Science Fiction | Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair ReynoldsImagine being suspended in time and space, all faculties of the outside world unknown, incarcerated indefinitely with people against whom you have spent your life fighting.

Meet Scur.

Accidental soldier and protagonist narrator of Alastair Reynolds’ new novella, Slow Bullets, Scur opens with a discussion of a childhood love of poetry, only to move swiftly and directly into a torture scene. A complex and fascinating woman, Scur, and indeed Mr. Reynolds, keep you on your toes from the off.

In a captivating first-person narrative, Scur recalls waking up, after ‘an interval of darkness, and then I woke somewhere. It was cold and there was no light.’ Scur’s rebirth into an as-yet-undisclosed space vessel (named Caprice), in an unknown time, is the catalyst for what often reads like a report on political experimentation. With Slow Bullets being released barely a month after the UK’s May General Election, it seems almost impossible not to compare our own political climate with that of the chaos that befalls Scur and her fellow internees.

We are immediately immersed within a narrative that although is told from a personal point of view, is also clearly concerned with the details and facts of the situation at hand. Early in the text, before relating an incident between internees, Scur addresses the reader, stating that ‘[t]his, more or less, is what happened.’ This is a continuation of a strictly honest approach from Scur, who earlier admits that amongst herself and her fellow captives aboard the ship, ‘[t]here will be good and bad in all of us.’ Scur’s reasonable attitude, in contrast to the automatic binary of ‘us and them’ that befalls the ship’s inhabitants in various ways, is a refreshing departure from the slightly Orwellian description of the awakened prisoners by the ship’s remaining crew members as ‘Dregs’.

As a former military soldier, mistakenly (though we’re not told how or why) conscripted into a religious war, Scur is anything but blindly idealistic. However, her desire to survive intact upon the ship drives her to do what she knows best: organise a strategy. Like a gritty and military-trained Dorothy, Scur’s main concern is seeing ‘that [they] have a chance of getting home.’ Preferably all alive. This basic desire to protect one’s own life does indeed extend to preserving one’s own way of life. As soon as Scur introduces the idea – admittedly somewhat forcibly – to invoke a democratic system in order to reduce the violence aboard the ship, religious alliances become problematic. One of the internee’s elected leaders, a woman by the name of Yesli, notes that it is the religious alliances of the people that is causing the violent break-outs:

These people wouldn’t have come to blows over some poetry or scientific knowledge. They came to blows over the Book. Your side, their side – their stupid differences of interpretation.

It is this inevitable human fallacy of blind faith in one’s own opinions that causes the troubles aboard the ship. For a reader, this violence seems needless – surely they should all just be concerned with staying alive and getting home? It seems Reynolds is telling us the same thing; and that maybe we should take some of our own advice in ‘real’ life. Sadly, some of the descriptions of violence with which the narrative is peppered do not necessarily sound like science fiction.

But Scur has her own troubles to deal with. Her torturer is aboard the ship and loose… a fact with which Scur is obviously enraged. In another turn which carries its own political double entendres, it is the hunt for this torturer that Scur is hoping will unite her fellow passengers:

I had warned the Trinity that Orvin was an extremely dangerous man, not merely a soldier but also an unsurpassed expert in armed and unarmed close quarters combat. I was not in any way convinced that Orvin was going to come quietly, just because we had him cornered. To that end, Yesli, Spry and Crowl had all agreed that their search parties would identify Orvin and proceed no further once his location was known. Once we had him pinned down, the other wheels would send over their own armed parties. Sooner or later we were going to have to mix, and this exercise would give the three different factions a chance to work together under a common goal.

Although at first sight, this tactic of uniting her people is a great one, there is certainly something unsettling about Scur’s readiness to direct the hatred felt by the entire population of the ship toward one individual being, despite this being’s horrendous history of torturing his enemies. Despite Orvin seemingly being a deserving target, one can’t help but feel a little uneasy at the concept of uniting a people via a hatred of one person or group.

