by Alastair Reynolds
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Mass Market ISBN/ITEM#: 0575076917
Date: October 3, 2005 List Price £6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In the short time since his elevation from the short fiction fringes of the genre to the ranks of full blown published novels, Alastair Reynolds has become one of British SF's brightest stars. His debut novel Revelation Space and the two books that followed on from it (Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap) have raised the bar for space opera a good couple of notches. Thrown into this mix was Chasm City, Reynolds' second published novel. Though cunningly related to the Revelation Space universe, Chasm City (a novel I enjoyed immensely - see my review) showed Reynolds' edgier side and proved him no mean writer of mystery fiction in the process. And of course, I must mention also Diamond Dogs , the brilliant PS Publishing novella (subsequently published by Gollancz) which I described at the time as "glam-goth science fiction played loud"!
With his latest novel Century Rain, Reynolds digs deeper into his SF writer's tool kit and offers us a time travel story...well, not exactly. Reynolds is not the type of writer who simply "tries his hand" at any story form - rather he's the kind who will confidently snatch it, shake it ragged and throw it back at us reworked and re-branded.
On beginning Century Rain, the reader immediately finds himself immersed in a seemingly traditional, hard-boiled detective story. We're in Paris in the late 50s and part-time broke jazz musician, part-time private dick, Wendell Floyd, along with his partner, Custine - a big ex-cop and fellow jazzman, gets invited to take a closer look at an apparent suicide. A young girl has fallen to her death from a balcony and her landlord, a lonely old man with a soft spot for the deceased, is convinced foul play was involved. The police have tossed the case aside as open-and-shut and so the sleuths have been called in. Reynolds gives us the perfect noir set-up - right down to the troubles Floyd has with his sultry and glamorous inamorata and the way he rarely uses his Christian name. It almost feels safe for us to relax into this well trodden milieu for the duration of the novel, but of course, Reynolds isn't going to let that happen!
And so in chapter two we are introduced to the parallel story arc. This tells us of Verity Auger, a specialist field archaeologist studying the ruins of Paris a couple of centuries hence. We learn that the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable following the Nanocaust, a terrible environmental disaster in which the machines turned on humanity and that society has split into two factions, the Threshers and the Slashers. The former now live mainly in Tanglewood, a kind of evolved shanty town orbiting the mother planet. These Threshers eschew their Slasher rivals, the latter having adopted and furthered the nanotechnology that ravished mankind. However, though tensions are always high between both factions, they interact, sharing knowledge and technology when necessary. When an expedition to the Paris excavation goes wrong, resulting in the death of one of her students, Auger finds herself pitched headlong into the cold war that exists between the factions, and it isn't long before the temperature begins to rise.
Back in Floyd's Paris, the case he's following reveals itself (naturally) to be well worthy of his scrutiny, whilst in thread two, Auger finds herself threatened with a tribunal that will finish her career. She's offered a get out though and it is in this that Reynolds reveals the hook of this novel. The Slashers have discovered a hyperweb, a network of wormhole type routes throughout the galaxy, each of which theoretically leads to an "ALS - Anomalous Large Structure". So far the Threshers have only made their way to a single example of one of these but what they found there was extraordinary. Inside the ALS, there exists a complete replica of Earth, a kind of physical living photograph known as E2. Who constructed this record is unclear, but that doesn't really matter, for here is an archaeologists dream. Auger must travel to E2 (a tricky journey, the physics of which Reynolds skilfully obfuscates with authentic sounding technobabble) to find out what happened to her predecessor - who, of course, is the subject of Floyd's enquiry. And so Reynolds twists his story threads and indeed, his genres together, weaving in myriad plot elements along the way - the most audacious of which is that this replica Earth is not like for like. Instead is diverges from our known history, the Second World War having fizzled out in 1940. Consequently much of our computer and rocketry technology has not developed and this gives the story a sideways torque that very much enhances the originality of the author's approach.
The set up for this adventure is, as I've demonstrated, far from straightforward, but my goodness, it's damned exciting! What's truly amazing is the degree of control that Reynolds exerts on his story whilst juggling all these balls. There inevitably are some minor faults that I take issue with - specifically the stretching out of the dénouement, which goes on for an awfully long time, but really such things are very minor in the grand scheme of this novel. With Century Rain Al Reynolds shows he's right on the cutting edge of the British SF scene.