Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
Chasm City (2001) is the fourth Alastair Reynolds book I’ve read in his REVELATION SPACE series, though it is a stand-alone and a much better book. The main trilogy (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap) featured a lot of good hard SF world-building, but was heavily weighed down by clunky characters, dialogue, and extremely bloated page-count. While Chasm City is not any shorter at around 700 pages, it makes much better use of those pages with a fast-paced plot, complicated and dark but intriguing characters, and flashbacks that form a gripping story of their own.
The main elements that distinguish Chasm City from many other space opera and cyberpunk offerings is its unique “gothic cyberpunk” feel. This comes primarily from the Melding Plague that has attacked the Glitter Band of 10,000 space orbitals that inhabit the Epsilon Eridani system. This civilization, though we never see it much, brings to mind the decadent future milieu of Iain M. Banks’ CULTURE novels. The Melding Plague is a nano-tech plague that attacks advanced technology and morphs it into a bizarre and degenerate conflation of organic and mechanical life.
As a result, the quasi-utopian civilization of the Glitter Band has been reduced to a Rust Belt of decimated orbitals taken over by ruined buildings, machinery, and habitats that have taken on strange and gothic shapes that continually change on their own volition, a seething organic-mechanical landscape that has reduced the high-tech world of Yellowstone and its capital city of Chasm City to a post-cyberpunk melange of low-tech, twisted and crumbling buildings, feral tribes of bottom-dwelling humans that occupy the Mulch, and more powerful elites that live in the Canopy above and occasionally hunt the unfortunates of the Mulch for entertainment.
The environment of Yellowstone strongly recalls the decaying post-apocalyptic worlds of J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World and The Drowned World, along with elements of the dying earth riot of plant-life profusion of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse. Everywhere we see signs of decay and collapse, as the machinery that mankind has painstakingly developed over centuries rebels against humans and taken on a life of its own. The use of low-tech also resembles the post-fossil fuel future society of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.
This is blended with a very dark cyberpunk tale of revenge centered on Tanner Mirabell, a former military operative who leaves Sky’s Edge to pursue a man named Reivich who killed the woman he loved but who was also his former boss wife. It’s a complex web of intrigue and hard-boiled revenge, much in the vein of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and like many of Reynolds’ characters, there is not much to like about these people, who are mostly cold, obsessive, and ruthless. This whole sub-genre was pioneered by William Gibson in Neuromancer, but Reynolds has put a new spin by subjecting his cyberpunk world to the corroding influence of the Melding Plague. It’s definitely a subversive and enticing concept.
Chasm City also has a fully-developed sub-plot that involves Sky Haussmann, a man who is a member of a fleet of generational starships that is heading to colonize a new world. He begins as an ambitious but sympathetic young man, but through various events he starts to make decisions that take him to the dark side, as he morphs into a power-hungry individual who seeks to take over the starships and destroy his rivals. This could have been done simply through flashbacks, but Reynolds again does something different. He introduces his Sky episodes via flashbacks by Tanner Mirabell, who has been infected with an “indoctrination virus” that causes him to recall memories of Sky Haussmann as if they were his own. This virus seems to have been created by a cult that worships the vilified Sky, who was crucified for the crimes he committed centuries earlier.
Reynolds deftly interweaves the memories of Sky Housemann with the slowly returning memories of Tanner Mirabell. As we learn more about both characters, we also begin to realize that both Tanner’s story, Sky’s crimes, the generational starship mission, and the Melding Plague itself are linked in far more byzantine ways than we initially thought. As if that weren’t enough, Reynolds introduces a series of plot twists in the final third of the book that force us to rethink what has come before. I’m not sure if all the plot elements and motivations really make sense, but I loved the dark stew of narratives that bring into question every aspect of Tanner’s identity and memories. It’s definitely worth untangling again in a future reading, and I’m so glad that Chasm City showed me what has appealed to his large fan base, since I was not convinced by the REVELATION SPACE trilogy.
John Lee as always does a solid job on the narration — he is well suited to the dark tone of the book and has chemistry with Reynolds ‘ work. I’ll be moving on to the The Prefect and House of Suns next with a much more positive outlook.
You had me at Glitter Band. Then you lost me at “cold, obsessive and ruthless.” In Gibson’s books, the main characters were relateable! It doesn’t sound like these folks are.
Still, it definitely sounds worth checking out for the concept alone. Transhumanism is big right now, I guess.
I think of all Reynolds’ books this might be the best intro. As for Gibson’s characters being relatable, I remember reading Neuromancer back in 1985 and thinking “damn, these are the most unpleasant SF characters I’ve ever encountered.” It’s time to revisit that book with a more adult perspective though.
Soon after this book came out I plowed through it, Cosmonaut Keep by MacLeod, RedRobe by Grimwood, and Gridlinked by Asher. My reaction was a collective “Meh!” So much for the new Brit hard SF. I think this one was the best of the four, but I found the characters in all of them unlikeable or shallow (or both).
I did later read and rather like Grimwood’s End of the World Blues though. But I couldn’t even finish Asher’s last one, Dark Intelligence, which had a cast of unintelligent and sadistic characters.
I haven’t read any of those other books, but I’m fairly sure Chasm City is Reynolds’ best book. I’m looking forward to comparing his work with Peter Hamilton’s Commonwealth and Void series.
I liked all of Grimwood’s later stuff; the Arabesk Trilogy, End of the World Blues, his Venetian fantasy trilogy, 9Tailed Fox and The Final Banquet. Red Robe and the one about alt-Venice in the Pacific didn’t do as much for me.