Chasm City – Alastair Reynolds (2001)
‘Tanner Mirabel was a security specialist who never made a mistake… until the day a woman in his care was blown away during an attack by a vengeful young postmortal named Argent Reivich.
Tanner’s pursuit of Reivich takes him away from his homeworld, across light-years of space, to the Epsilon Eridani system. There he descends into Chasm City, the domed human settlement on the otherwise inhospitable planet Yellowstone. But Chasm City isn’t what it used to be: the one high-tech Utopia has become a dark, Gothic nightmare, victim of a nanotechnological virus which has corrupted the city’s inhabitants as thoroughly as it has the buildings.
Now the city is a place of steam-driven machines, shadowy factions and deadly new games.
And before the chase is done, tanner will have to confront disturbing truths, not only about his own past, but about Chasm City itself: truths which reach back centuries, towards deep space and an atrocity history barely remembers.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz paperback edition.
‘Chasm City’ is set long after the events in ‘Revelation Space’ and begins with mercenary Tanner Mirabel, engaged in a manhunt for Argent Reivich, the killer of his lover, Gitta, who was herself killed as an act of revenge for the death of Reivich’s family.
Tanner, trapped on a sabotaged space-elevator, manages to escape, but is injured and wakes up in a space-habitat run by Ice-Mendicants, a religious order who tend to those newly resuscitated from the frozen sleep in which travellers are transported between stars.
Much is told in flashback in this multiple first-person narrative novel, although oddly, some of Tanner’s memories are not his own.
They were, he believes, transmitted to him via a virus disseminated by a religious cult who worship Sky Haussmann, one of the founders of their planetary culture, and whose episodic life of madness, mass murder and manipulation is being transmitted to Tanner in his dreams.
Tanner’s real past is also seen in parallel with the virus dreams as he follows his nemesis to the twisted and hazardous Chasm City on Yellowstone.
However, all is not what it seems as the reader gradually becomes aware, being time and again surprised and enthralled by unexpected revelations and inventive wonders.
The theme of the novel is redemption and Reynolds manages to examine the concept via a convoluted and complex story of pursuit, revenge and counter-revenge, while examining the very nature of Self and Identity.
How long, it is asked, does someone who has committed an evil act have to live before their philanthropic actions atone for their past transgressions? Can one really be held accountable for crimes if one’s personality and memories are over-written or suppressed by the memories of someone else entirely?
It’s not a new idea of course. It was, for instance, the central premise of an episode of Babylon 5 in which a serial killer had his memories replaced and was invested with a new identity as a member of a religious order, a kind of psychological community service if you like. Reynolds, however, by setting up a dual timeline structure in which double sets of memories begin to increasingly disturb the narrator, creates a brilliant interweaving narrative which culminates in a thrilling showdown.
It’s good to see an author thinking seriously about the ethnic composition of future society. Where authors such as Heinlein and, more recently, Jack McDevitt envisage a galaxy populated by white Americans, Reynolds provides a thoughtful and intelligent extrapolation.
The populations of the ships of Haussmann’s flotilla speak a future variation of Portuguese and (at least in the case of The Santiago) have Hispanic names with notable exceptions such as Schuyler and Titus Haussmann.
It has elements of Shakespearean tragedy in that ‘The Man Who Kills The One He Loves’, by doing so, triggers an inevitable series of events which culminate in revelation, redemption and transformation.
It suffers only perhaps from a surfeit of characters, some of whom seemed far too thinly drawn – such as Chanterelle the Huntress and Sister Amelia, the Ice Mendicant – and some forced dialogue here and there, but these are small quibbles.
I don’t know if Reynolds means it as a homage but there are references in the text here and there to music of the Nineteen Seventies. The ring of space habitats which surrounds Yellowstone is (or was) called The Glitter Band. There is a also a gas-giant called Tangerine Dream and a later book which comprises of two novellas set in the same Universe is called ‘Diamond Dogs/Turquoise Days’
Cleverly, the slowly emerging revelation that Tanner is actually Tanner’s employer, Cahuella – rebuilt by the masters of augmentation, the Ultras – forces the reader to reassess Mirabel’s character and indeed Cahuella’s, since what we learn of Tanner from the outset is actually Cahuella working through Tanner’s persona. We are led to suspect that Tanner might actually be Sky Haussmann, but the final explanation of the full sequence of events is both ingenious and surprising.
The theme of identity seems to be a common thread in Reynolds’ work since in Revelation Space one of the revelations that the protagonist had to come to terms with was that he was not his father’s son but his clone; added to which was the nightmarish concept of the digitised father blackmailing his son into allowing him occasional possession of his mind.
Despite its deceptively slow start, Chasm City is an impressive achievement and leaves one pondering rather deep philosophical issues. Not many SF writers attempt such a thing, and few who do succeed so demonstrably.