Chasm City

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.

Background:
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.

Plot Synopsis:
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.

Summary:
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!

Redemption Ark

Continuing with the Alastair Reynold’s series is the second book in the Revelation Space universe, otherwise known as Redemption Ark. Released in 2002, just two years after the debut novel in the series, this book picked up where the previous story left off, continuing the story of the known universe, the Inhibitors, and the coming crisis where they would attempt to wipe out humanity.

While this alone was certainly a basis for an exciting novel, this second installment also included a lot of additional elements, such as a protracted war between the Demarchists and the Conjoiners, the inner workings of these and other factions, what life is like in the “Rust Belt” – the ring of satellites and orbital stations around Yellowstone – and some added secrets and twists that make it all more interesting.

Out of the three books that make up this trilogy – Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap – this one is definitely my favorite. While it was certainly no less interesting and detailed than the first, it was far less convoluted in terms of plot and expanded on some key elements. And ultimately, I found it more entertaining in terms of its pacing and action, and its characters were indeed more relatable than in the first.

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens in 2605 with a major discovery being made. After generations of being unheard from, Galiana (the woman who founded the Conjoiners) returns from deep space. Her vessel was apparently set upon by a mysterious force, square-sized segments of the ship are missing, and all aboard appear to be dead. All save for Galiana herself who is in cryosleep and appears to be suffering from the intrusion of an alien mind. After investigating the ship, Skade, a special operative for the Conjoiner faction, contact is made with Galiana herself.

It is then revealed that the alien force which attacked their ship, and now controls Galiana herself, was none other than the Inhibitors. They now are able to speak through her, and Galiana asks to be killed. Skade however puts her in suspended animation in the hopes that she can he helped, and so they can get more information out of the Inhibitor influence later… Skade herself appears to be communing with hidden voices, which belong to the Night Council, a super secret organization within the Conjoiner leadership that runs spec ops.

Fast forward to ten years later around Yellowstone, where a war is taking place between the Conjoiner faction and the Demarchists. After many generations of cooperation to restore Chasm City from the terrible effects of the Melding Plague, tensions have reached a crisis point and a constant state of war has been in effect ever since. Here we see Neville Clavain, a high-ranking military officer who defected to the Conjoiners centuries back.

In the course of a battle, Clavain comes into contact with a Yellowstone cosmonaut named Antoinette Bax, who nearly loses her ship while attempting to bury her father in the system’s gas giant, Tangerine Dream. After saving her ship, Clavain lets her know that if he sees her again, she’s dead, thus establishing that they most surely will! After taking down the Demarchist ship, he also finds a Hyperpig (a race of human-pig hybrids) who was apparently their prisoner. He also meets with Felka, Galiana’s gifted daughter whom he believes might be his as well.

Clavain is then brought to the Mother’s Nest, the Conjoiner hive, where he is asked to join the Conjoiners leadership, a decision he has been resisting until now. Skade informs him about the Inhibitors, and how there presence necessitates that they undertake a mission to reclaim the lost Conjoiner doomsday weapons. These weapons just happen to be the ones that appeared in the first novel, which are the current property of Volyova and the Nostalgia for Infinity.

The first step in the mission involves taking Clavain to see the fleet of advanced starships that the Conjoiners have been building in secret. Skade claims that the weapons and ships will be used to defend humanity against the Inhibitors, but Clavain is convinced that they will actually be used simply to evacuate the Conjoiners and abandon the rest of humanity. She confirms this when he begins a daring escape, saying only that “It’s a Darwinian universe, Clavain.” Clavain then travels to Yellowstone to defects to the Demarchists and spread the news of the Inhibitors, enlisting Antoinette Bax’s help to escape the pursuing Conjoiners under Skade. Told ya they’d see each other again!

Remontoire, a member of the Conjoiner leadership and old friend of Clavain’s pursues him to Yellowstone with Scorpio. However, once they reach Yellowstone, they are captured, along with Clavain and Antoinette, by a mysterious figure known as “H”. He takes them into his compound, which happens to the be the Mademoiselle old hangout, and tells them the truth of their situation. H reveals that many years previous, Skade participated in a raid into Chasm City to capture secrets that would lead to the development of inertia suppression technology.

