In the early 00s, Alastair Reynolds must have been scribbling furiously, gripped in the fever of imagination. Within a few years, he cranked out a couple of 700+ page tomes that formed the Revelation Space series, establishing him as one of the great British turn-of-the-century space opera writers. I read Revelation Space (2000) with great interest and then immediately skipped over Chasm City (2001) because it was set decades before the first novel and only loosely related to it. So, while I was enjoying the third book, Redemption Ark (2002), the Internet convinced me that I was dumb and an idiot, because Chasm City might be the best of series, if not of Reynolds’ career. So it was said.
It took me great pains to obtain this book, for after seeing it laying in bookstores for many years and walking right past it, it was suddenly gone. The cashier told me that the store moves on, and 2001 was ages ago in publisher land. Yet, a week later I passed by the store again and saw that they put an old, dusty, light-bleached copy on the shelves that they must have dug up somewhere.
For a story like Chasm City, a bleached, tattered cover is perfect. Reading a book starts before opening the first page. For it is a tale full of darkness and lost glory; full of violence and vengeance. Reynolds’ universe has a cosmic horror to it, in which human society tries to thrive in the immensity of space, but the long travel distances between planets make every society an island and cause people to lose their past or their memories, setting them adrift mentally and physically. Alien influences wreak havoc. The city – Chasm City – lost its great future and tries to build a new one from the ruins. The setting is perfect for a noir tale, starring assassins, organized crime, immoral aristocracy and lost legends.
Main character is Tanner Mirabel (whose name I don’t like at all) who has no moral compass, and identifying with him doesn’t come easy. The plot concerns multiple people seeking vengeance which places them squarely against each other, but neither side is commendable. Together with the themes of memory loss, the story is much more about building up a new identity out of broken parts. Tanner is for example infected with a virus that makes people join a certain religious cult, so even that part of his identity is not truly his own. Everything in this universe is undermined in one way or another. The city itself has the same problem: a nano-virus has changed its buildings into grotesque shapes.
There is a palpable feeling that Tanner’s adventures are a tribute to Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons (1990). Tanner is just as trained as Banks’s assassin Zakalwe and has memory loss as well, like a futuristic Jason Bourne. There is even a scene in Banks’s novel in which Zakalwe is visiting a city in a canyon. But Chasm City does not jump all over the place in its storyline, and compared to Reynolds’s Revelation Space, Chasm City has a tighter focus on a clearer storyline with a clearer main character. This focus is probably due to having Use of Weapons as a story template.
The story nevertheless started to sag in the middle of the book, because of a proliferation of flash-backs that don’t add much. For all this time, we followed Tanner and a second storyline set on a generation ship, which actually plays out during Tanner’s dreams, so we always cut to that story whenever Tanner loses consciousness (which happens often). The problem is that none of the characters are particularly interesting; they are all the same breed of asshole and talk the same way, and the book’s action scenes don’t give much deeper understanding of these people. The same goes for the few women. The woman Zebra in particular came across as constructed as an exotic love interest.
And she isn’t the only exotic female character inserted to bring Tanner from one place to another. Chasm City is in the end not much more than a pulpy adventure tale with influences of noir and hard SF, with bland, basic prose and a plot full of travelling, twists, misdirections and a host of temporary side characters who help Tanner along.
I keep returning to Alastair Reynolds time and again because of his amazing ideas and the hard-edged bleak future he presents. But Reynolds has some structural weaknesses in his writing that keep surfacing: flat characterization, uneven plotting and a tendency to use far too many words to describe everything. Chasm City is hardly the masterpiece that I was hoping for, but for a simple, sensationalist adventure tale it checks many boxes that make me well-disposed towards it.