BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 23rd-century archaeologist Verity Auger meets up with Detective Floyd in an alternate Earth to solve a mystery or two.
PROS: Captivating blend of hard science and engrossing mystery; engrossing story; cool settings; lots of action; fast and evenly paced .
CONS: One or two minor questions left unanswered.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent ride.
Alastair Reynolds is known for his dark, science-based space operas (see his Revelation Space sequence and the related Chasm City) but his latest book, Century Rain, is a fast-paced hard science adventure mixed with an old-style murder mystery.
The Earth of 2266 is vastly different from what we might expect it to be. For one thing, it’s uninhabitable. Back in ’77, the Earth was rendered unlivable thanks to a swarm of nanotech machines released by the Slashers, descendants of humanity that rely heavily on nanotech to the point where their personal cloud of nanotech machines blur their appearance. The Nanocaust didn’t completely wipe out humanity, however, since people living in space stations orbiting the Earth remained unaffected. The remaining humans, known as the Threshers, have since rejected nanotechnology and use advanced technology just on the threshold (hence their name) of nano. (Incidentally, the Slashers are named after a greeting gesture where they make the mark of a slash and a dot on their chest.)
A Thresher named Verity Auger is an archaeologist who makes dangerous trips down to the frozen wasteland of Earth to retrieve precious pre-Nanocaust artifacts in an effort to learn the truth about man’s now-unrecorded history. When one of Auger’s missions goes awry (see excerpt), she attempts to salvage her reputation and prevent legal recourse by going on a mission to retrieve a lost artifact. The artifact is a set of papers left by Susan White back in 1959 on an alternate Earth.
Meanwhile, in an alternate Earth of 1959 in which the 1940 German attack of France failed and did not lead to World War II, detective (and musician) Wendell Floyd is hired to investigate the mysterious death of Susan White, whose actions appear to indicate she is a spy.
In the first fifty pages of Century Rain, the reader is introduced to several components of world-building that include a Nanocaust, the remnants of humanity populating space habitats in geosynchronous orbit with a frozen Earth, a genetically modified race, a murder mystery, a courtroom scene, alternate worlds and time travel (of sorts). All of this could have been dumped on the reader with a long, historical-sounding prose that might have reminded the reader of a high school history lesson. Instead, it’s built into a compelling mystery that’s smoothly delivered. Reynolds is clearly on top of his game as he delivers the goods with a much more accessible writing style than Revelation Space, admittedly a first novel.
The mixing of mystery and sf has been done before (see Asimov’s Caves of Steel and other Robot novels) but Reynolds uses his signature hard-science to prop up the science and the mystery. It should be obvious that the two threads of Auger and Floyd converge and, thankfully, it is not put off for long. In fact, just when the reader thinks he can predict the outcome of any turn of events, the story immediately proves or disproves the prediction, preventing the all-too-common feeling of “Oh, I know how this is going to end.” That’s a good thing.
Both of the story’s threads have wonderful settings. The 23rd century is filled with scientific marvels like nanotech and mechs. (Some snake-like robots are dangerous and are marked with an appropriate warning: a circled “A” with a slash through it – an indication that the robots are not “Asimov-compliant”. Heh.) The setting of the alternate Earth is perfectly dark and depressing. The scenes with the race of childlike creatures and the underground Metro are downright creepy.
By story’s end, there were still one or two unanswered questions regarding the history of the alternate Earth. I can only hope the answers to those are forthcoming in a sequel as these are worlds I want to visit again.