Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

This isn’t the first time I’ve had Reynolds up here (I actually think it’s the third, but I don’t really feel like trawling the archives to look at the moment).  I generally like his work, although as I believe I’ve said before, sometimes he writes some flat dialogue and occasionally his characters are simply horrible for the sake of being horrible.  I’m happy to say that neither of those are especially the case in Century Rain, although as of yet I don’t know if he’s written a truly great novel, except possibly House of Suns.

This one is from 2004, so I’m a little late to the party here.  As far as I’m aware, this work doesn’t tie in to any of the universes from his other novels, such as Revelation Space or House of Suns.  In fact, I found large parts very refreshing, and something out of the ordinary for what I would have expected from a Reynolds work.  A large portion of the novel takes place in 1960s-ish Europe, although it’s a different world than ours.  In this particular universe, the German offensive through the Ardennes got blunted and thrown back in 1939, so World War II was over almost before it really began.  As a result, the Nazis got overthrown in a military coup and many lives that ended in our world were saved.  It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though.  Without the ultimate discrediting of the war, there’s still rather a lot of virulent anti-Jewish and nationalist yahoos throughout Europe and they’re beginning to make their bids for power again.  And whatever else the war destroyed, it also served as the impetus for a lot of technological change.  This world doesn’t have electronic computers, a space program, or the atomic bomb.  You might say that sounds all right if you don’t have to worry about ducking and covering, but as it happens it’s sort of a shadowy conspiracy to retard technological development so that it’s easier for a bunch of other humans to conquer it.

The other half of the book takes place in the ruins of the actual Earth we’re familiar with, where the humans that remain are split up into two spacegoing factions due to the accidental destruction of the Earth’s biosphere with rogue nanotechnology and subsequent corruption of most of the data archives of humanity’s history (whether that was also accidental or a deliberate attack is not clear).  The Threshers live in near Earth orbit primarily and control access to what’s left of it; they’re more hidebound and avoid the use of nanotechnology.  The Slashers live in the outer system and are more hedonistic and somewhat more advanced than the Threshers, made up for by the fact that they’re also more factional.  The Slashers control access to the galaxy at large through a mysterious warp gate which was discovered out there, which was apparently made by alien(s) unknown at some point in the distant past.  You’d be hard pressed to say that either side is the good guys or the bad guys, since they’ve got something of a nasty history of both hot and cold wars, often resorting to various sorts of doomsday weapons.

This is something of a departure for Reynolds, who often eschews the implausible or the impossible in his work.  In this one you’ve got these alien artifacts that do stuff like allow FTL travel or contain entire planets, and although he does try to explain a little bit he mostly just lets them be.  So this one is much softer than some of his other works right off the bat.  Nonetheless, he does retain the concept that space is big, so the fact that the Slashers can get out into the universe doesn’t really help all that much since there’s not really much out there to do.  At least not until they discover that the same mysterious aliens who created the warpgate networks also took a “snapshot” of Earth circa 1936 and put it somewhere out in the universe in a box.

And that’s how the two stories come together.  Some of the Slashers think it would be a good idea to wipe out the existing humans on the copied world and then talk real estate with the Threshers.  Of course there are a couple of problems with this plan, namely that the Threshers won’t approve of this, secondly that they can’t bring anything sophisticated through the warp gate that leads inside the box, and thirdly that they aren’t sure where exactly the box is.  Nonetheless they think there may be ways around these obstacles.

I generally liked this, it was entertaining enough.  There are a couple of chase scenes of course, that being something that Reynolds either really likes or just feels like he does well, possibly both, so I figured that would turn up at some point throughout the work.  Even though these characters were reasonably well defined and not really at all horrible, I still found myself not quite able to connect with them.  The villainous plot is pretty cool but, I don’t know, it didn’t entirely gel for me that a whole planet was really going to be scoured of human life.  It seemed like there were much easier ways to do what they wanted to do aside from the mass genocide.

Nonetheless, not bad, some good action scenes and also contemplation.  I can’t say that this is my favorite Reynolds work but it’s probably better than some and it didn’t put me off his work either, so definitely worth a look if you like his other stuff.