Chasm City (Alastair Reynolds, 2001)

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Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds (2001).

Score: Fucking awesome.

Tanner Mirabel is a mercenary ex-soldier from Sky’s Edge who is out to hunt down Argent Reivich, who killed his boss and his boss’ wife, and for that he’s willing to travel for fifteen years in a lighthugger to planet Yellowstone, once the most advanced human enclave, now ruined by an alien virus known as the Melding Plague. In the process, he’s infected by an indoctrinal disease that gives him flashbacks about the life of Sky Haussman, the vilified and revered founding father of his natal colony.

Chasm city is great both as a space opera and a noir novel. The suspense in Revelation Space was a bit clumsy at times, but here the pace and development is nearly perfect. The reveals happen regularly through the book, instead of all at the same time at the end. This means that Reynolds has a lot of surprises for you, but not so many that it feels fabricated or over-the-top.

The sci-fi characterisation ranges from fascinating (the hamadryads) to borderline ridiculous (modified cetaceans that pilot shuttles?), and the main characters are wonderfully developed. I complained that Dan Sylveste was a bit insipid but that was inverted with Tanner/Sky/Cahuella, which were amazing as villain protagonists. The post-decadent Chasm City is great as setting, described with love and care, but not stalling the narration to indulge in endless masturbatory descriptions. I hope to read more about the decaying city in Redemption Ark, and about the decadent one in The Prefect.

Try not to read anything about it, if you’re already interested in reading it, it’s best if you don’t know a lot about the book. Just know that I consider it the best book I’ve read this year so far and one of the best space operas ever.

***SPOILERS***

The reveal was pure genius. All of them. I got kind of annoyed too, in the good way, because there was some smooth as hell foreshadowing to the Tanner is Cahuella reveal: when Cahuella wants to go outside in the night and Tanner offers him night-vision goggles. This means that Tanner can’t really see in the dark, so the narrator must be either Cahuella or Dieterling. Also Tanner doesn’t know about the modification, so it must mean that Tanner is not who he thinks he is. There’s also a similar one with the Cahuella is Sky reveal, and it’s that the narrator mentions several times that the flashbacks he’s having differ from the canonical story of Sky Haussman. You’re probably going to dismiss it by saying that it’s probably an especially crazy branch of the sect that infected it, but as the book goes on you start wondering if Sky Haussman wasn’t really crucified in the end…

BONUS: I really like how Wikipedia describes the book as “dealing with themes of identity, memory, and immortality”. Nice way of saying that there is a very unreliable narrator in this without spoiling it.

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