Next up in my review of Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe is the prequel novel and setting piece known as Chasm City! Released in 2001, one year after Revelation Space and a year before Redemption Ark (I know, prolific, aint he?), the story takes place outside of the main trilogy, but details the setting and some of the characters who will play an important role in it.
As the name would suggest, the setting of this novel is the all-important location known as Chasm City itself. In Revelation Space, we got treated to an earful about this place since it is the undisputed hub of the known universe. Or at least it was before the Melding Plague, a terrible nanotechnological virus, turned the place into a twisted, gothic nightmare.
According to Reynold’s many descriptions of the place throughout the series, Chasm City was not only the capitol of Yellowstone (chief planet of the Epsilon Eridani system), it was also the center of the universe when it came to commerce, innovation and technological progress. It’s multi-tiered cities, contained within the “Mosquito Net” (i.e. habitation dome) were a marvel of nanotechnological achievement, living buildings that were capable of maintaining themselves.
The name itself referred to the fact that the city itself was built in a chasm which was open to the planet’s interior. From this chasm, large clouds of gas would erupt periodically, which the inhabitants used to fashion an atmosphere. In orbit, a huge array of satellites and orbital platforms had been installed, known as the “Glitter Band” due to their unrivaled beauty and the fact the wealthiest citizens maintained opulent homes in orbit.
And last, but not least, Chasm City was the home of the human faction known as the “Demarchists”, a name which is an amalgam of Democratic and Anarchy. These people were the most advanced factions in the universe, save for perhaps the Conjoiners, who used implant technology and wireless communications to create a society that needed no official offices or institutions. All decision making processes were run by direct democracy and the law maintained by police who enforced the public will. Sure, there were still offices and ranks, but the general trend was towards de-structurizing and an avoidance of hierarchy.
The first thread story opens on the planet known as Sky’s Edge, a planet in orbit of 61 Cygni A, where an enforcer named Tanner Mirabel is looking for a post-mortal noble named Argent Reivich. This man, we quickly learn, was responsible for the death of the wife of Tanner’s employer and is fleeing the planet for Yellowstone. Tanner and his friend pursue him, a chase which takes them into the depths of Chasm City and provides a first-hand look at the effects the Melding Plague has had and the illicit activities that have taken over the now fallen city.
In addition, two more threads open through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences. It is established early on that Tanner has been infected by an “indoctrination virus” – a sort of bio-engineered program which forces those who have it to experience religious visions. He interprets the dreams he has as a symptom, which are predictably concerned with the life of Sky Haussmann, the oft-revered and hated man who founded the colony of Sky’s Edge. This constitutes thread two of the story, where Tanner dreams of Sky’s childhood aboard the Flotilla that traveled to Sky’s Edge from Earth many centuries in the past, aboard generational ships where he was amongst the waking crew.
In the third thread, Tanner relives the traumatic events that led him to Yellowstone in pursuit of Reivich. Apparently, Tanner worked for a man named Cahuella, an arms dealer who is being pursued by Reivich because he sold arms to a rival family which used them to kill his parents. We also learn that Tanner loved Cahuella’s wife, a woman named Gritta. According to the flashbacks he experiences, it was while deploying to the jungles of Sky’s Edge, in an attempt to intercept Reivich, that the incident that led to Gitta’s death took place.
Upon reaching Chasm City, Tanner sees first hand what has become of the city. A once technological marvel, it has now degenerated into a dark and ugly, the buildings appearing as twisted, diseased trees. The Glitter Band has fallen into disrepair, and is now known as the “Rust Belt”. There is also a lucrative trade in what is referred to as “Dream Fuel”, which appears to render users temporarily immune to the Melding Plague. And last, there is the “Game” which Tanner becomes trapped in, where residents of the Canopy (those few still-privileged people who live close to the Mosquito Net) hunt people who live down in “The Mulch” (aka. down below).