He believes that at that time, she was subverted by the Mademoiselle herself, who happens to be the voice that’s inside her head. Clavain reveals Skade’s plans for the Conjoiner fleet and the cache weapons, and H agrees to help him beat Skade to them. H supplies ships and his own version of the inertial suppression technology, while Scorpio supplies an army of hyper-pigs for the pursuit. They name the ship the Zodiacal Light, in honor of a ship that holds significance to Scorpio.

Meanwhile, on Resurgam in 2665, Ilya Volyova and Ana Khouri have adopted aliases and are working on the planet. They have learned the Inhibitors have arrived and are busy dismantling several rocky moons and are moving the components towards the system’s gas giant, Roc. They begin collaborating with the local resistance leader, Thorn, who has been attempting to evacuate the planet by communicating with the Nostalgia, which is now under Captain Brannigan’s direct control. Thanks to the Melding Plague, he has now merged with the ship.

They begin the evacuation while the Inhibitors continue building their mysterious weapon, which appears to be a large gravitational device which they use to sheer the system’s sun to pieces. Unfortunately, their limited resources are only moving a few thousand people at a time. Volyova decides to deploy the Nostalgia’s cache weapons against the Inhibitor’s weapon to buy more time.

However, her efforts are upset a little when the Captain, in control of the ship and the weapons, attempts to use one to “commit suicide” by blowing the Nostalgia apart. Overwrought by guilt over everything he’s done to survive, he tries to end it all, but Volyova’s quick intervention stops him. By positioning her shuttle between the Nostalgia and the cache weapon, her shuttle is sliced in half and she is nearly killed. However, she is successful in getting the Captain to stop and he agrees to abide by her decisions.

Skade and Clavain then race to the Resurgam system employing various creative long-distance strategies against each other and pushing their vessels to higher and higher speeds. Eventually, Skade’s vessel is damaged in an attempt to exceed the speed of light. Clavain and crew arrive in the Zodiacal Light ready to recover the cache weapons. They begin communicating with the Nostalgia via a beta-level simulation of Clavain, but the efforts prove futile. Volyova refuses to hand them over and Clavain and friends are not willing to leave without them.

A shooting fight begins between the two sides when both ships come together. Clavain’s superior forces capture Nostalgia for Infinity, although Volyova is able to damage Zodiacal Light with one of the cache weapons. At a bit of a stalemate, Negotiations resume and the two sides come to terms. The evacuation is completed with the help of Clavain’s forces and the Nostalgia while Volyova, who is dying of her injuries, takes half of the cache weapons and attacks the Inhibitors in the Storm Bird, to no effect. Remontoire and Khouri remain in the system in the Zodiacal Light to try and contact Dan Sylveste in the Hades Matrix in hope that he will be able to supply information that can be used to fight the Inhibitors.

The Nostalgia then crosses paths with Skade’s ship again, which they rig to explode. But before this happens, Skade reveals the true plan and how they knew about the Inhibitors in advance. It seems that the Conjoiners began a project many centuries back known as Exordium, which involved the use of quantum computers to communicate across time and universes. This led them to the creation of the Conjoiner drives, but also to the Inhibitors impending attack. As a result, they began developing the cache weapons for the day when they showed up, but knew that even these wouldn’t be enough. This prompted them to develop the special fleet to escape to deep space.

In the end, Clavain and his team are unable to convince Skade that she’s being manipulated and learn that Galiana’s body is on Skade’s ship. But since she wants to die, he decides to detonate it once they are at a safe distance. Clavain mourns her death, since they were lovers, and the ship finds its way to a Pattern Juggler planet where they set down and begin building a tentative colony. Things seem bleak, until Felka reveals that she’s seen the planet before. Before dying, her mother showed her things, which included a vision of this place. She knows then that they are exactly where they need to be and takes heart from that. From this planet, they await the arrival of Khouri, Remontoire and the Zodiacal Light to catch up so they can continue the fight against the Inhibitors.

Good Points:
Like I said before, this book had a lot going for it that was new and interesting. One of the most important was the asides made by the Inhibitors themselves, which revealed their deeper intentions. Not only are they trying to inhibit the growth of space faring intelligence to prevent another Dawn War, but the inevitability of Andromeda’s Galactic Collision with the Milky Way is another reason. When this happens, the disturbance will cause untold destruction, especially to any civilizations inhabiting either galaxy. The only way to prevent trillions of deaths is to ensure that either no space-faring species are around at the time, or that one super-advanced one was in place to control the entire galaxy. Since the latter is so unlikely, they chose to opt for the former.

