Friday, 1 February 2008

The "Christmas Effect"

Christmas is a time of giving. And receiving! Consequently, book-reading post-Christmas is dominated by a load of new books, often stacked up because of the pre-Christmas embargo on new purchases. Anyway, as a result, I've another Alastair Reynolds to document. Unlike my previous posting on this author, this book, Century Rain, has nothing to do with Revelation Space. It's free-standing and, like the similarly disconnected novel, Pushing Ice, it's all the better for it.

The novel begins unconventionally for a science fiction novel with a jazz-playing private detective, Floyd, who works in Paris in the late 1950s. An ex-patriot American, Floyd has been brought in by a wealthy patron to investigate the mysterious death of an unusual visitor to Paris, an ostensibly American woman with an obsession for collecting newspapers, books and music records. Originally discounted as a suicide, her death, and her suspicious behaviour, leave behind too many unanswered questions for Floyd. His efforts to resolve the mystery increasingly attract the attention of the local police, hitherto uninterested in the case, but also that of some very strange children. Before long his path crosses with that of the "sister" of the now apparently murdered visitor.

That's the first strand. The second involves a future historian, Auger, exploring the remains of Paris for valuable artifacts. The Earth has been destroyed in a holocaust driven by nanotechnology, and humanity has split into two opposing groups, the Threshers and the Slashers, the former opposing nanotech, the latter still keen to use it to recover the Earth. After devastating wars, the two groups have come to an uneasy accommodation. With their more advanced technology, the Slashers have begun to access an alien-built wormhole-like transit system that allows them to explore the galaxy. Auger, after being disgraced in an accident in Paris, is given a chance to make amends by continuing the work of a recently deceased colleague. Sent down the entrance of one of these alien portals in Phobos she emerges somewhere familiar but different.

The intersection of both of these narratives within the covers of same novel makes it obvious that they will come together at some point. When they do it's actually not quite as satisfying as one might like, but by then the novel has built up enough of a head of steam to carry it off to the end.

One particularly deleterious aspect of the latter part of the novel are a series of interminable action sections that take place in Auger's "world". The early novel is carefully paced, with its structure gradually, and skillfully, put together. The late novel contains a number of long-winded descriptions of rather uninteresting sequences involving a lot of action. Action, while working well on the screen, rarely works well on the page. It's just difficult to hold choreographed action in your head for more than a paragraph or two. Wearing my "scientific reviewers" hat, I'd have suggested that the novelist trim these action portions down, perhaps instead focusing on the reality-disjoint experienced by the detective Floyd when he discovers that his reality is not at all what it appears. The novel is also a bit thin on the reason events take a turn for action at the end - I was never entirely clear on why the Slashers were up to what they were up to.

An interesting decision made by Reynolds is not to explain, or even really explore, the reason that Floyd's world exists. The reader is given only tantalising glimpses of what the purpose of Floyd's world is, and its creators (who also appear to have built the handy portal system) are almost completely off-stage. That they are not completely off-stage may suggest that Reynolds intends to visit this fictional universe again. Although, interestingly, the motivations of the aliens who created the worlds, of which Floyd's is an example, don't appear to be a major concern of any of the novel's characters. Perhaps they've just decided that, in the seeming absence of the aliens, it's too big a mystery to tackle in their lifetimes.

Anyway, despite my misgivings about the action sequences, this is another great novel by Reynolds. What I've not remarked on so far is the style of the writing in the early sections involving Floyd. Reynolds does a great job bringing noir sensibilities to this world. Floyd seems (in a good way) to have stepped straight from a Raymond Chandler novel. This extends to the relationship that Floyd gradually forges with Auger. Reynolds also does a good job presenting a slightly different 1959 to that we've experienced. WW2 hasn't happened in this world, and the consequences are nicely and subtly drawn out (including a fleeting crossing-of-paths with, I presume, an aged Adolf Hitler).

Finally, this novel again shows that Reynolds works best in creating a new world, much like in Pushing Ice. While there are definitely ways that Reynolds could take this fictional universe forwards (more, in a way, than with Pushing Ice), it might be better if he left its possibilities tantalisingly unrealised.

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