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Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

28/11/2005. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

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pub: Gollancz. 503 page hardback. Price: 14.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-07436-1. 532 page enlarged paperback. Price: 6.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-07691-7.

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At one time there was a vogue for time travel novels, especially those that introduced paradoxes. When they were done well, they were great fun. Usually, they fell into one of two groups. There were those that used some kind of device to travel to a different time, such as HG Wells' 'Time Machine'. Gregory Benford's 'Timescape' used the then current scientific knowledge to create a plausible way of communicating with the past. Other authors, particularly in the fifties and sixties, tipped their characters into the past or future without bothering to rationalise it. The former is Science Fiction, the latter can be thought of as fantasy.

There is also a sub-genre of Science Fiction which deals with alternate histories, one of the best known being Ward Moore's 'Bring The Jubilee' in which the Confederate Army won the American Civil War. So many authors have played with this idea that the point of deviation has its own terminology. It is known as a Jonbar Hinge.

Alastair Reynolds appears to do both and neither. Verity Auger is an archaeologist. She explores a future Paris that is covered in ice. The Earth that we know has suffered a major climatic disaster. The problems that we have created in our own century escalated and to try and put things right, self-replicating nano-machines were seeded into the atmosphere. At first, this seemed to work but the technology got out of hand and only people who were off world at the time, survived. These had split into two factions, the Slashers who embrace enhancements and nano-technology and the Threshers who distrust machines they cannot see. Earth is now a very hostile place with the nano-machines, known as furies, readily attacking any living tissue. When an expedition to Paris goes wrong, Verity faces a choice: facing a charge of murder by negligence or going on a top secret mission. She chooses the latter.

Threading through the universe is a network of alien technology, the hyperweb that offers fast transit between stars. It is, so far, largely unexplored and the places of exit of the transit tunnels is largely unknown. At the end of some of them, though, have been discovered some very large objects that form shell around spaces large enough to hold planet/moon systems. A route has been found into one of these 'anomalous large structures' (ALS). Verity is to go there to retrieve some papers. She is the best qualified person for the job as the world inside the ALS is Earth in 1959. The exit is under Paris. On this Earth, the Second World War petered out in 1940.

Wendell Floyd is a native of this alternate world. He is a jazz musician and a private detective. Neither profession is going well. He is asked to investigate the death of a young woman. She fell from her apartment window. The police have decided it is suicide but her landlord suspects murder. Before her death, Susan White entrusted her landlord with a tin of papers and said her sister Verity would come and collect them. Susan is an agent from outside and has stumbled on some kind of plot. She is the link that throws Floyd and Verity together. They uncover a sinister plot by the Slashers that is world threatening.

At the start of the historical section, the prose felt a bit flat, although it was readily apparent that this was not quite the Europe that formed part of our past. This is partly because down on their luck private eyes are a very familiar character type. However, it quickly picked up, especially once the link with the 'future' characters was hinted at and the strange looking children began to turn up. The depiction of this slightly skewed, late 1950s Paris is well done. It always amazes me how authors are able to create such detailed technological futures and make them sound reasonable. Ultimately, Reynolds has achieved two difficult things: to write convincingly about the past and the future simultaneously and to meld them together into a novel well worth reading.

Pauline Morgan

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