Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Century Rain - Alastair Reynolds

First review of the year. Since I started last year with an Alastair Reynolds book I decided to make it a tradition. I exhausted his Revelation Space works, which currently comprises five novels and two volumes of shorter fiction, so it is time to have a look at Reynold's work in other settings. Century Rain (2004) is the first novel Reynolds published outside the Revelation Space setting. It combines elements of noir, hard science fiction and time travel with a dash of romance. Reynolds experimented with noir elements in Chasm City and also incorporates it in The Prefect. That last one I think of as the best novel he wrote (mind you I still have a few to go). In Century Rain I don't think the melding of noir and science fiction works too well however, this book is not one of Reynold's stronger novels.

The novel opens in the late 23rd century with archaeologist Verity Auger leading two students through the ruins of Paris. Earth has been destroyed by an event referred to as the nanocaust during the 2070s. A host of tiny machines, released to correct the centuries of abuse heaped upon the earth by humanity, turns against it's creators and kills all life on earth. By that time, humanity has established a foothold in space, which is the only thing that saves them from extinction. Verity is looking though what is left of the earth to find historical records, printed material, not susceptible to the nanobots' corruption. While retrieving a newspaper, a treasure trove of information for archaeologists, her expedition meets with an accident. One of the students under her care dies. Verity is in trouble.

Before Verity can face a tribunal, she is snatched away by a top secret organisation in the human faction she belongs to. They have a very dangerous job for her, for which her skill as an archaeologist will be invaluable. Somewhere light years away from earth, a copy of the planet has been found. Right now, it is the year 1959 on that world, and history has diverged a bit from our own time line. One of the agents sent in to investigate, Susan White, has been found dead after falling out of a window. Verity is sent in to retrieve Susan's notes. Once in the alternate 1959 city of Paris, she quickly runs into Wendell Floyd, a private detective who doesn't believe Susan's death was accidental.

Century Rain is not a time-travel story in the traditional sense of the word. It is more like a copy of earth has been rebooted and reset to the mid 1930s. In Floyd's version of Paris, the Germans never managed to occupy France. Hitler's offensive stalled in the Ardennes and he was subsequently ousted from power. Reynolds gave quite a bit of thought to what this would have meant for the development of science. Things like computers, nuclear technology and rockets were given a great boost by World War II. Floyd's world is lagging behind compared to our own. Unfortunately Reynolds does not mention the territorial consequences of Hitler's failure. What about the partitioning of Poland? The occupation of Czechoslovakia, der Anschluß, the fascist regimes in Italy and Spain? We do end up in Germany during the story so there was some opportunity to at least look at the situation there. I must admit a lot of these details are strictly speaking not necessary for the story but for the real fans of alternate history, this novel is probably a bit too focussed on science.

I did quite enjoy Reynold's depiction of this alternate 1950s Paris. It is changed in quite subtle ways from the city as we know it. There's a decidedly xenophobic wind blowing through the streets of the city, something that the American Floyd is keenly aware of. The author paints a dark picture of the city, with an increasingly corrupt police force and violence threatening, it is not a place Floyd ought to stay for much longer. His preference for Jazz, a kind of music viewed with suspicion in the French capital, helps build a bit of a dark, moody atmosphere. People who know the city may get more out of these sections, I've never been closer to Paris than the Route Périphérique and that was quite a long time ago.

The scenes set in the 23rd centuries are interesting in their own way but I did feel that towards the end of the novel much of the space devoted to the future part of the story was filled with info dumps. The reader needs to be told some things about the general shape of history and Reynolds uses Floyd's ignorance of the situation as an excuse to enlighten the reader. They are not a punishment to read but it probably could have been done a bit more gracefully. Quite a bit can be figured out from earlier portions of the book. It makes the latter part of the novel a strangely structured piece of writing with all the action, chases and last minute rescues one would expect in the climax of a tale like Century Rain, intermixed with long explanations of how things came to be. Thematically these sections do contain some intriguing questions though. The dangers of fully relying on digital information storage for one thing.

The characterization in this novel is also a bit problematic. Reynolds can do certain types of characters really well, the world wise detective being one of them, but in some other areas he has problems. Floyd also has a love interest in this book and in that area the author is less successfully. Rationally I understood there was a connection between the characters but Reynolds could not really make me feel it. The emotionally charged scenes always seemed a bit bland to me. Which is a shame, it could really have added something to the story.

I don't think Reynolds quite managed to really connect the noir and science fiction elements of the story. Century Rain is an interesting novel, one that certainly succeeds in creating a dark atmosphere, but when it comes to the right mix of elements I think it falls short of the level of Chasm City or The Prefect. The novel simply has too many problems to be called good. I still enjoyed reading it, its not a book I would consider putting away after a few chapters, but it won't end up at the top of favourites lists either.

Book Details
Title: Century Rain
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 532
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07691-4
First published: 2004


  1. Nice review! I read Century Rain a long time ago, long enough that I don't remember much about it except that interesting duplicate Earth premise, and the nanotechnology angle. It's the latter aspect that fascinates me—I rediscovered Alastair Reynolds through House of Suns, and now I want to read (or in the case of this book, re-read) his entire oeuvre. I love hard SF, particularly posthuman stuff.

    NB: "Comprises of" is incorrect. You should just say that Revelation Space "comprises five novels and two volumes of shorter fiction."

  2. Is comprised of or comprises. Right, I knew that. Stop laughing, I really did! :P

    I haven't read House of Suns (yet). I have a bit more catching up to do before I get there. I hope to at least read one more this year, probably Pushing Ice, I think that one is next in publication order.

    Have you read any of his Revelation Space books yet?

  3. No, those two are the only ones by him I'm read.

  4. I tried Revelation Space but didn't finish it. I found the story and concept very interesting but i couldn't identify myself with the characters. And even more important; the dialoque was very poor. I was constantly thinking;'No one acts, talks or thinks like that'. From what I've read on the net, Reynolds improved on those items in later novels so who knows..

  5. I thought that in the Revelation Space setting his standalones Chasm City and The Prefect were the best of the bunch.