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REVIEW: Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

REVIEW SUMMARY: Fine hard science fiction from a very capable author that could have been so much more.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Earth as been rendered devoid of life thanks to nanotech gone awry, and humankind has been split between those that eschew nanotech and hope to repopulate Earth the old fashion way (the Threshers or those who want to stand up to the threshold of nano use) and those who have embraced nanotech throughout their bodies and would like to terraform Earth with more nanos (the Slashers, named after those who use Slashdot – I’m not kidding.) An archaeologist from the Threshers Verity Auger becomes embroiled in interstellar intrigue when she discovers a duplicate Earth, held in stasis by alien technology, has become active and in fact can now be visited.

PROS: Great use of science fiction staples like nanotech, wormholes, and the unique concept of a giant sphere big enough to hold a copy of a world in quantum stasis.
CONS: Slow story in parts. Reynold’s characters seem cold and lifeless.
BOTTOM LINE: Still a good read, but I had expected more from Reynolds.

This book is fun and I’m glad I read it, but overall I was kind of disappointed. I was especially surprised to see that John gave it 5 stars in his previous review (and you can read his extensive summary there – I won’t repeat it.) John must have really been having a really good time when he read it :). Hmm…he and I have spoken on a number of occasions about the rating system and I won’t try to put words in his mouth, but as you can see at the link above, he tries to rate how he felt about the book and the reading experience. I try to rate the book relative to all the books I’ve read and the quality of the writing. John’s opinion is extremely valid – don’t get me wrong. But by stating the book has 5 stars he’s not telling you the book is a ‘must read by any sci-fi fan’, just that he had a great time reading it.

For me, 3 stars means that I didn’t regret my time reading it, but overall it could have been better. Oh, and for me 5 stars means I believe the book is a must read by any reader – those who like sci fi or not.

I thought Reynolds warning of the hazards of nanotech was great – as our current technology takes steps in that direction his comments ring true. I also felt his concept of a alien race capable of holding an entire world in stasis, inside a massive sphere that, when required, could simulate the entire solar system around that planet was very cool. The sphere protecting the planet from outside technology through the use of a ‘censor’ – a barrier to prevent advanced technology through, was also interesting and unique.

However, overall the book suffers from some poor pacing. The times in Paris in 1959 are slow and ponderous and the chase sequence at the end seems to go on too long despite being a good action sequence. He gets credit from me for trying to develop a crossover novel that pushes the detective mystery and sci fi together but unfortunately he isn’t able to pull it off as well as it could be.

And unfortunately Reynolds hasn’t gotten any better at characters. The character of Auger is cold and wisecracking, sure, but even when she’s supposed to change and grow it ends up being wooden and unconvincing. The Floyd character is her love interest and while he’s reasonably sympathetic unfortunately he seems a secondary character to Reynolds at times. At a couple of points the characters agree to take the high risk of killing themselves in order to save the planet and these ought to be major character driving points in the novel and instead they are glossed over with little comment. Reynolds seems to have copied the Auger character right out of his other novels – perhaps I’m done reading about the cold, wisecracking older woman but I found this a bummer.

The idea of calling the Slashers that because they used to read Slashdot is … um … uninspired. OK, I guess this name doesn’t matter much, but I audibly groaned when he explained it. Finally I have to wonder what happened to the title – the words Century Rain don’t appear in the novel at all or relate in any way to the story. Instead, the relevant item was called Silver Rain – making me think something got changed, either in the prose or with the title.

7 Comments on REVIEW: Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

  1. Heh-heh. I love this blog. 🙂

    I’m honored that you chose to leverage your review based on my review criteria, especially when you have as yet failed to publicly present your own. However it’s nice to see you finally do give some insight into your criteria beyond the price aspect. Not to re-hash this, but it seems to me that you are artificially punishing a book for not “transcending the genre” as you once put it.

    [Side note: After some more thought, I find this phrase “transcends the genre” to be somewhat insulting to the genre. The notion of “rising above” implies the thing left below (the sf genre) is less worthy. To be fair, I’ve used that phrase myself. But don’t we really mean in this case that the book crosses genre boundaries? Feh. Semantics.]