After escaping the “gamers”, Tanner takes a female resident of the Canopy hostage and learns that she is part of the lucrative “Dream Fuel” trade. With her help, they travel deep into Yellowstone’s underground network and tunnels and find the source of it, which appears to be a giant, sentient slug. This begins to line up with some of the vision’s Tanner has been having involving Sky and the Flotilla, which continue to haunt his dreams.
Basically, Tanner is now aware that Sky took over control of the Flotilla after his father was murdered by an embedded agent. In a twist, Sky allowed this to happen because he was outraged to learn that his parents had taken him from another family that had died while in cryosleep. While in command of the fleet, he learned that they were being pursued by a strange, phantom ship. When they investigated, they discovered that it was an alien vessel that had morphed to look like one of their own. Inside – drumroll please – was a giant slug living in a big pool of Dream Fuel!
Yes, it seems that the fuel is in fact the organic secretions of the Slug, and that they are a sentient race that has been living in hiding ever since the emergence of a terrible alien threat that has been destroying all space-faring life. For those who have read Revelation Space at this point, it is clear the slug is referring to the Inhibitors. Hence why the Slug ship was following the Flotilla, it had hoped to remain inconspicuous by mimicking other species and their ships. The one currently being used to provide Dream Fuel is another, one which chose to hide deep within Yellowstone to avoid detection.
At the same time, Tanner becomes aware of one horrid fact. After remembering everything from the night where Gitta died, Tanner comes to the realization that it was he that killed her. In the course of their advance through the jungle to intercept Reivich, he and his men ambushed their camp and took Gitta hostage. Rather than let them get away, Tanner opened fire and accidentally killed her. However, he is confused because his memories end with Cahuella taking his own revenge by feeding Tanner to one of his giant snakes.
Nevertheless, Tanner gets back on Reivich’s trail and finally corners him in orbit. There, he finds the ruined body of Reivich who has been hooked up to a machine that was supposed to recor*d his consciousness and create an “alpha” (i.e. a living computer construct) of him. However, the process was rushed, and now Reivich’s body has been irreparably damaged. Close to death, he reveals another twist. It seems that he is not Tanner after all, but Cahuella himself! Small hints are given throughout the novel tot his effect, but he realizes that it is true when Tanner himself walks in!
Yes, it seems that Cahuella couldn’t deal with the anguish of losing his wife and decided to switch memories and appearances with Tanner while he was busy torturing him. However, Tanner managed to escape after Cahuella left and made his way to Yellowstone to get some payback of his own. The two fight, but eventually Cahuella realizes his body contains all kinds of enhancements, such as poisonous snakes’ teeth, which he used to overpower Tanner. Reivich dies too, and Cahuella is left with his many painful revelations.
Another painful revelation is the fact that the dreams he’s having or not the result of the indoctrination virus, but his own memories coming to the surface. It seems that he, Caheulla, is in fact Sky Haussmann himself, and that after sacrificing several innocent lives to get his own ship to 61 Cygni A ahead of the rest of the Flotilla. Because of this, the world was named Sky’s Edge, a sly reference (and criticism) of all he did to make it there first. After he set down, he was set upon by other groups of colonists who wanted him brought to justice. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t crucified publicly, but substituted himself with a look0alike and then slipped into the jungle to live out his life in a new persona (Cahuella).
Seeking redemption now, he returns to Chasm City and teams up with his lady friend in the hopes of making some changes. For one, the Dream Fuel trade is to be regulated and humane now, no more torturous extraction from the poor Slug. Second, the “Game” is reformed so that the hunt is for volunteers only, with plenty of rules and chances for the “hunted” to save themselves after they are caught. With all this in place, Tanner Mirabel, aka. Caheulla, aka. Sky Haussmann, settles in for a life he can live with and says goodbye to a life of revenge and running.
To begin with the good points, this book was once again an intriguing and exciting romp through the Revelation Space universe. After that first installment, this book cashed in on all the buzz and interest he had created for his fictitious backdrops, such as Sky’s Edge and Chasm City, both very interesting place in their own right. It also detailed a number of elements that were brought up but not developed too much in the first novel, such as the game “Shadowplay”, which Ana Khouri was a member of. At the same time, it also discussed and delved into the dynamics of life and the wars on Sky’s Edge, which also came up in relation to Khouri’s character.
