Chasm City, Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2001, 524 pages, C$26.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-06878-7

There are killjoys out there who will argue, at length, that the modern word processor has killed the novel as it ought to be. Those spoilsports will keep saying that the ease with which modern writers can just keep typing and editing without physical consequences (that is: sore fingers and the consumption of draft paper) has made it too easy to overuse words. These entirely fictional straw men (er, “older curmudgeon whose opinion I claim to have heard”) will tell you that real men once hacked out fifty-thousand words in stone tablets with a chisel, and that even Hemingway was a big softie for using a typewriter.

It’s a silly argument, but it’s hard not to think about it when looking at Alastair Reynolds’s brick-sized novels. Helped along by Gollancz’s habit of using thicker paper stock, Reynolds’ books intimidate well before they’re cracked open. So many words! The story inside has to be important: Other writers have described the rise and fall of the Roman Empire in fewer pages!

Yet Reynolds’ novels are nothing but good old-fashioned space-opera with modern polish. Solid thriller plots with SF twists and alien locales. In Chasm City, this means another man on the run from dangerous criminal forces: hardly the stuff that justifies a book an inch and a half thick.

Of course, that means that you get a whole lot of thrills for your money. Expect to spend at least a week of reading time in Tanner Mirabel’s company as he first pursues an assassin, then finds the chase turned against him. His trip eventually leads him to a nightmarish alien environment: the eponymous Chasm City in which humans are prey and stranger forces lie beneath the mist… and that’s not even counting the other story interleaved between Tanner’s run: What could possibly be the link between those subplots? As Chasm City goes on, little blips in the narration lead us to a bigger revelation that conveniently twists the usual certitudes of a thriller.

It’s long, it’s overwritten and it can get pretty exasperating at times, but Chasm City is a solid middle-of-the-road SF thriller. Those looking for a good example of genre fiction could do much worse: this one has good dollops of sex, action, violence and grimness: Reynolds isn’t afraid to pull punches, and the atmosphere of his books has little to do with the shiny futures once imagined by Science Fiction. The prose is verbose but well handled. Although a shorter book may have strengthened our grasp of the novel’s universe (rather than diluting it with sheer verbiage), this one does a pretty good job at carrying the reader from start to finish. The events keep piling up, Tanner is a tough protagonist, and the mystery of the intersecting plotlines is enough to keep anyone reading.

Readers of Reynold”s debut novel, Revelation Space, will get a related novel that’s just as competent, dark and intriguing than its predecessor. Despite my constant harping about the length of Chasm City, it’s more focused than Reynolds’ first novel, with more consistent bursts of action. It amounts to a prototypical example of the “New British Space Opera” at the turn of the century. There is strong kinship here with other writers such as Richard Morgan and Neal Asher: Reynolds may use twice as many words in making his atmosphere noir and his aliens squishy, but the feeling is similar.

All isn’t lost, though: Latter Reynolds novels, post Absolution Gap, show clearer signs of self-control –at least when it comes to page length. His last two novels, for instance, don’t even crack a comparatively slim 460 pages. (The Prefect is even down to 410 pages.) Since the length of Reynolds’ work is just about the only thing worth complaining about, you can bet that I’ve got his entire oeuvre on my shelves… even though I’m understandably reluctant to pick up one of his tomes when shorter books beckon. But we’ll get there eventually. Hopefully before retirement age.

[January 2008: I’m not even going to review Redemption Ark at length, as disappointed as I am with the way Reynolds has blown up a perfectly enjoyable space opera into an interminable slog. The conclusion wraps it up together decently, but there’s some serious fat to be trimmed off this novel.]

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