    Back to re-hash: By reserving the best rating for the “non-sf appeal” criteria, you are saying that a science fiction book cannot be great unless it appeals to non-sf fans. (Do Gene Wolfe’s books appeal to non-genre fans? How about the work of Dan Simmons? No 5-stars for them?) You are also saying that even if you had the best time you could possibly have reading a strictly-sf book, you still wouldn’t give it the highest rating? That’s just silly. Oh, and what if you read a book that does appeal to non-sf fans but is ultimately not very good? Do you still give the highest rating because it met that arbitrary criteria? (Simple questions here. It would be nice to see answers this time. :))

    It’s perfectly understandable (and even helpful!) to note a book’s appeal outside the genre, but to slam it for not being suitable for those not well-versed in that genre is just ridiculous. As for my own criteria which you call into question, they free me of such constraints; they still allow a book to be noted as “likable outside the genre” or “a must read” independent of the rating. In short, I’m not rating a book’s accessibility or its position within the canon of all literature like you are doing. (Quite frankly, because of its subjective nature, it’s impossible.) I’m rating the reading experience which is made up of many give-and-take factors. If I like it, it gets high marks. If I don’t, it doesn’t. Simple, really.

  2. I wanted to compare the ratings so people would understand why they are so different. If you had rated the book 4 stars I wouldn’t have mentioned it, but by rating it as a perfect 5 stars I felt that it warranted reminding everybody because people who largely agree with your reviews can see what you thought about the book.

    And no, I don’t have a manifesto on reviewing criteria. Maybe someday I’ll feel inspired to write one, but for now you get the two sentences above. 🙂

    I review books here on SFSignal for one reason – to provide the readers with my impression of the work so they can decide if they want to read it or not. I try to push people towards books I think are good and warn people away from books that I feel are bad. Maybe I really only need 2 ratings – Read or Avoid.

    However, I always feel that its worth mentioning when I think a book is so good that it should be considered by people who aren’t fans of sci-fi. Using the words ‘transcends the genre’ was my way of stating that, but I don’t mean anything more than that. I don’t usually read mysteries or westerns or romance or thrillers (or a whole host of other categories), but I would be happy to do so if somebody I trusted told me that the book was just great and worth my time. I try to do that by using that 5th star to indicate that.

    You know, maybe I’ll stop using a rating all together and force somebody to actually read the review for my impressions rather than just glance at the rating. Hmmm…

  3. I think you’ve hit upon the crux of the difference in review criteria. I use a flat 5-point enjoyment scale and you embellish that by reserving 5-stars for things that offer the additional trait of being enjoyable to outside readers.

    As to the ratings vs. expanded review, I certainly hope our readers are not reading only the brief summaries! While they provide the snapshot glance, they are usually meaningless without the longer explanation to help support its claims. Review reader beware! 😉

  4. Phaw. Everybody knows the only place on the web for reviews is THE ETERNAL GOLDEN BRAID!


    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.


  5. joshua corning // June 9, 2006 at 9:47 pm //

    As to the ratings vs. expanded review, I certainly hope our readers are not reading only the brief summaries!

    yeah i pretty much only read the summaries…sorry.

    But i read the full review on this one! I have no idea why becouse i really don’t like Reynolds…or at least the books i have read from him…he seems like an ok guy.

    Perhaps i just really want to like what he writes…but just can’t.

    When you want hard sci-fi Egan is your best bet and if you want space opera Banks is your best bet…reynolds blends the two which should be great but all you get is a brown/grey tasteless mess.

    If he ever writes a 4-5 star book by Scottsh’s standard be sure to post it like 10 times here so I can buy it. 🙂

  6. I think your rating of the novel was far too harsh not to mention your rating of others ratings which really is equal to saying “Look at me, I’m special I know all.”

    Having said that however I don’t believe that Century rain was worthy of 5 stars I’d personaly give it 4. And the Title obviously refers to Silver rain and the supposed time gap of the novel between the main characters different worlds.

  7. Well, he certainly put us all in our places.


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