Also, the war between the Conjoiners and the Demarchists was an interesting touch. It provided some added excitement to the early chapters and some intrigue to the evolving story. Not that much was needed, given the plot involving the Inhibitors and the mounting crisis with them. Still, it was a nice addition. The glimpse inside Conjoiner society and the way they brought back characters from the earlier short stories, crossing them with this main plot line, also provided a lot of meat and consistency to the larger universe.

And last, there is the consistent theme of this novel. Whereas the first focused on revelation, this one was all about redemption. It was a fitting theme for the second book after everything that had taken place in the first. The misdeeds of Sylveste in his long search for answers, the crimes of Captain Brannigan in his quest for immortality, and even of Volyova in her drive to see his plans through. In the end, all things come together in this story with a drive to do something right in the midst of all the fear and chaos being wrought.

Which brings me to a part of the story which I am now kind of mixed on, meaning it was something I didn’t like about the story until after I realized the significance. The character of H, who appears on Yellowstone and provides some serious motivation to the plot. Initially, I had no idea who he was and saw his introduction as a total contrivance to the story. Not only did he know too much and have all the answers, he seemed to come out of nowhere. As plot twists go, this seemed like just another unnecessary one.

However, it was in reading Chasm City, a prequel to which was released between books one and two, that I realized who he was. Sky Haussmann, who is an important background character, was detailed in that novel and wound up on Yellowstone becoming an influential figure. It was he who killed the Mademoiselle and ended up inheriting her secrets and her empire, thereafter becoming known only as “H” to hide his identity. And it was fitting, since he too wanted redemption and found it by helping Clavain and his friends, and even attempted to commit suicide himself when it was all done.

Ah, which brings me to the weakness of this book, which bear some resemblance to all of Reynold’s other works.

Bad Points:
Once again, there are the excessive plot twists that just seem to keep coming and seem unnecessary. After all that is revealed in the early chapters, the book seemed perfectly packed with enough plot twists and revelations to keep the reader interested. However, in the later chapters, there are more which just seem to convolute things. For instance, Bax learns that her ship, Storm Bird, contains the AI of a man who was her father’s friend, and also a infamous because of an accident which apparently claimed his life. Facing death, and hoping to find a dignified end for his friend, he programmed the ship with his beta-level simulation to look after her. A nice story, a touching one even, but including it at that point in the story seemed too much and happened too late in the story.

Another is Exordium. While it was a very interesting concept and did provide some synthesis and some added background to the story, it was yet another 11th hour revelation that felt unnecessary. It was enough to know that Galiana had come back from deep space with a warning ten years previous, they really didn’t need to know about this generations back. That discovery alone would have been enough to motivate the creation of the secret fleet, the cache weapons and all the rest. And if time frames were an issue, Reynolds could have just made it happen sooner.

Last, but certainly not least, was the twist where it is revealed that the Night Council is in fact the Mademoiselle. What purpose did this twist serve, other than to involve the Mademoiselle from the first story? In that book, her agenda was clear. She was a Demarchist of great wealth and power who wanted Sylveste dead because of what he did to her. But now, what motivation did she have for infiltrating the Conjoiners or possessing the inertia suppressing technology? And, more importantly, what’s her agenda vis a vis the Inhibitors? Learning about them is understandable, but the agenda involving escaping into deep space and all, how’s that serve her interests? If anything, she would be trying to get her to help protect Yellowstone, where she presumably still is, not abandon it.

Really, it would have been much more plausible to actually have had a Night Council and have them being the motivating force behind Skade’s actions regarding the Inhibitors. It would have been a plausible angle involving covert conspiracies versus democratic considerations, like how the tiny executive council wants to save the Conjoiners and is keeping it a secret because they know the Council will object to such a selfish, Darwinian plan. These same people could become a problem later after Clavain and his friends defected, even coming after them later.

But like I said, this book was a worthy read, even more so than the first. It’s hard sci-fi and classic elements, and consistent themes of ancient aliens and worthy deeds in the face of impending doom – these all added up to a good story. And of course, Reynold’s usual stylistic touch, involving lots of cool technology, rich worlds, and his gothic, cyberpunk feel. It’s just cool! In keeping with why I picked it up in the first place, I highly recommend this book for those looking to learn more about current science fiction trends and what makes them popular.