Chasm City by Alistair Reynolds

Chasm City is a science fiction novel by Alistair Reynolds. It is part of the Revelation Space series and is the first of that series that I have read.

The unique and interesting thing about the novel is that it creates a grand “space opera” style world but fills it with scientific and technological concepts that are much “harder” than most similar settings. For example, within the setting of the story, the speed of light is the maximum speed at which things can travel. This limit results in long space journeys where the characters arrive many decades after they depart. Another example is gravity on spacecraft. Many science fiction settings rely on some kind of magical artificial gravity generation. In Chasm City, the spacecraft must spin to create a force on the occupants, similar to gravity.

I am fan of very hard science fiction which goes deep into the gritty details of how the technology works. A lot of the interest of space lies in its strangeness, the way physics behaves differently to how real-life humans – living in an atmosphere on a planet’s surface – intuit. Much sci-fi is to quick to throw away a lot of the interesting physical properties of space. While Chasm City is not as devoted to realism as other settings, realistic science is always chosen where it would not get in the way of the narrative or themes.

The novel is split into two major plots. One, which takes place in the “present day”, sees mercenary, Tanner Mirabel, on a revenge mission against a man responsible for his former employer’s death. His journey takes him to the titular city, a once affluent place that fell to a mysterious technological plague. The details of the plague are horrifying; Reynolds is great at creating a sense of fear, disgust, and unease when describing technology that has gone too far. This story serves as a tour of Chasm City. The characters are simplistic. I found them predictable and at times annoyingly cliché, however as basic sets of eyes through which to see the deep, rich, and engaging setting, they serve their purpose.

The second plot is told via dreams of the past that Tanner experiences after contracting an engineered virus from a cult who worship an historical figure, Sky Haussmann. It tells the story of humans’ early expeditions in interstellar travel aboard ships crewed by multiple generations. Sky is one of the crew. The Haussmann plot focuses on the psychological and political difficulties of sustaining a community in space for extended periods of time, separated from the world they originated from. Horror elements are incorporated here to great effect. I found this story’s characters much more compelling than those in the later setting and found myself disappointed when returning to Chasm City after a flashback ended.

Chasm City is grand in scope and is an interesting and unique blend of the “Space Opera” and “Hard Sci-Fi” styles. While the characters can be basic and a bit disappointing at times, the point of the novel is to build a rich and fascinating setting and at that, it achieves its goal admirably.