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Chasm City
Alastair Reynolds
Victor Gollancz, 524 pages

Chris Moore
Chasm City
Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds was born in 1966 in Barry, South Wales. He spent his early years in Cornwall, moved back to Wales and on to university in Newcastle doing Physics and Astronomy. Then it was on to a PhD in St Andrews, Scotland. In 1991, he moved to Holland, where he met his partner Josette, and worked as ESA Research Fellow then did his post-doctoral work at Utrecht University. At present he works at ESA as contractor.

Alastair Reynolds Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Revelation Space

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Alastair Reynolds' second novel, Chasm City, is set in the same future as his first novel, Revelation Space, and it is similarly very long (in this case over 260,000 words). Chasm City is the main city of the planet Yellowstone, which orbits Epsilon Eridani. Some 7 years prior to the action of the book, Yellowstone and its orbital habitats were devastated by the Melding Plague, which destroyed the nanomachines upon which much of the high-tech infrastructure depended, and which effected horrible alterations in anything (and anyone) dependent on that sort of technology. This places it some time prior to most of the action of Revelation Space. That book had a couple of threads on Yellowstone, one a flashback to decades prior to the Melding Plague, and one occurring a few years after the action of Chasm City. Most of Revelation Space is set still a few decades later, however.

Because travel in Reynolds' universe is restricted to sub-light speeds, and because his novels feature characters going between star systems, they tend to take place over long time frames. It should be noted that while a couple of important characters from Revelation Space are mentioned in Chasm City (and the closing section of the new novel includes what I take to be a cameo by another character from the first novel), the two novels are quite independent and can be read in any order.

The central thread of the this novel is brutally simple: Tanner Mirabel comes to Yellowstone from Sky's Edge (a planet of 61 Cygni A -- it's nice to see all these classic SFnal star systems: Delta Pavonis also figures in Revelation Space), looking to kill Argent Reivich, who had killed the woman Tanner loved. However, that's just the skeleton on which a more complex plot is hung. The story unfolds in three threads, all nominally from Tanner's point of view. The first thread takes place over a rather short period in Chasm City as Tanner looks for Reivich, in the process learning a lot about the curious nature of the decayed city -- especially the conflicts between the "Mulch" (lower class) and the Canopy (where the aristocrats hang out). Tanner becomes involved in a dangerous "Game," in which bored Canopy residents kidnap people from the Mulch and hunt them to their death. He also hears of the illicit trade in "Dream Fuel," which seems to give users immunity from the Melding Plague.

Another thread tells, in flashbacks, of Tanner's association with the arms dealer Cahuella back on Sky's Edge, and Cahuella's wife Gitta (with whom he falls in love), and Reivich's attempt on Cahuella's life (in revenge for Cahuella supplying the weapons that killed Reivich's family), which led to Gitta's death. Finally, Tanner has apparently been infected with an "indoctrination virus," which implants memories of Sky Haussmann, the sometimes revered, sometimes hated, last Captain of the first ship to reach Sky's Edge. As those memories return to Tanner, at first in dreams, later more insistently, he learns a somewhat different, much stranger, story of the journey of the colonizing generation starships from Earth to 61 Cygni.

As the reader expects, these threads converge, leading to revelations about Tanner's past, the truth about Sky Haussmann, the real nature of the Yellowstone colony, the place of humans in the universe, and the emptiness of the revenge motive. To a pretty impressive extent, Reynolds manages to deliver on some of the rather large implicit promises he has made the reader: for one, these threads dovetail pretty well; for another, some of the big revelations are pretty neat. On the other hand, the whole revenge motif seems forced from the beginning, and the resolution to that aspect, while twisty enough to be interesting, doesn't quite convince.

This is a better novel than its predecessor, though not without faults. First the good stuff: it's full of neat SFnal ideas, not necessarily brilliantly new, but very well-realized: the generation ships (treated rather differently than usual in SF), some genetic technology, some alien ecosystem stuff, even a hint of a communication system reminiscent of the Dirac Communicator in James Blish's "Beep." It sets up expectations for a pretty spectacular closing revelation, tying together the three threads, and as I've said, it pretty much delivers on those expectations. The resolution had elements that I expected, and which were nicely foreshadowed, plus elements that were a great surprise, but which still worked for me. Thus, I'd say, that in terms of large-scale plot and setting, the book works very well. As for the prose, it's sound, serviceable, hard SF prose: nothing impressive, but not too clunky either. The faults, then, lie in some small-scale plot elements, and characterization.

The plot, particularly Tanner's attempts to find Reivich, depends on a lot of implausible coincidence and luck, super-powerful characters who still don't kill their rivals when reasonably they should, and secret organizations suddenly being penetrated by little more than brandishing a gun in the face of underlings. More tellingly, the characters are a bit under-motivated, and they are pretty much all evil and violent, but not really presented in such a way. More than several times, we are told that such and such a character, single-mindedly bent on killing several other characters, is really not bad and is justified in so doing. This seems to represent an awfully cynical view of humanity: everyone is purely out for number one, and is pretty much ready to kill anyone in their way.

On balance, this is a pretty impressive book. The faults are the faults of much SF, especially hard SF, and the virtues are the virtues of the same sort of SF. It doesn't, then, transcend its sub-genre at all, although it does do very well within those boundaries. And for a long book, it reads smoothly enough, and keeps the interest. In this way it is an improvement on the slightly shorter Revelation Space, which seemed significantly too long. While I wouldn't say that Chasm City might not benefit from some judicious cutting, it fills its page count reasonably well. It's another step towards what could become a very significant 21st century hard SF career.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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