SLOW BULLETS, a new novella by Alastair Reynolds, is a very good piece of “hard” science fiction, without quite being up to the standard of Reynolds’s usually excellent style. The text reads more like a manuscript summary, a submission to the publisher providing the sketch for a future novel, broken up into separate chunks or segments. Despite the fact that each segment is gripping and contains very interesting ideas, there are big gaps in the narrative sequence begging to be filled in, and many segments have gaping plot-holes or contradictions that could have been ironed out in a final novel, that was never written. Still, it was a very enjoyable read.
The story is based on ambivalence, as the title announces. A bullet is a high-speed projectile, so the title “slow bullets” is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron, as in the classical example: festina lente, hasten slowly. The contradictory nature of the expression serves to highlight the adjective “slow”, and we see that the “slowness” involved has two values: positive, the bullet is slow so as to do no harm to vital organs; and negative, the bullet is slow so as to cause as much pain as possible, to prolong the pain.
In classical terms, a “slow bullet” is a pharmakon, something that can be either a remedy or a poison, a cure or a curse. This ambivalence is coded into the heroine’s name “Scur”, which is phonetically an anagramme of both “curse” and “cures”. We can see the possibility of these two pronunciations in the full form of that name, “Scurelya”. The audiobook version had to decide on one pronunciation, and chose “Scur” to rhyme with “cur”, but two pronunciations are possible. On the second hypothesis “Scur” would rhyme with “secure”, or “cure”.
The pharmakon as the indetermination between two opposing values, or ambivalent medecine/poison, goes back to Plato. In the PHAEDRUS, writing is presented as a pharmakon. Supposedly an aid to memory, writing as an exteriorised or artificial memory potentially will weaken or destroy our personal memories. This theme is at work in the whole concept of the bullet and its actual and potential functions, and what information it can usefully contain.
Another ambivalence in the PHAEDRUS, and in SLOW BULLETS is the answer to the question who is wise? The sophists who write down their discourses, relying on the artificial memory of writing, or Socrates who doesn’t write, but relies on the living memory of the active soul? They have much in common, but one is a poison or curse (Lysias, the sophist) and the other is a remedy or cure (Socrates, the philosopher). We find this theme in the opposition and identification between the heroine Scur and the vilain Orvin. Is Scur just as bad as Orvin, as Orvin himself claims? Can Scur bring something good out of Orvin, despite himself?
Memory and its ambivalence is at the heart of this story: is memory a blessing or a curse? Which memories are the “best”, personal remembrances or collective culture ? Personal memories give us anchor, focus, and centredness. But they also give us division, repetition of the past, an appette for revenge. Cultural memory gives us poetry, science and humanity, but also weapons and sectarian strife. Wiping out the personal information on your bullet means passing from memory as literal proof of one’s identity, to memory as personal relation to the past and creative relation to our individuality. Putting cultural information on the bullet means passing from narcissistic nostalgic self-authentication to collective future-oriented construction.
Another theme of the novella is the danger of literalism. The Holy Scripture of this future civilisation, called simply “The Book”, exists in two versions, very similar but with crucial differences. Seeing The Book through the eyes of the heroine Scur who was brought up in a religious family but is not a believer, we can see how it is divisive if taken literally, but consolatory and wisdom-bearing if one approaches it free from literal belief, more poetically.
The pharmakon theme (curse or cure, poison or remedy) can be seen very clearly in the ship’s auto-surgeon, which could heal you or butcher you. Right at the beginning of the novella we have the collection of poems of Giresun, with the poem entitled “Morning Flowers”. Scur tells us that this poem is about death and memory (“remembrance”), loss and life. This sets up from the outset the thematics of the story in cameo form.
Another ambivalent term is “caprice”, an unreasoning or inexplicable change of mood or line of action, in violation of accepted rules of behaviour. The ship on which almost all the action takes place is called “The Caprice”. A caprice can be frivolous whim, often egotistical, or it can be a deeper impulse. When Scur asks Orvin why he is torturing her despite the ceasefire, he laughs and asks “Why not?” This is a negative caprice, meant to be lethal. When Scur spares Orvin, and gives him a second chance, this was an unexpected move, a positive caprice. Prad exclaims: “I did not think Scur would do the obvious thing”. The outcome is uncertain and Scur has violated the wishes of the ruling “Trinity”, but Prado concludes that despite this uncertainty and despite the illegality of the action, Scur’s caprice was a positive gesture: “It was good that we not kill this man, and good that we gave him a chance to do some good himself”.