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Century Rain
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 506 pages

Century Rain
Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds was born in 1966 in Barry, South Wales. He spent his early years in Cornwall, moved back to Wales and on to university in Newcastle, doing Physics and Astronomy. Then it was on to a PhD in St Andrews, Scotland. In 1991, he moved to Holland, where he met his partner Josette, and worked as ESA Research Fellow before his post-doctoral work at Utrecht University. At present he works at ESA as a contractor.

Alastair Reynolds Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Absolution Gap
SF Site Review: Turquoise Days
SF Site Review: Redemption Ark
SF Site Review: Revelation Space
SF Site Review: Chasm City
SF Site Review: Revelation Space

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

Alastair Reynolds came to prominence in the 90s as one of the most exciting young writers to emerge from the pages of Interzone. What made him so special was that his hard SF stories were both rigorous and exhilarating. He then moved on to writing novels, starting with Revelation Space in 2000 and followed by a novel every year since, each set in same universe, that of the Inhibitors. It is a glorious universe; a dark and dirty space opera playing by hard SF rules, where steam power rubs shoulders with nanotechnology and the clinic merges into the gothic.

Century Rain initially seems a long way from this. We are in Paris for a start. What's more it is the 50s. Wendell Floyd is an ex-pat American who came to France to become a jazz musician. Instead he became a private detective, although he and his partner, Andre Custin, still play in order to make ends meet. A pragmatist and political animal rather than tough guy gumshoe Floyd finds the answer to his money woes in an apparent suicide. When a young American woman, Susan White, is found dead outside her apartment her landlord does not accept the view of the police that she jumped and hires the pair to investigate.

As readers of previous Reynolds novels know he is a great fan of the dovetailing twin narrative so it's not an enormous shock when the next chapter takes us somewhere else entirely. Or perhaps not. We are still in Paris but in a very different Paris; an ice-locked city haunted by the furies of a 23rd Century Nanocaust. Paris, and the whole of the Earth, is abandoned and dead; the only reason Verity Auger is there is as an archaeologist, trying to discover the secrets of the past. On this trip the dig goes wrong and one of her assistant is killed. While she awaits the tribunal hearing that will ruin her, she is puzzled to receive maps of 20th Century Paris that do not match her experience.

Obviously the two threads are linked and it soon becomes clear that while Auger might live in our future, Floyd doesn't live in our past. The strands circle each other before starting to close in and merging surprisingly early on, with Auger travelling to Floyd's world and them both discovering they need each other to solve their respective mysteries. It is here that the plot takes a turn for the creepy and a new revelation is revealed in a wonderfully tense and atmospheric scene underground in the Paris Metro. This scene marks the beginning of the collapse of the novel though.

The single persistent flaw in Reynolds' Inhibitors novels was their erratic pacing and structure. This had been the book I really hoped would turn this around, especially because it was so heavily influenced by his love of thrillers, a form where these virtues are paramount. Alas it was not to be. The novel does feel nicely compact for its some five hundred pages but again Reynolds rushes through some sections only to linger unwisely in others. This is by no means fatal to the novel, Century Rain is still a very enjoyable book, it's just a crying shame; he ratchets up the tension so well in the first three quarters that there is a sense of anti-climax when he takes his foot off the pedal and allows the book to coast along to its conclusion. "Coasting" might seem an odd choice of word because this last section is mostly one hectic chase but while Reynolds is very good at chases (which is probably why they turn up so often in his books) even a well written chase becomes interminable if it lasts too long.

As with the Demarcists and Conjoiners from his earlier novels and the Mechanists and Shapers from the novel that has influenced not just Reynolds but so much of the best new space opera, Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix, humanity is split into two factions whose technologies and philosophies are so different as to make them separate species: Threshers and Slashers. Auger is a Tresher, someone for whom the Nanocaust makes the use of nanotechnology unconscionably dangerous, and the rivalry between the two factions forms the backdrop to the novel. Once we move from the tension of Floyd and Auger's personal mysteries to the more abstract wider political conflict the novel loses its focus. Reynolds likes the cat and mouse game of espionage but here it's having his cake and eating it. He should have stuck with the small story -- the one he was most interested in -- rather than succumbing to the lure of the big picture.

Century Rain is also a love story but unfortunately not a very good one. This is because characterisation has never been Reynolds strong suit. He can do sassy, spunky, wisecracking, you name it, but while his characters have attitude this isn't a substitute for honest depth. Reynolds captures the motions of love with great tenderness (particularly at the end of the book) but that this love really exists between characters is not something we feel. Whereas Reynolds's structural problems could be addressed with a bit of graft here, I think he is running up against his natural limitations as a writer.

There is so much to like about the book: at times it is as vividly gripping as any thriller and is there is a casual brilliance to Reynolds's imagination. In the end he bit off more than he could chew. The first great Alastair Reynolds novel is still around the corner.

Copyright © 2005 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis reviews for The Telegraph And Argus, The Alien Online and Matrix, the newsletter of the British Science Fiction Association. He lives in North London.

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