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
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
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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