I liked Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, but I found subsequent books to be slow going and I stopped buying. When I saw this novella on NetGalley, I planned to pass it by. However, based on positive Goodreads reviews and the fact that I liked Reynolds’ shorter work in Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, I thought I’d give it a try. I’m afraid it’s more like the novels than the stories.
Slow Bullets reads as a somewhat random collection of ideas with a loose envelope of story. The bullets themselves are a (particularly impractical) form of dog tag that works its way deep into the body – and has the ability to explode (for no reason ever mentioned). The other threads of the story are revenge (the protagonist is tortured and wants to get back at her tormentor) and religion (two warring sides have slightly different holy books). They’re all wrapped in the idea of a ship that has kept them asleep for a millennium, but whose systems have deteriorated.
All of those ideas could be interesting, but in practice, they’re not. The sections on religion (of which there are several) are simultaneously pointed and dull. They provide color to the story, but of a peculiarly faded hue. The environmental concept – a ship running low on resources – has been covered by many, and quite similarly by Ben Bova’s Exiles trilogy. The prose throughout, but especially at the start, is cursory. There’s eventually an embedded pseudo explanation for this, but not one that really holds water in context.
Many of the technical obstacles in the story don’t hold up. There are other, more logical things the characters would more likely have chosen to do. Some givens never make sense at all (the slow bullets themselves, for example). It’s of a piece, however, with their emotional reactions, which seem strangely subdued – underlining the point that the story is not about the bulk of the humans on the ship, who are essentially window dressing, but about three central characters (perhaps two). The bulk of the characters (mostly very hard cases) simply don’t act like people would, and it’s never explained. Even the protagonist is largely unconvincing, and we never really build much sympathy with her (though most of the others accept her story without corroboration)..
The writing itself is fairly solid, but also stolid, and that’s also of a piece with Reynolds’ style. I firmly believe Reynolds is a talented writer, and yet remarkably little of what he writes actually holds my attention. Much of this novella feels like a dense data dump, and not exciting data at that. There is one interesting twist suggested at the end, but it’s so buried that it doesn’t have much impact.
If you’re a serious fan of Reynolds’ work, I’m sure you’ll like this as well. It fits his style, but with less cohesion than his other work. If you haven’t encountered Reynolds, this is not the place to start. Try Century Rain instead.