The novella “Slow Bullets” by Alastair Reynolds was published for the first time in 2015. It won the Locus Award as the Best Novella of the Year.
Scur fought in the war between Peripheral Systems and Central Worlds and didn’t even have time to rejoice about its end that she was captured by Orvin, a war criminal. Orvin inserts a second slow bullet into Scur’s body, a memory device that adds to the one all soldiers have but without using painkillers.
Left for dead, Scur is saved but wakes up on the spaceship Caprice. The systems onboard seem to have major problems and there are soldiers on board who fought for both sides during the war. Scur discovers that Orvin is also on board but the attempts to capture him are hampered by the ship’s problems, which can only be explained if the people on board remained hibernated for many centuries.
Alastair Reynolds is one of the most important space opera authors of this early 21st century. The stories set in the Revelation universe are the best known of this author but especially in the last decade, he has written many other works, including other series. “Slow Bullets” is a self-contained novella that is, at least for now, not part of any series.
After a brief introduction of Scur and the war just ended, “Slow Bullets” takes place on the spaceship Caprice. For the crew and passengers, the war is a very recent memory but the deterioration of the onboard systems indicates that they spent a very long time in hibernation.
In the microcosm of the spaceship Caprice, there is the memory of the conflict but also the confusion for a situation that initially no one understands. The examination of Caprice’s systems and the discovery that the ship’s archives are deteriorating and will make the situation worse forces the former soldiers to work together and with the crew. Investigating the causes of the situation increases the need to make difficult choices.
The choice of the novella-length allows Alastair Reynolds to maintain the intensity of the story, which basically tells one crisis after another. On the other hand, it makes it impossible to develop a large number of characters, so choosing the first-person narrative from Scur’s point of view doesn’t diminish the possibilities. Through Scur and her personal story, the author offers some information on her civilization, on the war, and on some differences between the two factions, particularly on a religious level. This information is also useful to understand the potential conflicts aboard the Caprice.
The deterioration of the ship’s archives increases the importance of the slow bullets, which still preserve information on the lives of the former soldiers. Far from their homes in space and time, they’re forced to wonder about their identity in the situation in which they ended up. In that microcosm, they must assess how important are the differences that are now far away compared to the problems common to all of them, another theme linked to the need to make sometimes difficult choices.
“Slow Bullets” offers quite some food for thought thanks to the development of the themes connected to the microcosm of Caprice. For this reason, I recommend reading it if it’s not a problem for you that everything that is outside the spaceship and is discovered in the course of the story is left without a conclusion unless Alastair Reynolds decides to write more works connected to this one.