Chasm City – Not Splitting Hairs On This One

Revelation Space is a big series. Sure, it’s a trilogy, but it also has two related novels and a treasure trove of short stories. I’ve only scratched the surface on the shorter fiction by Alastair Reynolds, but the little I have read has been just as exciting as the sprawling epics. Now I’m writing this from the perspective of having finished all five of the novels, but I feel that might be the best place to write about Chasm City, a loose prequel stashed between Revelation Space and Redemption Ark. Chasm City is an almost necessary piece to the series that offers up some of Reynolds’ darker characters while exploring the constant search for redemption.

Tanner Mirabel is on the hunt. His former employer and employer’s wife have just been murdered by a rival seeking revenge. He’s left his home planet of Sky’s Edge for Chasm City, the shining jewel of humanity’s colonization of the cosmos, to further his chase. However, before he’s arrived, he’s exposed to an indoctrinal virus that gives him visions of the planet’s founder, Sky Hausmann, and the sordid history of his life. It’s also splitting his mind. On top of that, Chasm City is no longer the bright shining light of human existence it used to be. It has succumbed to the melding plague, an unfathomable cataclysm wherein the nanomachines that inhabited nearly everything from buildings to the human body went cancerous and returned the jewel to the dilapidated mines of its origin. Can Tanner survive the ravages of this dying world long enough to enact his revenge? Or will he succumb to the haunting visions of some zealot’s idea of a prophet?

Make no mistake, Chasm City is a heavy hitter from page one, and it’s a knock down drag out fight of a book. It has chase scenes, villainous monologues, robotic serial killers, and more competitive trolley problems than a philosopher’s convention. It’s a book you will love to start, stubbornly push through the middle, and be joyful about having finished it to look back on its strange glory. It is meaner than Revelation Space, but it doesn’t feel cruelly so. The book tries to tackle the meaning of redemption after incredible acts of evil, and whether it is even something to be obtained. In order to engage with that theme, Reynolds’ has to expose you to the evils, both past and present. It makes the book not for the faint of heart, but also a worthy exploration, even if it’s ambiguous.

Tanner Mirabel is the perfect character to follow through the decaying world that is Chasm City. He’s stubbornly determined with the right amount of competence. He knows how to get through a fight, and he’ll play dirty to get the job done, but he’s not invincible. He understands the costs, both physically and psychologically as he makes decisions most would shudder at. Yet he presses forward, first without question and then slowly the doubt starts to edge its way in. Especially after his dreams about Sky start to feel a little too real, as if he is getting a clearer picture than most actual followers. Reynolds’ does a fine job of highlighting the separation and the slow convergence of the dreams to the real world. Tanner’s descent into a sort of madness just as he needs his wits about him carries a strong weight, but is also weirdly fun.

Reynolds’ seems to have a blast when it comes to pushing the envelope and building the world of Revelation Space. Chasm City starts to show the more gothic aspirations of the series, portraying the vast cosmos as a series of Matryoshka haunted houses. The galaxy is just one big empty thing full of dusty bookshelves, and half written notes on dusty desks. The ships we use to explore contain their own sins and desires as people find new ways to add to the definition of humanity. Sentient dolphins are corrupted as they too feel the strain of infinite confinement in these houses dedicated to the future of humankind, knowing that there is a vast ocean of nothing just beyond the hull. Chasm City is a treasure trove of ideas that are hinted at in the other books, but which never really see full fruition except here.

And I think that’s its biggest weakness. It spends a decent amount of time filling in some of the gaps that are easily inferred in Revelation Space. Where the first book had the feel of hearsay to its worldbuilding due to time and distance, Chasm City confirms some of that hearsay. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just diminished some of the magic and made some sections feel slower than if it had been the first book. But then it’s made up for in how it becomes necessary for the rest of the series. It’s not a plot necessity, but it is a vibes necessity. It gives you the full bearing out of some of the ideas that are passed over in the rest of the books, particularly the indoctrinal virus. It sets the reader up for what the rest of the series is going to be about on the emotional and narrative levels. Is humanity able to be redeemed, and is it worth redemption?

I had a lot of fun with Chasm City, and it only made me more excited for the rest of the series. An excitement that definitely bears out.  It is a rougher book, both in its outlook and the physical task of reading it. If you choose to read the series, it’s a definite must read. I also agree that it’s best read as the second book, so if you were looking for a contrarian position there, I’ve got nothing. Just read the book and enjoy the dark places Reynolds’ loves to take his readers to.

Rating: Chasm City – 8.0/10

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