Alastair Reynolds,
Chasm City
(Gollancz, 2001; Ace, 2002)

I put down Alastair Reynolds's Chasm City burning with frustration. I've just finished one of the best books I've ever read, and I have no one to discuss it with.

Chasm City is the destination of Tanner Mirabel, a private security professional hailing from the warring planet Sky's Edge. Tanner's last employer was betrayed and killed by a man named Reivich, and he has a personal grudge to settle. Tanner is prepared to track his quarry all the way to Chasm City in the famed Glitter Belt, the richest, most prosperous part of the Galaxy. Chasm City and its surrounding asteroids run on a different level than the rest of society, with nano machine-infested cities that rebuild themselves according to the will of the populace and a nano machine-saturated populace who reshape themselves as they please. But information in Tanner's time doesn't exactly travel faster than light, and horrible changes have happened in the lush Glitter Belt during the lag. Infected by a strange nano-organic virus, the mini-machine-run cities have changed, spasming and twisting into frightening organic shapes. The citizens of the Glitter Belt, as riddled with machinery as their buildings and belongings, have been twisted also; Tanner's carrying a virus himself, courtesy of some religious fanatics from Sky's Edge. The fanatics have raised the colony's violent, martyred founder, Sky Hauptmann, to the level of a messiah, and seek converts through their psycho-affective infection. The disease infects Tanner's mind, forcing him into visionary dreams of Sky's infamous life, often at the most awkward times. The disease worsens as Tanner follows his trail through the divided society of Chasm City.

Chasm City is one of the most solid and compelling locales I've ever read across. Reynolds describes the city during the course of the action, instead of putting the story on hold to give the tour. The blending of action with description makes the area seem more alive, as it actually is with all of its nano machines. The Canopy/Mulch class divide, with the privileged literally being in the upper parts of the city, manages to be equally dystopian for both groups. The rich are physically comfortable, but evidently insane; the Mulch citizens struggle more for daily necessities, but seem to have kept their sense of humanity and purpose.

Chasm City is several books rolled into one. Tanner Mirabel's half of the story has the slow revelations of an amnesiac, a detective thriller and a bit of space opera thrown in. The story of Sky Hauptmann and the colonizing of Sky's Edge is the tale of a generation ship, a criminal psychology thriller and a tale of first contact. Chasm City, a character in its own right, tells with building and survivors a story of apocalypse and slow recovery.

Everything in Chasm City blends seamlessly. There's not a single wasted element, not one unnecessary character. The story at times almost gives up some of its secrets, but Reynolds is brilliant with his misdirection, and manages to put a distracting flash or too-tempting mind-candy at just the right point to derail an inquiring mind. The ending ties up every loose thread, but without ever feeling contrived. The only disappointment I had from Chasm City was knowing that, once it finished, I knew I might not get to read anything quite as good for a long time. I look forward to being exactly as disappointed with Reynolds's next book.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 14 September 2002

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