Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds Review

hasm city alastair reynoldsWelcome to my review of Chasm City, I’ve finished reading the book so here is my personal review.

I’d also like to mention that I’ll be discussing things about the book which you may or may not want to read. This is commonly referred to as “spoiler” content as it would spoil your experience of reading the book. If you haven’t read the book and you plan to, you might want to avoid the remainder of this post. If you have read it, or you don’t plan to (in which case you’d be missing out on a good read), or you don’t care if I spoil some plot info, then go ahead and click the “Read More” link and read the rest of the review.

First of all, Chasm City is clearly set before the events of Revelation Space. Which, I guess, makes it a prequel (if the publication dates are correct.) Now that I know this for certain, I realize I sort of knew this all along. There were a few things mentioned in the Chasm City that related back to Revelation Space that would place it in the timeline. More specifically, we were given a relatively concrete time of the onset of the Melding Plague which I pretty much missed in the first book.


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One element of the story I didn’t talk about which helps to establish the timeline was something called the Game. To understand this, you have to understand that the aristocracy in Chasm City is made up of people who are nearly immortal. Due to their longevity techniques, most of them have lived over a hundred years or more. It seems that when people live this long and have little fear of death, they need something to stave off the boredom. Some people use extreme sports like bungee jumping into the chasm itself (extremely more dangerous than bungee jumping off a cliff.) Others want to actually inflict death or the fear of death. For this they have the Game.

The Game is an underground event that most people in the Canopy know about and play. Someone will kidnap an inhabitant of the Mulch, supposedly someone who has committed a serious crime (though, as in Tanner’s case, you find that sometimes this person is mostly innocent,) and force them to play the Game as well. The only difference is that this person is being hunted, while the people of the Canopy get to hunt. Odds are stacked mostly in favor of the hunters, and so the people of the Canopy have a way of exciting themselves without too much fear of death. This is all very familiar if you’ve read Revelation Space. In the first book, there is mention of a similar game played in the Canopy called Shadowplay. The difference here is that it is the Game turned on its head. Instead of Canopy hunting Mulch, you now have the Canopy signing up to be hunted by professional killers who are mostly recruited from the Mulch.


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The interesting thing about all of this, and what clearly established the timeline for me, is that Tanner had a hand in this development. When Tanner first arrives at Chasm City, he is kidnapped and forced to play the Game as the hunted party. Later on, in his rage, he plans a whole new game that would allow him to get revenge on the people who hunted him. This was the beginnings of Shadowplay. At the end of the book we find out that Tanner was in fact the inventor of Shadowplay and has made his fortune in Chasm City getting the game started. This leads right into Revelation Space as the hunter he is interviewing in the final scene turns out to be one of the main characters in that book.

My predictions of what might happen at the conclusion of the book were also a bit off. I was sort of confused by the whole Sky/Cahuella/Tanner thing. It bothered me that someone could go from being a crazy murderer to a kind of nice guy, but in reality this is what the story offered and I accept it as such. I think it’s hard to judge because progression happened over such a long span of time, and I can’t really fathom anyone living for that long of a period. It’s interesting now that I think about it because if one were to look back on their life even 5-10 years ago there is usually a pretty decent change. Imagine that on a scale of ten or a hundred times as long. If you live for a thousand years, how much do you change? How different a person are you from beginning to end? I think that, along with the extreme situations in his life, it makes a sort of sense.

The final confrontation, interestingly enough, was not between Tanner and Reivich, it was actually between Tanner and the original Tanner. Reivich was in the middle of this. He set up the scenario. Looking back, it seems that the whole ordeal with Reivich was really planned out by him. His hate for Cahuella for being responsible (in his eyes) for the death of his family was really behind everything. He pitted Tanner and Cahuella against each other, and whether intentionally or not, caused a kind of swap between the two of them. At the end, it was Tanner (the original Tanner) who was the monster; he wanted nothing but the death of Cahuella. Cahuella (Sky… Tanner, what he eventually became known as) on the other hand became more like the original Tanner was before any of this. But he was not Tanner, he was a new person. Someone who had committed horrible atrocities in the past, but someone also who was trying to make amends for those terrible things.

Chasm City by Alistair Renolds Synopsis

Chasm City is the second book of a “series” referred to as Revelation Space (which is the name of the first book in the series.) Here’s another example of a set of books which are really just in the same universe rather than being serialized. I only vaguely understand that the timelines of the books are chronological. The second book could very well be set before the first book. I’m not entirely sure. In any case, the characters from both books are completely different, and the story lines are not dependent on one another. The only thing that really ties them together is the fact that they are in the same universe (they share the same histories and the same laws and what not.) Now, whether this will be the case for the rest of the books I’m unsure. In any case, I’ll be finding out as I plan to read all of them. So presumably you could read these books in any order and not have much of a difference other than maybe not quite fully understanding some minor aspect of the universe.

Chasm City is also the name of the main settlement of a world called Yellowstone which was settled by Earth many generations ago. It is named after the giant chasm at the center of the city which generates all sorts of useful gases and vapors that make life in the city possible. The imagery of the city is what impresses me the most. This is a great example of the steampunk aesthetic. There is a certain Victorian era quality to the aristocracy of the Canopy, an upper level strata of the city. The inhabitants of the Mulch, the ground level strata, on the other hand reminded me much of the downtrodden worker class often depicted in the steampunk social structure. As well, the technology used was a certain blend of steam powered and high tech, and the fashion really fit the bill (lots of goggles and great coats.) With that said, Chasm City certainly had its own uniquely sci-fi quality to it.

The main story revolves around a man named Tanner Mirabel who appears at first to be relatively sure of himself, but over time shows increasing signs of a major identity crisis. He has travelled from Sky’s Edge, his home world, to Chasm City, a 15 year journey, to track down Reivich, a man who (at first) we believe to have killed Tanner’s boss, Cahuella, and his bosses wife.

