Book review: Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

Good one-shot books are all too rare these days, but Reynolds is a master in this regard.  He manages to create an entire new universe and write a concise story that comes to a satisfactory conclusion, even though he still leaves an opening to revisit the world.  Century Rain is yet another such book.  With the author’s signature logical storyline, efficient writing and strong characters, this book was a pleasure to read and should not be overlooked by any fan of adult science fiction.

Wendell Floyd is an American living in what appears to be a 1930s Paris.  We soon learn, however, that his story takes place in the 1950s, but in Floyd’s world, World War II never happened, and so there was no impetus for technological or social advancement.  Floyd works as a private detective and is hired by a landlord who suspects that one of his tenants was murdered.

Switching gears, Verity Auger leads an archeological expedition into a devastated Paris, when rogue nanobots kill one of her charges.  She is presented with the choice to stand trial or to participate in a super-secret project.  She chooses the latter, and is shipped off to Phobos, where a wormhole was discovered.  In her universe, the Earth had been devastated by out-of-control nanobot swarms, and humanity survives in habitats floating in the Solar system.  There are two distinct factions: Auger belongs to the one who almost religiously rejects nanobots and other advanced technology, out of fear that they’d repeat the mistakes of the past.  The other faction has embraced all technology, augmented their genetically engineered bodies, and are trying to covertly and later openly wage war against Auger’s faction.  They have also discovered a network of engineered wormholes, which lead to impenetrable spheres in space.  The one on Phobos is an exception: it leads inside the sphere, and it contains Floyd’s world.  Auger is sent there to retrieve materials left behind the dead tenant, an agent from Auger’s universe.

Naturally, Auger’s and Floyd’s paths soon cross.  Auger also runs into the agent’s killers: a group of genetically engineered beings that look like children.  At this point she realizes she is not the only one from her universe on Floyd’s world.  She decides to pick up the investigation that the agent followed, and Floyd opts to help her.  They are both pursued by the children and corrupt French police that is trying to find a scapegoat for the murders (Floyd’s client has also been found dead), until they realize that someone in the background has masterminded a method to establish the exact position of Floyd’s world in the universe.  They escape, in the nick of time, to Auger’s universe where a war between the two factions is in full swing.  The technological faction splintered into two groups, and the moderates, in an effort to broker peace, help Auger and Floyd.  The protagonists find out that the aggressive faction wanted the planet’s location, so that they could introduce a virus that would kill all life and open the planet to new colonization.  The race to stop the ship carrying the virus thus begins.

In this book, Reynolds fully showcases his idiosyncrasies.  Some readers may dislike them, but I’m fond of most of what he has to offer.  We have the very precise writing, which affects even how the characters speak.  There’s no misunderstanding; all communication is perfect, and when a character does not want to share something, he or she says so.  There is the fatalistic approach to life and death: characters seem to consider their impending death in a cavalier manner, but they are just as detached if they somehow survive.  The story also features Reynolds’ fascination with smaller human habitats, nanotechnology and extreme body modification, and incredibly advanced but completely unknown civilizations, which left enormous technological advancements in space.  In this sense, the setting in the book may be considered a precursor to the Revelation Space series.

I found the story very original.  The quantum snapshot of the second Earth, as well as the logic behind the triggering of its timeline was very well explained even to a physics neophyte like me.  The assertion that without World War II mankind would technologically stagnate was completely novel for me, but after reading the book it wormed into my brain and won’t let me go.  Even the idea of using nanobots for weather control and the visuals of the devastated earth were quite new as far as I was concerned.  There were, however, a few tropes that I’ve seen so many times I had to cringe.  The worst offender was the idea to have an American expat working as a private investigator in a 1930s (at least technologically and socially) Paris.  I’ve seen this in too many other media, from books, through movies, even to video games.  I understand the infatuation with Paris, and the need to establish a character from a setting that is familiar to most of the target audience, but with so many other outlandish ideas Reynolds usually has, breaking this trend shouldn’t have been too much of a trouble.  The second trope that I’m not too fond of is that the French police is fundamentally corrupt and evil.  This is a staple of all crime movies that take place in Paris.  There may be some truth in it, but once again, with a completely new world to play with, the author could have deviated from the established convention.

These two issues I’ve had with the book are very minor, though.  Even if I were more obsessed with them, they’d be more than offset by Reynold’s greatest strength, his precise writing.  The text is very efficient, conveying the setting, its mood and the story very well, without any additional fluff.  The characters are eminently likeable because they are smart and communicate in a logical fashion.  Reynolds seems to have spent lots of time finding logical loopholes and making sure that everything is explained.  Normally, if there was anything I’d consider weird or not possible, the author would have one of the characters ask the same questions I’d think of at roughly the same moment.  This writing style made the book a true pleasure to read.

The second aspect of the superb writing was the rhythm of the book.  Unlike some of his other books, Reynolds follows a classic pattern here, with three very distinct acts.  He alternates quiet scenes with very action-oriented ones, he varies between tension buildup and unexpected encounters, and he foreshadows many events just enough for readers not to be surprised, but still question what would happen.  The ending may be a little cliched (okay, very cliched), but the road to get there is highly entertaining.

All in all, Century Rain is a great standalone novel.  It has a setting that is unique compared to the author’s other books, and yet it contains some familiar elements that may please fans of the Revelation Space series.  The writing is very precise and tight, the characters are likeable, and I could not detect any significant logical or plot holes.  Some people may not be happy with the ending, but I believe that it adds to the strength of the book.  I am glad to have read this novel, and I can recommend it to all fans of science fiction.

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