The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Monday, June 18, 2012

A review of “Century Rain”, by Alastair Reynolds

Tagline: A brilliant book of ideas, for those interested in the interstellar possibilities of the future.

Earth is dead. Or is it?

Three hundred years in the future, Verity Auger, an archaeologist, explores the ice covered ruins of Paris, in search of invaluable relics, such as newspapers, hoping to recover clues to the past of a now uninhabited  - and uninhabitable - Earth.

Meanwhile, it seems, private detective and part time musician, Wendell Floyd,  begins to investigate what might be a murder, in an oddly unfamiliar 1959 Paris.

There is an accident, on Verity’s mission and someone dies. Verity faces a courtroom and many years in prison. Before she can be put on trial, she is whisked away by a secret governmental organization and offered a deal: the charges will be dropped, if she accepts a clandestine mission – to travel through a wormhole, through space-time, to an earlier version of Earth, that still lives, to recover some documents of great value. The archaeologist is being offered the chance to see a living Earth: Paris in 1959. She takes it – and the adventure begins. The only thing is, if she had known what she was getting into, she might not have accepted at all.

This second Earth is strange. Nothing is quite what it seems. The reader is led to question the nature of reality and of what it means to be alive – and “real”. These ponderings emerge naturally, in response to a story that, in some way, tries to be a whole library of books at once – so multiple are the genres to be found in its pages – from space opera, to alternate history, to time travel, to noir detective story, to science fiction thriller and spy novel. This pot pourri could easily have led to an inchoate mess, but Alastair Reynolds handles all these elements adroitly, to create a well told story that pulls its many threads together expertly.

1950s Paris is imagined in fine detail. It is not quite the Paris our history tells us of, but it is Paris all the same. Reynolds seems very much in love with the city and his writing is at its best, in the Parisian passages. He writes with a kinaesthetic prose, capturing movement, action and texture, alike, with great precision and evocativeness. He also litters his writing with vivid images, that light up in the mind’s eye. This is unexpected from a science fiction writer, who are often strong on ideas, but weak on prose. Reynolds is a writer who, at times, plays with words and images in a way which delights the mind – though I must point out that he doesn’t always do so. There is promise, though, in the writing, of what might come in later works.

Oddly, for a hard SF writer, Reynolds’ future seems more thinly described. There is something insubstantial about it, as if he didn’t quite devote the imaginative resources to it, that he could have done. Yet, there are interesting themes at play. There are two major divisions of humanity, in the 23rd Century: the Threshers, who live in near Earth space and reject nanotechnology because it once destroyed all life on Earth – and the Slashers, who are nanotechnologically augmented superhuman beings and live in the outer solar system. The rivalry of these two groups provides the political backdrop to the future. Their disparate natures, gives us two visions of what might become of humanity. It also gives us one of the central tensions in the story. Can these essentially incompatible philosophies of life, get along...or will there be a war?

Reynolds is very good at creating a sense of mystery. He scatters clues as to what is really going on, throughout the story – but, cleverly, tends to suggest wrong interpretations of these clues, so that the reader is constantly being wrong-footed about what is really going on. This is a highly effective way of heightening the mystery and absorbing the reader, into every detail of the complex unfolding plot. Reynolds most definitely has a future as a detective story writer, should he ever wish to abandon science fiction. He demonstrates here an ability to handle many genres well. He is a highly competent story teller.

Where Reynolds is weak, however, is human emotion. His writing is a beautiful, intricate, confection that enchants the mind – but chills the heart. Though he tries to inject romance into the story towards the end, it comes off as cold and dead. There is no life, in that “love” he speaks of. Somehow, he has failed to capture what real human feeling is like. He is unable to make the reader feel for the characters or their situation and when people die it is very much “So what?”. This weakens the book, for though it is a very interesting story, well told, the reader is never moved by it: it is never an emotional experience.

Then there is the matter of characterization. This is somewhat effective for the two central characters, but almost everyone else in the book is a bit of a cardboard cut out. One cannot care for people who are not people, but just story functions. Reynolds’ imagination seems more powerful when it concerns events, concepts and things, than it does when it concerns people. Perhaps this relates to his real life background as an astrophysicist. His life has been more one of ideas, than of people – and it shows in his writing – the people are not quite all there, but the ideas are great.

Century Rain is a successful marriage of noir detective story and science fiction novel. However, it is not without its flaws – but these are not flaws of story telling, but more flaws, perhaps, in the writer’s understanding of feeling and its portrayal. Alastair Reynolds is a great science fiction writer, who is better than many more well known writers, in the actual quality of his writing. Yet, he has limits in the areas of characterization and human feeling. I think that his best future books will be ones that focus on his strengths, for I am not sure he has it in him, to fully address these weaknesses.

Century Rain is clever, complex and fun to read. Enjoy it for its abundance of ideas, its many surprises and its careful plotting. It is a long book but one that is well worth your while – for it takes you to worlds you have never seen and prompts you to consider just where we might be heading, in the real world – and whether we really want to ever get there.

Please note: This review was written as a sample, for a national newspaper that wanted to see how I might write book reviews. Given that the book was released some years ago, however, they decided it was too old to publish. So, I didn't want to waste the effort I put into writing it. Thus, I have posted it here. I hope some of you enjoyed it.

Posted by Valentine Cawley

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:05 PM 


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