And of course, there was plenty more of the same interesting stuff that set’s Reynold’s universe apart. The concept of time dilation, post-mortality, alpha-level simulations, the Inhibitors, the Melding Plague, nanotechnology, cybernetic implants, and the “indoctrination virus”. All of these elements were brought up in Revelation Space or the subsequent novels to one degree or another, and it was good that Reynold’s side-stepped the trilogy in order to provide some more deep background and development for these concepts.
But above all, the primary focus of the novel, which was on Chasm City itself, was indispensable to this series. A once powerhouse of technology and civility, the Gothic, steampunk-themed environment is just so interesting and rich that it really had to have it’s own book. After reading about it in the first novel and seeing subsequent references to it later in the series, I just knew that Reynold’s would have to come back to it at some point. There was simply too much there for it to a passing mention, not to mention too much in the way of implied significance.
In addition to being an richly detailed environment that inspires so much mental imagery, Chasm City is a fitting metaphor for how technological progress can so easily go from being the stuff of dreams to the stuff of nightmares. It only makes sense that the urban center where all the greatest technological leaps of the future were developed – brain implants, man-machine interface, alpha-level constructs, clinical immortality, nanotech, biotech – that it is also be the place where it all came crashing down. And what did it was especially appropriate – a nano-virus which hit them where they were most vulnerable by perverting the very technology they were so dependent on.
As for the weaknesses, well, they are something that comes up a lot in Reynold’s works. For one, there are too many twists! Why, for example, was it necessary for Cahuella to take on Tanner Mirabel’s identity? Wasn’t it enough that the man who failed to save the woman he loved, who also had a bit of an elicit thing going with her, was out for revenge? And why for that matter did he also need to be Sky Haussmann. One hidden identity was enough, and given its importance to the storyline, it would have been enough for him to be Sky.
Think about it, the reviled and worshiped founded of the colony runs into the jungle and takes on the identity of a simple bounty hunter. Wouldn’t that have been better than assuming the identity of a high-profile arms dealer? And since he settled down to become a professional hunter in Chasm City anyway, wouldn’t him being Tanner all along provide more symmetry? And to explain the whole memory wipe thing, just say that he assumed the identity of Tanner completely to avoid any slip ups, or because he genuinely wanted a new lease on life. Playing it the other way was just plain weird.
Also, there are some other odd elements in the book, stuff that seemed less creative and more far-fetched than his usual story elements. For example, we see that in Chasm City, people rely on more than just “Dream Fuel” to protect themselves from the Melding Plague and prolong their lives now that they can no longer depend on nanotechnology. One of them is a genetic enhancement using Koi fish DNA. Seeing as how the Koi is quasi-immortal and will continue to grow so long as they have new environments to grow into, the residents of Chasm City decided to harness their genetic material in order to prolong their lives indefinitely.
In fact, Tanner/Cahuella/Sky is shown to a sort of shrine in one of the city’s thoroughfares where a massive, centuries-old Koi is being kept in a tank and revered. And it struck me as just plain strange. Sure, this scene provides a sort of commentary on the vagaries of clinical immortality, but it still felt oddly out of place. So, for that matter, did the descriptions of the various people of the city who have used genetic enhancements to elongate their faces and skulls in unnatural shapes, as well as grow wings and other appendages. I get that in this universe, people can do some rather odd things with their biology, but why the hell would they want to? Much like hypercats, superchimps, the winged unicorns and other such creations from the series, it felt like Reynold’s is getting off-kilter and being weird for the sake of weird.
But other than that, the book is a worthy read and kind of required if you want to be able to make sense of the series. Like I said before, there were aspects of Redemption Ark that I didn’t get until well after I read this book, and since it’s placement in the series comes before the other books, it behooves the reader to tackle this one before moving on to the later books in the series.
Coming up next, Absolution Gap and the conclusion to Alastair Reynold’s lineup!