Slow Bullets, by Alistair Reynolds
This is a fairly short, and rather enigmatic, work. It’s as much horror story as it is science fiction.
A few thoughts under the cut…
Slow Bullets starts off at the end of a long, miserable grinding war, in which the main character had found herself entangled. Scur, as our narrator calls herself, starts the story off by having a run-in with notorious war criminal Orvin. He implants a slow bullet into her, with the intention of killing her slowly and agonisingly. After completing this little atrocity, Orvin abandons her to her fate.
Scur, however, has other plans. She’s rather too stubborn just to sit there and die. Except she loses consciousness anyway.
And then things take a turn for the unexpected.
Scur wakes up on a half-derelict prison ship, with no idea why she’s there or even how she got there. The other survivors, crawling painfully out of hibernation, find themselves in exactly the same situation. Except with every new thing they learn, the situation turns out to be worse than they thought. The ship is damaged and adrift. They’ve been in hibernation not for months, but at least for centuries. The civilisations that they came from are dead and buried.
But hey, there’s good news: they have made orbit around their destination planet. Except that it’s sun isn’t as bright as it should be, and the planet is in an anomalous ice age, and there’s no hint of surviving human society.
Just what the hell has happened?
If you want hard and fast answers, Slow Bullets probably isn’t for you.
In case you’re wondering about the planet Tottori, we get about 50% of an answer as to what happened to it. The same thing apparently happened to all the other settled planets. The Sickening, insofar as it can be understood, appears to have been some sort of hybrid between the awakening of Cthulhu and an aborted cosmological phase change. (Apparently when the Sickening came it changed the laws of physics enough to bugger up most complex technology and fuck up nuclear fusion, but somehow not quite enough to directly-kill people. Don’t ask me how that works. It probably doesn’t.)
But, Tottori isn’t the biggest mystery in the story.
You see, there’s a suggestion that Scur isn’t who she says she is – in fact, that she may not even be who she thinks she is. Scur’s story is oddly vague in places – why are her parents unnamed? What does she look like? What exactly did the Book teach? If it was so significant in her life, why does she offer no specifics except that it contains the word of “the prophets”? For that matter, what was the name of Scur’s society – surely their state had a name? If it was indeed theocratic in character, as the story faintly implies, then what were their rites and rituals? (Seriously, theocracies will be full of this stuff.)
The ship and its predicament, by contrast, are lucid and vivid. But of course this is the time we see through the un-hibernated Scur’s eyes – the time spent in orbit around the frozen husk of Tottori. It’s clear something isn’t quite right about Scur – but who, or what, was she really?
And is it coincidence that the one starship that still has a functioning skip drive, the one ship that survived the passage of the Sickness, is also the one that had Scur on board in a hibernation pod?
There are no clear answers here, but there is a lot to think over.
(One word of caution: this is a story with some real squick in it. The scene with the malfunctioning automated surgical machine … well, if I hadn’t guessed what was about to happen, it would have been quite a shock. Let’s just say “fountain of gizzards” doesn’t even begin to cover it.)