(2004) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £6.99, trdpbk, 532 pp, ISBN 0-575-07691-7
(2009 reprint) Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 569 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08332-5
In the future, long after the nano-apocalypse wiped out life on the planet, the inner Solar system authorities have secretly gained access to a former, mid-twentieth century Earth via a wormhole with a newly discovered Stargate/'City on the Edge of Forever' type portal. The outer Solar system powers who embrace nano-tech are being kept in the dark. So when an Earth archaeologist, Verity Auger, is tasked to visit the mid-twentieth century the whole operation comes as a surprise. However it is either accept the mission or face legal retribution for the death of a student due to carelessness while excavating the deadly nano-infected Paris.
Of course there had to be a reason why the powers that be chose an expert over whom they had leverage. There is danger in the 20th century. First off it is not the 20th century we all know: somehow the German invasion of Belgium got bogged down and so World War II was nipped in the bud. This begs the question readers have early on in the novel as to whether we are dealing with alternative timelines? Second, a previous (from the future) operative died in this version of the 20th century, possibly murdered while trying to convey key information back home. For Verity it is a step into the unknown and danger.
Meanwhile in the 'mid-20th', the death has not gone unnoticed by the locals. Two part-time private detectives (and part-time jazz players) have been called in to investigate by the murdered operative's landlord as the police (who seem increasingly subject to the growing fascist party attempting to control Paris) have dismissed the incident as suicide. As they investigate they realise that the murder victim had an unknown dimension to her life (not surprising really as she was in effect an operative from 'their future'). Then, when the landlord is himself murdered and one of the detectives implicated, it is up to the other to solve the case and clear his partner's name. Not surprisingly he encounters Verity who herself is now a focus of attention by agents who have designs on the locals. What will the pair do?
As if all of this were not enough, powers in the 'future/present', are stirring.
Alastair Reynolds, Century Rain is a roller coaster ride. A super-charged cocktail you will either like or dislike, depending on its ingredients, namely: hard SF, noir detective story, smoke and mirrors espionage, all mixed in with a good dollop of pulp space opera. As said, you will like or not aspects of this novel largely due to the afore mix and less so due to a rounded story. This is because while the plot elements are all tied up at the end (though I have to say I soon gave up bothering whose side which peripheral character was even on, so had little satisfaction when these were finally ascertained), some of the concepts' raison d'etre were never properly, let alone satisfyingly, explained, which left me wondering whether we are in store for a sequel? Having said this, should there be a sequel then I will certainly endeavour to read it for -- while the novel did not entirely chime with my own personal genre interests -- the book was engaging and there were more than enough core threads to follow that did hold my attention; plus, I'd really like more satidfying answers: perhaps Alistair meant to keep us wanting more? Here I suspect that even if other readers do not get off on all the mix Reynolds provides (or even that which I enjoyed), there is much with which they can cheerily engage. Furthermore, the plot moves along briskly and there is some interesting imagery: one being the contrast, separated by just a 'short' journey, between a bustling mid-20th century Paris and a future, deserted post-apocalyptic counterpart. Then there are the Parisian killers both past and present. Gruesome. All lovely stuff.
Century Rain is therefore more than a good SF novel that I can recommend, even if I have this niggling feeling that there was - dare I say - an even better story lurking in there. Maybe it's my imagination? So I guess you ought to go out and check for yourselves especially as Reynolds has again affirmed that he is a writer warranting aficionado attention.
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