Despite these somewhat questionable ethics aboard the wayward Caprice, Scur’s overall desire to keep herself and her shipmates alive and within some kind of order comes out on top. As she comments to her right-hand man Prad, a technician aboard Caprice, they can, and must, work together, for ‘“[f]undamentally, we’re all just human beings, caught up in some shit we didn’t ask for.”’ This sentiment sounds a lot like recent exclamations overheard in public and even in the media, after the recent election result. Love it or loathe it, this is the government we have, and it is now our duty to move forward in any way we can. We can only wonder if this message of hope is something Reynolds has intended to share with his readers.

Alongside the highly politicised nature of Scur’s story, there is frequent and pointed reference to the constant juxtaposition of biological and technological. A topic that is profuse within the SF genre, the tech/bio dichotomy is one which also pervades our own lives, and the gap between literature and reality on this subject becomes smaller and smaller with every passing year. Almost immediately, Scur, in her description of Orvin, refers to his skin as ‘the colour and texture of meat.’ This is a visceral and pointed reminder that as humans we are largely flesh and blood; beings easily cut down and eviscerated by stronger and more durable materials. Our corporeal body is unimportant and largely useless in the face of advanced technologies, and as such, it is mental capacities that are of much higher value aboard Caprice. This is evidenced by Scur’s need to keep Prad on her side; he not only has a geographical knowledge of the ship which is useful to her upon waking, but he also has a highly skilled technical knowledge, making his lack of people skills seem almost inconsequential. However, it is soon revealed that an access to technology is not necessarily a cure-all fix. When one of the elected leaders of the ship, Crowl, becomes injured, Scur invests her faith in an ‘auto-surgeon’ machine with which the ship is fitted; ‘[t]he rational part of my mind told me that a machine was the only thing you wanted anywhere near an injured human being. Machines were ruthlessly infallible.’ This faith in machines’ inevitable success is soon dampened by its bloody performance of a swift but gruesome massacre of Crowl’s body. For Scur and her fellow shipmates then, having access to incredibly sophisticated technology is all very well and good… as long as it works. Caprice is still in need of skilled and rational people if she is to support any kind of human settlement. It is this somewhat comforting aspect of the novella that differentiates it from many other space-narratives or dystopian stories; humans are still useful! We are, in Reynolds’ universe, still mercifully on the right side of the robot uprising.

Alongside the direct human abilities to ‘override’ certain systems if they get out of control, and the brain’s ability to moderate laws and theories with circumstantial evidence, it is the cultural and artistic knowledge of the species that is highlighted by Reynolds, and the need to preserve this essential life-element for future generations. It is often this more artistic ability that is featured as the focal point for humans in the bio. Vs. tech. dichotomy that runs rampant throughout the science fiction genre. For Reynolds, the biological and the technological seemingly go hand-in-hand, complementing one another, and existing in somewhat of a symbiotic relationship. When Prad is explaining the ship’s memory capabilities to his fellow internees, he automatically uses biological similes in order to make the explanation more understandable:

The ship has two types of memory. Like the human brain it has both long- and short- term storage registers. The long-term registers are normally very stable, but slower to access and update. Into these areas the ship would normally consign information that does not need to be consulted or updated very frequently.

It is this long-term memory that Prad is proposing to use to preserve cultural knowledge; just as the human brain would do in order to store memories and information that it would not necessarily have to access on a day-to-day basis. Caprice has a certain amount of spare long-term memory that can house the internee’s knowledge, the rest of which will have to be passed on in a much more primitive manner. As long as the knowledge survives, the humans’ lives aboard Caprice will be validated.

Slow Bullets is in effect a fable for moderation. For working together against the odds and compromising to find a way that works. There will inevitably be compromises between beliefs, whether cultural or religious; between technological advancement and the desire to preserve human artistry and individuality, and of course, an ongoing compromise between people’s wants and needs versus the good of the group. This seemingly simple advocation of moderation does indeed appear to be falling more and more within the realms of sf in our world, and as such it has fallen to our speculative fiction to remind us that it is possible, if only we try, and maybe narratives like Slow Bullets can help give us a push in the right direction. In times of struggle, focus often falls to literature in an attempt to find answers for the questions that are plaguing society. As Scur tells us amid internee questionings, ‘[s]torytelling is another word for being interrogated’.