Gollancz, 2004, 532 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-575-07691-7
After a series of grim and lengthy space operas set in the far future, Alastair Reynolds breaks from “the usual” with Century Rain, a novel largely set in an alternate 1950s Paris where the Second World War never happened. Fans of the author shouldn’t worry about the different setting, because not much has actually changed about their man’s prose: the tone isn’t necessarily more cheerful and the novel is once again far longer than it should be. Despite initial expectations, this is routine material from Reynolds.
At first, we’re allowed some doubt. After all, Century Rain isn’t a part of Reynolds’ best-known “Inhibitors” series. Here, the Earth has been devastated by a nanotech plague, and there’s a serious conflict between two post-humans factions regarding what should happen to the human race. In the first few chapters, archaeologist Verity Auger sees her expedition to the surface turn horribly wrong as one of her teammates is killed. Disgraced, she’s offered a chance to move away from the spotlight for a while: someone powerful at an undisclosed location wants her expert services.
Gradually, Verity discovers that scientists have found a pre-Nanocaust alternate Earth, and that her expertise is needed to find out what has happened to one of the agents already installed in place. Teaming up with a local detective, she discovers hints that there may be another post-human group at work in alternate Paris, and that the other side may be building a weapon of unknown capabilities. But things are about to escalate. Stuck on another world without access to any advanced technology, how will Verity manage to learn the truth and go back home without bringing back the enemy with her?
Century Rain plays a long time with a mixture of futuristic action/adventure and alternate universe noir. It does seem perilously close to a conceit at time: dealing with travels to alternate universes, it’s always tempting to ask “Why just one? And why that one?” The richness of the alternate Paris setting is enough to make one guess that Reynolds first set out to play with a certain jazzy detective fiction archetype, and then wrapped up that particular atmosphere in the more familiar SF rationale. Fans of 1950s Paris will be charmed out of their socks; those who aren’t so fond of the city may have to cling to the more generally familiar action/adventure plot featuring killer children and mysterious engineering projects. Century Rain begins and ends in high-tech settings, so don’t think that this is “just” an alternate-universe story.
Like all of Reynolds’s other novels so far, Century Rain is perfectly adequate Science Fiction marred by a lack of concision. There is little reason for this novel to crack the 500-page mark: a thinner, slimmer, faster edit of the novel would be easier to read and leave a stronger impression. As it is, Century Rain is often spent waiting for something to happen. Waiting for Verity to travel to the alternate Earth. Waiting for Verity and her detective sidekick to agree to collaborate. Waiting for the clues to fall in place. Alas, those part of Century Rain are very familiar: making us wait for their inevitable occurrence just prolongs the reader’s growing exasperation.
But once everything has been revealed and all the elements are finally in place, Reynolds once again shows why he’s one of the most reliable mid-listers of British Science Fiction. His use of genre elements is fluid, his prose and characters are up to contemporary standards, his post-human political conflicts are interesting and his narrative delivers a satisfying conclusion. Not everyone will be so taken by his alternate Paris, but the novel itself is enjoyable provided one has a lot of time to read through it all.