Review of Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
by Alastair Reynolds
We all have triggers, certain topics in our beloved genres that instantly make us sit up and pay attention. Artificial intelligence is one such trigger for me; identity is another. (Both touch on philosophy of the mind, a field that fascinates me, and I suspect this is why they intrigue me.) There is scant AI in Chasm City, but there is plenty of reflection on identity and the ramifications of using technology to alter one’s identity. As every other review notes, this book is part of the Revelation Space universe but stands alone; one does not need to read any of the other novels to enjoy it.
I often spend most of a review discussing the main character and my reaction to them. In this case, I suppose that would be Tanner Mirabel—but it’s more complicated than that. Tanner has left the backwater world of Sky’s Edge in pursuit of Argent Reivich, a cold-hearted killer. Tanner wants revenge after failing to protect his employer’s wife from Reivich. Since humanity hasn’t discovered superluminal travel in this universe, Tanner’s only option for following Reivich to the burgeoning Yellowstone is reefersleep—stasis aboard a relativistic-speed ship. When he awakes, he has the characteristic amnesia of someone who has spent time in reefersleep. Gradually, Tanner’s memories click back into place—but it’s more complicated than that.
Along with his own memories, Tanner begins having intense, realistic dreams that remember parts of the life of Sky Haussmann, the vilified founder of Sky’s Edge. Hundreds of years ago, Sky took command of one of the four generation ships en route to Sky’s Edge—then, Journey’s End. In a calculated move to reach the planet before any of the other ships, Sky jettisoned all of the sleeping passengers. Long dead (crucified, in fact), Sky’s memories somehow survive in a kind of virus that a cult passes on to travellers. Infected, Tanner spends the entire book reliving parts of Sky’s life in chronological order.
Chasm City is a long book. So by breaking it up with these episodes—as well as similar flashbacks to Tanner’s time with his employer and his employer’s wife—Reynolds makes the pacing more bearable. Tanner’s actual hunt for Reivich always seems to meet obstacles and get him side-tracked in true action-movie fashion. He gets thrust into a “Most Dangerous Game” hunt (as the quarry), then he gets rescued, betrays his rescuer, goes on a fact-finding mission, hooks up with his rescuer again, etc. The plot doesn’t follow a straight line or even some kind of zig-zag path towards finding Reivich; it seems more like a kind of drunken, slightly off-kilter spiral towards the final confrontation. Of course, by that point the true nature of Tanner’s complicated identity issues has been revealed, changing everything.
Seriously, I seldom see such masterful sleight-of-hand. Reynolds pulls off a reveal both complicated and potentially corny enough that it could have ruined the entire book. As it is, it deepened my enjoyment of Chasm City immensely. Suddenly this was no longer a simple tale about a super-soldier assassin on a quest for revenge. Instead, it was about a conflicted and very broken man slowly rediscovering his identity and realizing how little he understands about himself.
Reynolds touches on several of the typical reactions to the manipulation of memory—how, thanks to that manipulation, Tanner is no longer the man he was or the man he is pretending to be but actually a new person altogether. It raises all sorts of questions about the implications that memory-scanning and -altering technology has for individuality and personhood. Am I me, or a copy of me—an instance of me running on a particular platform? If I tweak my memories, do I destroy who I am? We see this latter phenomenon in people who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s—but what if we willingly added or subtracted memories rather than lost them indiscriminately and uncontrollably? Would it be any different?
More than raising (and offering some answers to) these questions, Reynolds provides an action-packed story in the process. I came to quite enjoy the Sky flashbacks. Sky’s story develops in parallel to Tanner’s, with its own arc, conflict, motivations, etc. There are links that tie the two narratives together, with more hints at the underlying mythology of the Revelation Space universe. And the sinister transformation of Sky from somewhat innocent child to an outright anti-hero is fascinating in a cold way. Having recently finished another novel about a generation ship, I was struck by certain similarities (though I much prefer how Reynolds handled it).
It’s a good thing that the main character (or characters, I guess, since Sky’s story is almost a novella in its own right) is so multi-dimensional and complex. Chasm City lacks many compelling minor characters. The likes of Quirrenbach, Zebra, Chantarelle, etc., are more distractions than anything—interesting and memorable names, to be sure, they seem to surface and then evaporate to fit the needs of the plot. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed Sky’s narrative so much was the relative straightforwardness of the plot compared to the digressions that dominate Tanner’s. Whatever the case, there are certainly issues here with characterization; I can ignore them, though, because the rest of the book is just so good.
Somewhat different from Revelation Space—and that’s probably a good thing—Chasm City delivers an interesting mix of mystery, thriller, and philosophy. It is definitely a shining example of what good science fiction can be, proof that one can engage with meaningful issues without sacrificing story. Definitely something you want on your to-read list.