There are two kinds of time travel novels. Those that… Ah, scratch that. There are all sorts of time travel stories, but the only ones I find interesting are those that focus on the time travel paradox. Not some kind of butterfly effect that drastically changes the present, but truly convoluted ways time streams can be messed with. In this regard, All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein is the golden standard that all stories look up to. Permafrost is just as fascinating, even though it tackles the issue from a very different perspective: from the accepted scientific explanation of spacetime.
The narrator is an elderly schoolteacher who is recruited for a time travel project to save mankind. Sometimes in the past (near future for us), a cascading series of ecological catastrophes would kill all crops, then insects and the rest of the food chain. Humans are on their way out, not allowed to have children that would compete over the dwindling resources, and instead they are waiting to die out. Then, World Health (a sort of UN/WHO hybrid with enforcement powers) finds a way to travel in time. Not physically, but specially selected “pilots” would be able to inhabit the bodies of people in the past and steer them towards securing genetically modified seeds that could be grown in the barren soil of the future world.
Valentina, the narrator, is one of four such pilots, and their task is to break into a seed vault, steal a specific set of seeds and secure it at a place that would be easily retrievable fifty years later, by World Health. The team is backed up by a series of A.I. entities, which monitor potential time paradoxes and adjust the plans accordingly. Of course, nothing goes according to these plans. Tatiana, the physical owner of Valentina’s host body, is not only aware of the presence of another mind but is also able to communicate with Valentina and can resist her actions. And that’s just the best-case scenario… Together with the others, Valentina must not only fulfill her mission, but also find out what went wrong with the program and prevent it, within the limits of the time paradox she may cause.
I found this novella quite atypical of Alastair Reynolds’ books, and far better than the rest. I’m already a fan of his House of Suns and the Revelation Space universe, and I found his Century Rain very captivating. This, however, is an entirely new level of Reynolds: the characters are actually relatable, and the action is tightly packed and yet keeping a very even pacing.
“After I shot Vikram, we put things in the car and drove to the airstrip.” Thus begins the narrative. This is an amazing opening sentence, which immediately piqued my interest and didn’t let me put the short book down until I finished it. Right from the get-go, I didn’t like the narrator, whom I didn’t even meet yet. They seemed cold, perhaps goal-oriented, and maybe even straight evil. Boy, was I ever wrong, and I credit the author to force this preconception of Valentina on me. This sets up a very compelling character arch. I can’t call it redemption, as there is nobody who needs redeeming, but it let Reynold develop his characters to a degree I wouldn’t expect in such a short story. Valentina and with the rest of the characters are incredibly sympathetic, precisely because they all are introduced in very ambiguous situations, but we later learn that they are all very rational and extremely dedicated to their project. Not only that: their host bodies are just as rational, and an earnest conversation may be established to convince them to help with the project. Or perhaps not…
The action ramps up just like the character development. There is still time for exposition, but Reynolds managed to keep a steady increase in intensity, so as you progress, you are compelled to read ever faster until the explosive finale. This aspect of the story has been done so masterfully that it should be required reading for writers and editors alike. The crucial revelations come just at the right time, and they are always foreshadowed, in a way where the reader finally understands some references, which never made sense (or were misunderstood) in the past. Such as Valentina shooting Vikram…
For me, however, the most fascinating aspect of the story was the treatment of the time travel paradox. It is very rare for a science fiction work to treat time in its relativistic form, or, as Doctor Who says, “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff”. Reynolds treats the spacetime as one static block, with set past, present and future, where only minor changes may be done to the past, and time paradox is akin to vibrations, as the “wibbly-wobbly” part of the “stuff” tries to return to balance. The author does an amazing job simplifying the relativistic model, while keeping it serious enough as not infantilize it to Doctor Who levels.
I consider Permafrost to be Alastair Reynolds’ best work. It combines sophisticated understanding of spacetime with time travel, presents more realistic time paradoxes, and most importantly, it features sympathetic characters. They are well fleshed out, relatable and ultimately tragic, but not overwhelmingly so. The pacing of the narrative keeps the reader glued throughout the entire book, and despite following two timelines with plenty of opportunities for hindsight, it never gets overly complicated. This novella will be enjoyed by anyone who likes to think while reading science fiction, but also by aspiring writers and editors due to the technical perfection of the writing.