Friday, 8 December 2006

Alastair Reynolds: Century Rain (2004)

Published: Gollancz, 2005

The last time I read (and reviewed) a novel by Alastair Reynolds, I felt that it would be good for him to be refreshed by moving to a new setting, separate from the future history he had used up to that point. In Century Rain, he has done just this, renewing his creativity by doing so. (I can't claim any credit: apart from anything else, I didn't discuss this issue in my review.) This novel is a science fiction noir thriller, where time travellers become involved in a murder mystery in an alternate fifties Paris.

Reynolds' future has Earth rendered uninhabitable by nanotech weapons, and the destruction wrought by them makes any artefacts obtainable from the planet's archaeology massively valuable. But when a trip to the Earth's surface organised and lead by archaeologist Verity Auger goes badly wrong, she faces the tribunal which will end her career - if she's lucky. At this point she is offered a choice: take on a mysterious task or be left to face the music. It turns out that the task is to travel through a secret tunnel in space-time (something more exotic than a wormhole, she is assured), the other end of which is in a Metro tunnel just outside a station in an alternate Paris in 1959. A colleague of Verity's was studying this version of Paris, and was killed soon after discovering something important. Verity's task is to obtain papers that this woman had left with her landlord; however, unknown to her, the landlord felt that there was something odd about the death and has hired a private detective to investigate it.

As briefly indicated, this isn't the real Paris: the German invasion in 1940 was beaten back, so the Second World War barely happened, with the result that the fifties seem almost more like the thirties, politically and technologically. The travellers from the future are not sure how this happened. There are several possibilities, ranging from someone taking advantage of the chaos surrounding the destruction of life on Earth to revise the history books and insert the Second World War, to the idea that this alternate Earth is a sophisticated simulation, to the possibility that it really is part of another timeline. For much of the Century Rain it doesn't matter what the truth is, and anyway, it is more enjoyable to soak up the Simenonesque atmosphere. Indeed, the Paris sections work better than the future sections - an observation which seems a bit odd considering in which genre Reynolds made his name! The novel is basically a clash between the X-Files and Casablanca. The reader is clearly intended to make the second comparison, as many of the famous lines are quoted from the film (which of course doesn't exist in the alternate universe). A little ironic touch is that "We'll always have Paris" is missing.

Century Rain also includes a nanotech weapon which is somehow more frightening than the murderous, spectacular and unsubtle ones commonly seen in science fiction. The Amusica virus removes the ability to process music: it becomes just background noise. It is a little unlikely to be possible, particularly if the hypothesis that the role of musical awareness in human evolution was as a precursor of linguistic processing turns out to be true. (This is a hypothesis argued for, convincingly and in detail, in Steven Mithen's recent book, The Singing Neanderthals.) The virus leaves a culture essentially without music, where those few immune to the virus for some reason are envied and hated.


Kurt Halfyard said...

"A little ironic touch is that "We'll always have Paris" is missing."

Rest assured, that line is in there, read the novel again, it is somewhere around the 4/5ths mark.

Simon McLeish said...

I flicked through the book again last night, but still didn't see the quote. I'd have thought that if it was as late in the novel as four fifths of the way through that I'd have noticed it the first time. That doesn't mean it's not there, though.

I rather liked the idea that it was missing, so I'm a little saddened that it does appear.