BRIEF SYNOPSIS: At the end of a war, a ship of damaged soldiers goes adrift in space.
PROS: Great sense of time and scope.
CONS: There’s a lot to disagree with about the ending.
BOTTOM LINE: Reynolds is good at any length, but really shines with novellas like this one.
Tachyon Press has been reliably putting out interesting work for years now: novels, anthologies, and chapbook novellas that sometimes can’t find another home. With the demise of Subterranean Press’s magazine, we especially need them now for novellas, a format that historically lends itself well to science fiction: enough room for all the worldbuilding and some tight plotting, not enough to get hung up on the fact that the characters maybe aren’t that deep. Tachyon, along with Tor.com, is helping keep the form alive.
All of which is to say that Tachyon has once again done us a favor by publishing Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets. Joining the knockout successes of Nancy Kress’ Yesterday’s Kin and Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine (either of which would have dominated the novella awards lists in their year; it was painful to watch them have to compete against each other), Slow Bullets reminds us just how versatile Reynolds’ science fiction can be. In a story only a fraction the length of any one of his Revelation Space novels, this novella gestures at Stapledonian time frames seen through a tightly focused lens. (Remember, it’s Olaf Stapledon’s science fictional universe—the rest of us are just playing in it.)
Scur is a conscripted soldier in a war that’s winding down. She gets captured and tortured by Orvin, a rogue soldier ostensibly from the “other side.” Then they both end up on a prisoner transport hibernation ship that has gone drifting, washing up at its destination a long, long time after anyone expected them. Scur quickly takes control of her situation, and the populace of the ship tries to make sense of their circumstances and find a purpose as they move ahead in a ship far, far, out of its time.
Scur is as convincing a narrator as any, and has admirable agency once she wakes up. The novella’s length allows for a nice slow build as the passengers realize just where and when they are, and what if anything they can do about it. The animosity between Scur and Orvin provides a nice central structure for the piece. And while I don’t agree at all with Orvin’s ultimate fate, it is a very interesting resolution to their dilemma.
Reynolds isn’t as well known for his short fiction, but he is very strong at the long short lengths, as it were. Although poetry features as a leit motif, Slow Bullets won’t win awards for prose styling. But in terms of thoughtfulness and an intense dramatization of several different kinds of estrangement (plus some nicely placed hints at an unreliable narrator), this stands up well in the long history of strong sf novellas.