Initially, the motivation for this manhunt is unclear. Tanner has presumably thrown away his old life on Sky’s Edge. Due to the method of travel (sleeping in a stasis pod of sorts) and the distance, Tanner would not have aged a year, but had he chosen to return, everyone from his home planet would be 30 years older by the time he did. This is explained by the fact that Tanner must avenge his bosses death, and that he actually had romantic feelings for Cahuella’s wife. To me, slightly implausible. We then find out that Reivich only attacked them because Cahuella was an arms merchant, and a shipment of arms which were stolen from one of Cahuella’s client was used to murder Reivich’s family. So the man Tanner is out to kill was somewhat justified in his actions. And to make matters worse, we learn that in the attack, it was in fact Tanner who accidentally killed Cahuella and his wife.

Eventually, Tanner learns he wasn’t even the man he thought he was. Cahuella had survived the attack and disguised himself as Tanner, stealing his memories and suppressing his own. The man we thought was Tanner Mirabel turns out to be Cahuella all along. Intriguing as this is, it made me feel as though the person I had come to know all throughout the book was not who I thought it was, and all of a sudden there is no real main character that I can say I know with any certainty. At this point, I am still unclear of Cahuella/Tanner’s motivations for relentlessly hunting down Reivich. It seems to me that there is no apparent reason… Unless it was merely an excuse and that there were other, more important matters to attend to in Chasm City.

Along those lines we have the mystery of the Melding Plague, an alien virus that attacks any sort of technology above a certain level of complexity, and a seemingly connected counterpart drug called Dream Fuel that counteracts the effects of the Plague in people that rely on advanced implants and “medichines” (nanomachines that help in longevity techniques). Tanner (when we still knew him as such) was oddly compelled to look into the dwindling supplies and increasing costs of this drug.

Tying everything together we have the story of Sky Hausmann, the namesake of Tanner’s homeworld Sky’s Edge. A certain faction of this planet is a group of devout fanatics to Sky (seemingly similar to how Christians view Jesus,) and have created a virus which infect people in different ways. Tanner believes that when he wakes up around Yellowstone that he has contracted this virus. He begins having dreams, and eventually waking episodes which depict different portions of Sky’s life. Through this, we learn his story. I find this to be an extremely interesting device to tell a side story without changing points of view (we later find that this was fully intentional and not really a device at all.)

Sky Hausmann was the second and last generation born on a generation ship travelling from Earth to settle the planet that will become known as Sky’s Edge. He will be around middle age at Journey’s End. He is part of a crew of around 150 that run the ship and watch over the momios, the nearly 1,000 people kept in stasis until they reach the end of their journey where they will then be awoken to help colonize the planet. As a boy, Sky is a gifted individual; more intelligent than the average kid his age. Later, we start to realize that he has an evil side to him, and eventually learn that he is essentially a deranged psychopath; murdering his long time friends and deceiving everyone to attain his goals, which comes down to making it to Journey’s End before the other ships so they they have the pick of the planet.

The most important event in these episodes is that a sixth and previous unknown ship travels with the other five of the Flotilla. Sky is able to put himself into a position to make a trip to this ship without the rest of the crew knowing. He believes he will find additional supplies that would be priceless in succeeding in his goals. As the ships have been travelling for around a hundred years much of the equipment has begun to fail. What Sky finds instead is something completely alien. It is a ship that has camouflaged itself to trick the rest of the Flotilla so that it can observe them without arousing suspicion. The alien grub that he finds in the ship is immeasurably old, and has been watching this part of the galaxy for signs of life for many many years. Its goal is to suppress intelligent life if necessary so that another player in the game will not notice and find the alien there as well. This additional player is something we learned about in the first book. Without getting into too much detail, they are ancient and sinister machines placed all around the galaxy designed to watch for signs of intelligent life and eradicate all traces of those lifeforms which have advanced beyond a certain stage. So the alien is really just covering its own ass, and it would kill Sky and all his people if it came down to it. When Sky finds this out, he destroys the alien ship with a nuclear warhead and goes on his merry (and quite deranged) way.

The reason why that event is so significant (apart from tying this book into the larger story told by the whole series) is because what Tanner/Cahuella finds out on Chasm City is that the Dream Fuel is actually a substance created by an alien of the same race as the one Sky found. We also learn that the alien that crashed on Yellowstone after being chased by the aforementioned killer machines, was infected with the Melding Plague, which is the reason why Chasm City was eventually contaminated as well (why that took so long to happen I am unsure.)

This is also the point where we realize that not only was Tanner Cahuella, Cahuella is Sky Hausmann. Which I am at odds with since the Tanner we know in the main body of the story is such a completely different person than Sky Hausmann appeared to be. Tanner even comments that it is uncomfortable experiencing some of the thoughts and actions of Sky. Of course, we could imagine that Sky eventually went through a transformation of sorts. As Sky he was a crazy, manipulative person. As Cahuella, he was a ruthless arms dealer, but apparently sane and caring enough to have a loving wife. As Tanner, he was a good and honest man willing to put himself on the line for the sake of complete strangers. Certainly noticeable progress, but an intense transformation nonetheless.

Presumably there will be some sort of epic revelation about why Sky/Cahuella/Tanner has journeyed so far and gone through so much in his life to get to this point. Maybe he will also solve the mystery of the Melding Plague. Though I have a feeling that is all part of the larger story told by the whole series. My assumption is that it is something related to these killer machines. Eventually, throughout this series, I expect there to be a huge confrontation with those machines and possibly their makers. I’ll be covering all that in this on going look into Revelation Space.

Stay Tuned!

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