#GWN Revisited: Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds

#GWN Revisited: Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds

It is intended that this information will ease your transition into a culture which may be markedly different from the one you were expecting to find when you embarked at your point of origin. -Prologue, Chasm City.

When you think of Science Fiction, you might think of Japan and its futuristic technologies, or an imagined American city landscape devastated by intergalactic war. It is unlikely that the beautiful landscape of Wales will immediately come to mind.

For Alastair Reynolds, it did.

The pastoral vistas of a rural Wales are the prevalent images in tourist information leaflets and holiday advertisements. However, the powerful industrial history of the country is brought to the fore in Reynolds’ epic narrative, Chasm City. The novel is a sweeping tale of ex-soldier and security extraordinaire Tanner Mirabel, and his quest across the planet of Yellowstone to once-great Chasm City, in pursuit of the man that killed his love. However, through the twists and turns of the narrative, Tanner begins to remember things that he cannot be sure have ever actually happened to him. He begins to question his entire identity, and picks up a number of interesting and quite obscure characters along his route to discovery and vengeance.

However, despite how vastly and unapologetically fictional it is, this is certainly a Welsh novel, and not merely due to its author’s birthplace.

Tanner’s story is played out across the backdrop of a pure Science Fiction landscape. We are taken through different galaxies, introduced to time travel and extreme physical modification, all with the incredibly detailed vistas of Yellowstone, and especially the grimy and dilapidated Chasm City, in the background. It was in fact the post-industrial landscapes of South Wales that inspired Reynolds to create these locations. Port Talbot’s steel works and Barry Docks were particular influences on the young Reynolds, and the effect of their sharp and convoluted metal structures, and steam-powered, clanking machinery are clearly echoed within the descriptions of Chasm City:

Where the furthest wall should have been was only an opening through which the lower levels of the city could be seen, behind a perpetual screen of dirty rain sluicing from the side of the terminus. A haphazard line of rickshaws waited: upright boxes balanced between two wide wheels. Some of the rickshaws were powered, coupled behind steam-engines or chugging methane-powered motors. Their drivers lounged indolently, awaiting fares. Others were propelled by pedal-power, and several looked to have been converted from old palanquins.

Reynolds claims that the distant lights from such ‘exotic’ places as Mumbles and Minehead as seen from his home in the Vale of Glamorgan were definite influences. The exoticism of a land that is both relatively close, spatially, but culturally incredibly distant, is certainly evident in the vision of the Canopy in Chasm City:

Some of the buildings split in two halfway up their length, while others bulged with unseemly obesity. Some sprouted tiny avatars of themselves, like the elbowed towers and oubliettes of fairytale castles. Higher, these structural growths bifurcated, and bifurcated again, interpenetrating and linking like bronchioli, or some weird variant of brain coral […] I had seen it before of course, from the sky, but the meaning of it – and its sheer, city-spanning scale – was only now apparent from this vantage point.

It is not only the physical landscapes of Wales that are reflected in Reynolds’ universe, but also the socio-political landscape of Wales and its history; specifically a late 20th Century Wales. Having grown up in the Vale of Glamorgan in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Reynolds was inevitably born into a Wales where political concerns were heightened. The much-famed miner’s strike from 1984-85 left a full and lasting effect on the issue of class for Welshmen and Welshwomen everywhere, and although it is not certain that these socio-political issues were a conscious influence on Reynolds and his writing, a Welsh reader can certainly hear echoes of their own struggles within the text. For instance, the divide between the City’s Canopy and Mulch-dwellers can easily be seen as a reflection of the delicate class system in Wales under the Thatcher government in the 1970s and ’80s, the period during which Reynolds was first envisioning the planets he would later use in Chasm City.

When Tanner first reaches Chasm City from his home planet, a young guide named Juan describes the stratification of the Mulch and the Canopy, and in his own broken, basic language explains; ‘This Mulch,’ […] ‘Everything down here, street level, this Mulch.’ Tanner immediately senses the strict separation between the levels, noting that ‘the Canopy was a kind of suspended ecology and below it was another world – another city – entirely.’ Juan then goes on to explain that up in the Canopy, ‘[t]hem rich people,’ […] ‘Real rich, not small-time rich.’ We later learn that despite the whole of Chasm City having been exposed to a devastating technological and biological plague, because of their wealth, it is the inhabitants of the Canopy that are at an advantage in the aftermath – being able to afford costly and intricate medical procedures and life-lengthening tonics.

However, it is not only the issue of class that is raised in terms of identity, but also that of ‘nationality’, for want of a better word. The fact that travelling within both temporal and spatial planes is possible within Reynolds’ universe means that we are introduced to a veritable menagerie of characters of varying biological, technical, and planetary origins. Inevitably within a narrative populated with so many different ‘nationalities’, the concept of otherness pervades through the story.

Although it is possible to identify the Welshman or Welshwoman as ‘other’, not least due to the origins of the term[1], the idea of otherness is of course not a trait that is particular to the Welsh. It is in fact a worldwide phenomenon and a well-documented theme in literature, especially within the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is at this point, then, that I would like to consider Chasm City not just as a great Welsh novel, but a Great Novel, period.

To return to the issue of otherness, Reynolds addresses here a theme that can be considered integral to the Science Fiction genre. However, rather than merely introducing posthuman and chimeric characters as aesthetically-pleasing asides, the plot twists that centre on Tanner’s questionable identity address deeper issues of being, and of self. For instance, the main narrative – that of Tanner’s revenge quest to Chasm City – is interspersed with the story of pseudo-religious figure Sky Haussmann, presented as memory flashbacks within Tanner’s mind. Here Reynolds explores the more philosophical depths of self, and the reliability of the mind, and of memory. This is not your average pulp SF novel.

The knitting of the two narratives is both detailed and fast-paced, mirroring the imagined sensation of interstellar travel, and despite its intricacies, is cohesive and well written. Reynolds successfully presents an entire universe, along with its tumultuous history, all in a matter of six-hundred-and-something pages. We are pulled through various worlds and back-stories, only to end up at a destination that is more hazy than the one from which we departed.

As the prologue to Chasm City – and to this essay – states, the world into which we are carried by Reynolds is much more complex and of an entirely different flavour than we might expect when presented with a Welsh Novel. This is not a tale of pastoral Welsh living, nor is it a completely disconnected tale from an author that just happens to be from Wales. The influence of the Welsh landscape and politics on the narrative is clear, whilst the issues raised are relevant to a much wider world. Reynolds delves into the depths of identity and what it means to be human, and brings a new facet to the Science Fiction genre. Also, let’s not ignore the fact that this is a gripping and thoroughly enjoyable read. Chasm City is not just a Science Fiction epic, and not just a novel written by a Welshman. It is, truly, a Great Welsh Novel.

[1] The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the name ‘Wales’ was attributed to the land by Englishmen, and that it means ‘the territory of the alien race’. [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15532a.htm, 22.08.14]