideas, in this case at least, gets tiring.

    I feel the same way about some of Iain M. Banks work, though his prose is smoother and his characters a bit stronger. Notably, Use of Weapons covers some of the same ground as Chasm City but does so in a much more satisfying fashion.

  2. I'm glad I'm not alone on this one. Reynolds, and this novel especially, do seem to be very popular.

    "Book bloat" is a good way of putting it. I do have some very positive reviews of 1000+ page books coming up, but those are the books that really earn their page lengths. Most of them are just poorly edited or even padded (I've heard that publishers have come to prefer longer novels).