Review: Slow Bullets

Slow Bullets was my first book by Alastair Reynolds and one of only a handful of scifi books I’ve ever read, and is a good beginner-level introduction to the genre. Slow Bullets is a quick 192-page read that I finished in one sitting. If you’re looking for something that you can speed-read through to make your Goodreads annual quota (heh), this is a fine choice; however, the characters and plot are largely unmemorable and leave little impact on the reader. Though it is a fast read, your time may be better spent on something with a bit more heft to it.

From the publisher’s webpage:

A vast conflict, one that has encompassed hundreds of worlds and solar systems, appears to be finally at an end. A conscripted soldier is beginning to consider her life after the war and the family she has left behind. But for Scur—and for humanity—peace is not to be.

On the brink of the ceasefire, Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal, and left for dead in the ruins of a bunker. She revives aboard a prisoner transport vessel. Something has gone terribly wrong with the ship.

Passengers—combatants from both sides of the war—are waking up from hibernation far too soon. Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognizable. And Scur will be reacquainted with her old enemy, but with much higher stakes than just her own life.

Slow Bullets is written with deliberately sparse details, in keeping with the central theme of forgetting: humans (war criminals from opposing factions) trying to erase their past crimes and their animosity towards each other; mechanical forgetting in the form of the ship literally overwriting parts of its own long-term memory to keep vital functions; and galactic forgetting in the form of The Sickening wiping out nearly all technologies in entire solar systems and reverting humanity to the Stone Ages. Anything that isn’t strictly related to pushing this theme is itself omitted. There are no sprawling descriptions or expansive lore and background in this; the writing is sparse, and what isn’t included is assumed to be a detail from a story told by an unreliable narrator who, herself, can no longer quite remember.

Unfortunately, this means that the reader is left to try to connect with sparsely fleshed-out tropes and not real characters. Orvin the antagonist is played up to be uniquely, almost absurdly evil against a backdrop of other war criminals. Prad is your basic nerd archetype, a ship crew member who can single-handedly wake, run, maintain, and repair the ship and all of its myriad functions. Scur, the protagonist and narrator, is largely absent of personality and reacts mechanically to situations. The other named characters don’t exist outside of dispassionate dialogue, and the unnamed characters are like a vague fog in the background.

On top of that is a plot that drifts, much like the ship itself. At the beginning, Scur is heavily injured and tortured (perfect revenge setup!) but when we next see her, she wakes up fully whole. There are goals that drive the plot forward (finding Orvin, dealing with the ship’s malfunctions, figuring out what happened and how to contact civilization) but they seem scattered. The story is cohesive and well-structured, but the objectives within don’t seem to matter that much. Why was it important to single out Orvin, other than simple revenge? And for that matter, if Scur is whole again and has so many other problems on her plate, why even bother with revenge?

Partway through the story we learn that one of the driving forces of the galactic war had been religion. Both sides interpreted and worshiped in slightly different ways, and they manifested in the form of two separate holy texts (the Books). Although it has some pretty obvious parallels to our real world, it doesn’t really get comment on or offer insight into the religious and cultural conflicts we see. It’s flavor text for a book that is already too light on details. Instead of being an interesting take on holy wars, it is instead just another cliché being abused for the sake of it.

It’s hard not to be cynical because, as I said, the book has been so pared of detail to be focused entirely on only what drives it forward. It was a decent enough introduction to scifi, though I doubt it will be worth remembering. I am looking forward to reading Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, as I have heard good things about it. Slow Bullets, however, will, like its cast drifting through space on the Caprice, fade from memory.

Goodreads Rating: 2/5 stars