CHASM CITY by Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 2003, 694 pages, 0441010644, Mass Market Paperback, $7.99
Genre: Science Fiction
Let me begin by saying that, if you’ve read Chasm City‘s back cover blurb, you’d do well to go ahead and pretend that you hadn’t.
Oh, the blurb has something to do with the plot, that’s true enough. But it’s nowhere near as accurate as it ought to be. So, before I give my thoughts on Chasm City, I’ll have to rectify this faulty image of the story.
Tanner Mirabel, formerly employed as a security operative by a man named Cahuella, is after Reivich, the man responsible for the death of said employer. However, simple revenge doesn’t turn out to be nearly as straightforward as he expected it to be. After a series of unexpected events (unrelated to Lemony Snicket, I assure you), Tanner finds himself far from his homeworld of Sky’s Edge but still on the trail of Reivich. To find him, he must go to the once-utopian Chasm City, a settlement that has been altered beyond recognition by a virus called the Melding Plague. Nevertheless, Tanner continues his journey, only to stumble into more than a few complicated situations. Not least on his list of problems is an indoctrinal virus causing him to have detailed dreams about the war criminal Schulyer Haussmann, the man who was first to land on Sky’s Edge and begin colonization. But, rather than eventually wearing off, these dreams turn into waking visions, and soon Tanner has to face the possibility that, somehow, things aren’t exactly as they appear to be, not even within his own consciousness.
Chasm City has to be one of the more enjoyable science fiction novels that I’ve read over the last few years. Oh, it has its ups and downs, but over all it doesn’t disappoint. Of particular interest is Tanner Mirabel, the main character of the story. Somehow Reynolds manages to make this character likeable and interesting right from the beginning. The other two characters present in the first three or four chapters, who are, in fact, incidental to the novel, manage to pull off the same coup, and you’re left wondering whether you’re going to end up liking everyone regardless of what part they play.
As it happens, that’s near enough to the truth. Oh, you don’t form the same bond with, say, Quirrenbach the musical composer or Amelia the Ice Mendicant as you do with Tanner, but overall, there’s not really anyone in the story who is patently unlikable (with maybe one little exception near the end).
Beyond that, the plot itself is simple enough on the surface level – one man on a hunt to avenge the death of his employer and his employer’s wife. That, however, is just the skim off the top. The fact is that this story is a mass of jealously guarded secrets (most of them character based which, for me, is like getting literary candy). All the way up to the last fifty pages, you’re left wondering if everything you’ve figured out so far is really what’s going on.
One downfall to this is that, toward the end when the climactic events start cropping up (which I’m trying desperately not to spoil), you can’t help but question why the motivations and perceptions of some of the characters seem a little off from the way we were lead to believe in them. Oh, granted, something like being fed alive to a giant pseudo-reptile, cut out of its stomach, and then abandoned might give somebody cause for a change in personality, but it still seemed just the slightest bit forced given that we’ve supposedly been privy to that character’s memories from the beginning. Been then some of that was pretty confusing, even for the character, so who’s to say….
As for Reynolds’s narrative style, well, I can at least say that he doesn’t leave anything out. He’s very unique in that he manages to use a very clear-cut technique while at the same time throwing in several ten dollars words that, I have to admit, are somewhat impressive. His sentences aren’t too complicated in and of themselves, but his paragraphs, in some places, are positively expansive. You never hurt for imagery in this novel, that’s for certain. Luckily, though, everything he describes is done in such a way that it seems perfectly believable within the confines of science (or so I, a non-scientist, would say). The fact that Alistair Reynolds has a Ph.D. in astronomy helps, I’m sure.
Occasionally, though, the massive narrative descriptions can leave you feeling a little bit frustrated – hurting for some more character interaction rather than plodding through more descriptions of Chasm City itself. But all is usually forgiven once Tanner joins up with someone for a bit of dialogue or when a true action scene turns up and speeds the story along.
One other thing that caught my attention in Chasm City was that Reynolds’s female characters didn’t waste away in the shadows of their male counterparts. Although none of the women had particularly large parts, they also weren’t simply cast off as trivial or given less-than-admirable intelligences. Each of them was recognizable as a strong individual and, in that way, not subjected to the formula that permeates an unfortunate number of science fiction and fantasy novels.
And so, I give Chasm City a well deserved thumbs up for generally being a well written novel as well as for pulling a few over on me. I suppose the only thing I have to complain about very loudly would be that somebody didn’t proofread for typographical errors….