Chasm City (2003) by Alastair Reynolds

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Revelation Space (2000) Book Review
Available works by Alastair Reynolds


Set in the 26th Century, Chasm City, the second book in Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space series (2000-2003), but taking place before the the events of Revelation Space (2000), adopts the Cyberpunk trope of mind uploads to explore shifting layers of identity. The series chronicles humanity’s disparate effort to colonise space, threatened by the Melding Plague and a mysterious, advanced machine civilisation known as the Inhibitors. It won the British Science Fiction Award for best novel (2001).

The story follows ex-military Tanner Mirabel who arrives in Chasm City on planet Yellowstone seven years after the onset of the Melding Plague. He is on a mission to assassinate Argent Reivich who killed the wife of Tanner’s boss Cahuella on his home planet, Sky’s Edge. Waking up from from cryogenic sleep with amnesia, Tanner’s mission becomes as much a hunt for Reivich as it does for making sense of the dreams he is having about Sky Haussmann who as part of humanity’s first attempt in the 21st Century at interstellar flight, and a leading figure in the ensuing 150 years long intergenerational flight, was among the first colonisers of Sky’s Edge.

Sky Haussmann was born on the Santiago, 100 years into the flotilla’s journey to Sky’s Edge. Travelling at only a fraction of lightspeed, and much slower than the later lighthuggers, ship life becomes a major part of the narrative, setting Reynolds’ series apart from works such as Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997) and David Zindell’s Neverness Universe (1988-1998). While the main lot of colonisers are frozen in reefersleep, the active crew have to endure whole lives aboard the ships. Communication with Earth is no longer practicable. In fact, so much time has elapsed since their departure that many on Earth believe the mission to be a myth. The claustrophobic confines of the ship perfectly lends itself to paranoia and power struggles, not only on the Santiago but also between the different ships. Sky finds that he is particularly adept at navigating the onboard Byzantine politics of the ship, not shy of resorting to murder, sabotage and torture, and he quickly rises in the ranks. Added to the mix are rumours of a ghost ship trailing the flotilla. Transmuted into a sponge-like state, the ship, which turns out to be real, has an unearthly and unmachine-like feel to it, like it is trying to mimic the other ships in the flotilla. Sky believes it to be alien and upon inspection finds out that it is host to maggot-like creatures called the grubs, a peaceful star-faring civilisation that by travelling along the less technologically advanced humans believes they can hide from the Inhibitors.

Decay is a major theme in the novel. Chasm City, once the hub in interstellar trade, has fallen victim to the Melding Plague, now but a shadow of its past splendour, it’s Glitter Band of orbital habitats reduced from 10,000 to a few hundred, renamed the Rust Belt. The nanotech virus which causes machines to grow uncontrollably, seeking bizarre new forms, has transformed the cityscape into a grotesque version of itself. Steam power is back in vogue and machines have in many areas been replaced by bioengineered animals, a retro-futuristic tapestry typical of the steampunk sf subgenre. As the virus also attacks humans with machine implants, population numbers have dwindled, and as medichines are no longer an option postmortal life is only available to the rich who can afford to take the anti-viral drug Dream Fuel. The plague has also given rise to a new faction called Hermetics: people who refuse to get rid of implants and travel around in sealed boxes. 

The Cyberpunk trope of mind upload underpins the novel’s main mystery of Tanner’s shifting identity, recalling Michael Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers (1987) and Pat Cadigan’s Mindplayers (1987). As Tanner emerges from reefersleep, he not only suffers from amnesia, but he also has dreams of Sky Haussmann. At first he believes that he has been inflicted with a church indoctrinal virus, as the church built around Sky on planet Sky’s Edge is known to employ to such measures. His pathology runs much deeper though. The version of Sky he is presented with does not tally with any official account. It is clear though that the apocryphal version he is spoon-fed comprises the truth about Sky’s efforts to usurp the flotilla. Soon Tanner starts to see Sky as himself, and the person he so far has thought of as ‘himself’, he now thinks is a third person altogether. His identity crisis takes a turn for the worse when he also begins to see glimpses of events from the perspective of his former boss, Cahuella. As unsettling as it is for Tanner, it is equally unsettling for the reader, as the hero that we were rooting for turns out to be somebody else, someone a lot less likeable.