Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
Publication date: 16 February 2017
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This review is spoiler free.
My disclaimer here is that I haven’t actually read any Alastair Reynolds before, despite him being on my long list of authors I need to look into. Therefore I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked up Slow Bullets.
Scur is a soldier who, just as a ceasefire has been declared, is captured by the war criminal Orvin. He shoots a slow bullet under her skin, a routine procedure that usually requires an unconcious patient or at least an anaesthetic. Rather than working its way harmlessly into her chest where it would painlessly remain, this bullet will dig an excruciating and ruthless path through her body and into her heart, where it will explode. She is rescued just as she loses consciousness and when she awakens, she finds herself on a drifting prison ship that hasn’t quite arrived at its destination on schedule. Trapped on the dying ship with criminals and civilians from both sides of the war, Scur and the others must set aside deeply ingrained differences in order to survive and build a community. But unknown factors disrupt the fragile peace and new priorities begin to take hold.
I have a lot of feelings about this novella. First of all, a decision should have been made to either expand this into a full-length novel or trim a lot of the fat and flesh out the story and characters. There’s just so much crammed in here and it would have been more effective to follow a more simple plotline. Many of the extra bits just didn’t feel as necessary — some things that would be more developed in a full-length book were mentioned once or twice and never again. A lot of this was fluff; it was adding action for the sake of action. The best parts of the book were when we could study the behaviour of the people on the ship and how they reacted to a range of hopeless and difficult situations.
Despite plot issues, the writing is fantastic and engaging. Reynolds does an excellent job of creating an underlying tension and sense of despair that permeates the novella. While the world building is minimal, Scur, Prad, and Orvin are all interesting characters that help drive the reader’s interest. Scur is our narrator, but is she reliable? We cannot be sure even though we get a firsthand account of the events through her. She says she doesn’t want leadership, only revenge, but assumes a leadership role anyway. Prad follows her lead too easily, particularly toward the end, but he’s supposed to be an innocent crew member fleeing from dangerous soldiers. Orvin is a terrible, terrible human, but is there something he knows that we don’t about our narrator? Maybe I read too much into it, but these characters all seem to be and want more than they appear, and I would have loved to see them fully developed in a novel.
A lot of this sounds so negative, but it really is a fun read. The good stuff is there in Slow Bullets, but some of it got sacrified for ‘action’ and filler. There’s a level of depth here that works so beautifully in sci-fi; science fiction is at its absolute best when it breaks down society and examines what it is to be human. Overall, this is a quick and satisfying read that’s absolutely worth picking up. I feel I was harsh on a good novella because it had the potential to be so much more.