Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City is difficult to categorize. Borrowing elements from film noir, gritty crime novels, and hard-as-rock science fiction and space opera, Reynolds has assembled an idea-rich narrative that will keep any technically and creatively interested reader interested.
Chasm City follows three parallel storylines. The main plot focuses on Tanner Mirabel, stone-cold killer extraordinaire, on a personal quest to exact revenge on the man who killed the woman he loved. At the same time, we follow a flashback plotline of an earlier time in Tanner’s life as he protects his gun-trading boss Cahuella while they hunt hundred-meter-long snakes in an extraterrestrial jungle.
Just to throw another story thread into the mix, Tanner gets indoctrinated early in the book with an engineered virus. The virus is designed to indoctrinate him into a religion based around the worship of Sky Haussmann, the founder of his homeworld. As the book progresses, we follow the Haussmann storyline as it is injected into Tanner’s dreams by the virus, and eventually, into his waking life as well.
This all sounds a little bit convoluted for a good reason. Chasm City has a lot of content in it in terms of both storylines and world building, but Reynolds does an excellent job metering this information out at a measured pace to ensure that the reader does not become overwhelmed. All three storylines, and the vast and complex world they take place in, end up in the reader’s head at the end of the book as a set of clearly understood memories, never as a disorganized jumble.
Those of you who enjoy books not just for the storyline, but also for the ideas and possibilities present in the fictional world they take place in, will appreciate this book. The author never throws out anything interesting without exploring all the implications of it fully. Technology is not examined simply as a physical phenomenon, but as a cultural one as well.
Reynolds is a professional astronomer, and worked for the European Space Agency for years before quitting to pursue writing full time. I can’t recommend this book for anyone without a relatively intense interest in science, physics, or technology in general. Reynolds never lets the story become about technology, but that doesn’t mean that technical ideas aren’t a major component of this book.
Those of you who dislike authors who blatantly break the laws of physics will appreciate this book because Reynolds does attempt to pay a bit more than lip service to Einstein. Space travel, for example, is never faster than light, which means that interstellar journeys take decades or centuries. His only major transgression against physical laws is in the cryo-arithmetic engine, which cools itself down without creating external heat somewhere else, in blatant violation of the laws of thermodynamics.
Whereas Reynolds’ skill in world-building is excellent, he is slightly less adept at characterization. Some of the characters in this book behave in slightly strange ways, and the way they are expressed on the page can sometimes leave the reader with a vague sense of something not quite fitting. This isn’t a massive problem, but it is obvious that the characters are made to serve the storyline and the world, not the other way around.
If you like well-written worlds, dark crime thrillers, and know what thermodynamics is about, you should read this book. If you don’t actually know what E=mc^2 means, leave it alone.