Slow Bullets, like Perfect State, has a premise that didn’t grab me and would have kept me from reading it but for being a Hugo finalist. In this case it wasn’t the copy but the plot descriptions from some of the early reviews. Orvin torturing Scur with a “slow bullet” didn’t appeal to me. Thankfully, that was a bit of a red herring. Reynolds is telling a very different story, although he ties that story in with the slow bullets thematically. But it’s a half-baked and unsatisfying story in many ways.
A soldier unfairly conscripted into a massive, interplanetary and interstellar war, Scur does get captured and (briefly) tortured by Orvin as news trickles in that the war is ending, but that’s more of a prologue, and not important in the way it first seems. The prologue ends with Scur trying to dig out the slow bullet Orvin injected in her. (Slow bullets are tiny devices injected in soldiers, serving the role of both dog tags and military records. The one Orvin is using is nasty because it doesn’t secrete an anesthetic as it works its way up from her leg toward her heart.) The real meat of the book begins when Scur wakes up from hibernation on a damaged starship. The rest of the story follows Scur, the ship’s crew, and the rest of the “passengers” (including Orvin) as they try to determine when and where they are, deal with damage to the ship, and work to set up a crude system of ship governance in the meantime.
But the Big Idea at the heart of the story concerns the permanent slow loss of cultural knowledge and history. The damage to the starship is causing it to slowly overwrite all of its memory to keep critical functions, er, functioning. A distinct lack of alternative memory options leaves the survivors with the primary option of attempting to retain cultural knowledge and history as it is overwritten by scratching it into the walls of the ship. (I’ve seen Slow Bullets labeled as Hard Sci Fi. But the central technological problem is too flimsy—for reasons anyone who owns a thumb drive will understand—for it to qualify in my mind. So I’m sticking with Military SF.) It’s a more interesting problem from a social science aspect than a science-science aspect.
Or it should be. The leaders of the ship react by attempting to centrally plan the entire project. They’re right about a need for a somewhat systematic approach, but they ignore that: they aren’t qualified (either from a technical or moral sense) to choose what gets prioritized, and assigning people to scratch stuff they may or may not care about is a recipe for heavy shirking. A better design would have been to allot wall space, instituted some sort of bid system for bits of knowledge (if only to avoid replication), and giving credits redeemable for food for doing the actual work, and making all of it freely tradable. There is another Big Moral Question over retaining religious knowledge. The interstellar war at the beginning of the story was over different versions of the “Book” (I have problems with this sort of reductionist depiction of religious, or any other, conflict, but I’ll leave that for another day). Those Books were already lost by the time the memory-loss issue is discovered, although it is hinted that they may have been intentionally deleted. But that doesn’t stop work teams from later ignoring their assigned bits of knowledge (remember what I said about shirking?) and scratching out pieces of the Books that they know by heart. How does the leadership react? This must be stopped. Which, of course, necessarily means by violence. Why do they want to stop it? Because religious differences have led to violence in the past. Yes, they are committing immediate violence to stop possible future violence. This, and any intrinsic freedom of conscience, pass unremarked.
I always feel a little weird leveling this kind of criticism at a book. Is the author just being subtle? Isn’t it better to frame up the issue for the reader and make him ask the questions (my thoughts on the unsuitability of fiction for advocacy will have to wait for another day as well)? In another story I might give the author the benefit of the doubt and find the treatment of the issues intriguing and interesting, but, as respected as Alastair Reynolds is, Slow Bullets is too obviously half-baked to get the benefit of that doubt (I’ve also never read Reynolds). The story isn’t saved, either, by a pretty nifty metaphor involving the slow bullets. But I will add the caveat to my review that there was a better, cooler aspect there that I didn’t talk about in an effort to avoid being too spoilery.