Century Rain (2004) is the first novel Alastair Reynolds published outside of his REVELATION SPACE setting. It combines elements of noir, hard science fiction and time travel with a dash of romance. Reynolds also experimented with noir elements in Chasm City and The Prefect (which I think is one of his best novels). The melding of noir and science fiction doesn’t work as well in Century Rain; this book is not one of Reynold’s stronger novels.
The novel opens in the late 23rd century with archaeologist Verity Auger leading two students through the ruins of Paris. Earth has been destroyed by an event referred to as the nanocaust during the 2070s. A host of tiny machines, released to correct the centuries of abuse heaped upon the earth by humanity, turns against its creators and kills all life on earth. By that time, humanity has established a foothold in space, which is the only thing that saves them from extinction. Verity is looking though what is left of the earth to find historical records in the form of printed material which is not susceptible to the nanobots’ corruption. While retrieving a newspaper, a treasure trove of information for archaeologists, her expedition meets with an accident. One of the students under her care dies. Verity is in trouble.
Before Verity can face a tribunal, she is snatched away by a top secret organisation in the human faction she belongs to. They have a very dangerous job for her, for which her skill as an archaeologist will be invaluable. Somewhere light years away from earth, a copy of the planet has been found. Right now, it is the year 1959 on that world, and history has diverged a bit from our own time line. One of the agents sent in to investigate, Susan White, has been found dead after falling out of a window. Verity is sent in to retrieve Susan’s notes. Once in the alternate 1959 city of Paris, she quickly runs into Wendell Floyd, a private detective who doesn’t believe Susan’s death was accidental.
Century Rain is not a time-travel story in the traditional sense of the word. It is more like a copy of earth has been rebooted and reset to the mid 1930s. In Floyd’s version of Paris, the Germans never managed to occupy France. Hitler’s offensive stalled in the Ardennes and he was subsequently ousted from power. Reynolds gave quite a bit of thought to what this would have meant for the development of science. In our world, technological developments such as computers, nuclear power, and rockets were given a great boost by World War II. Floyd’s world is lagging behind compared to our own. Unfortunately Reynolds does not mention the territorial consequences of Hitler’s failure. What about the partitioning of Poland? The occupation of Czechoslovakia, der Anschluß, the fascist regimes in Italy and Spain? We do end up in Germany during the story so there was some opportunity to at least look at the situation there. A lot of these details are strictly speaking not necessary for the story but for fans of alternate history, this novel is probably a bit too focussed on science.
I did enjoy Reynold’s depiction of this alternate 1950s Paris. It is changed in subtle ways from the city as we know it. There’s a decidedly xenophobic wind blowing through the streets of Paris, something that the American Floyd is keenly aware of. The author paints a dark picture of the city, with an increasingly corrupt police force and violence threatening. It is not a place Floyd ought to stay for much longer. His preference for Jazz, a kind of music viewed with suspicion in the French capital, helps build a bit of a dark, moody atmosphere. People who know Paris will probably get more out of these sections.
The scenes set in the 23rd centuries are interesting, but towards the end of the novel much of the space devoted to the future part of the story was filled with info dumps. The reader needs to be told some things about the general shape of history and Reynolds uses Floyd’s ignorance of the situation as an excuse to enlighten the reader. They are not a punishment to read but it probably could have been done more gracefully. Quite a bit can be figured out from earlier portions of the book. It makes the latter part of the novel a strangely structured piece of writing with all the action, chases and last minute rescues one would expect in the climax of a tale like Century Rain, intermixed with long explanations of how things came to be. Thematically these sections contain some intriguing questions, though, such as the dangers of fully relying on digital information storage.
The characterization in Century Rain is also a bit problematic. Reynolds can do certain types of characters really well, the world-wise detective being one of them, but in some other areas he has problems, such as with Floyd’s love interest. Rationally I understood there was a connection between the characters but Reynolds could not really make me feel it. The emotionally-charged scenes seem a bit bland, which is a shame since it could have added something to the story.
Reynolds didn’t quite manage to connect the noir and science fiction elements of the story. Century Rain is an interesting novel, one that certainly succeeds in creating a dark atmosphere, but when it comes to the right mix of elements I think it falls short of the level of Chasm City or The Prefect.