Alastair Reynolds’ Permafrost (2019), a finalist for the 2020 Locus Award for Best Novella, is billed as “a time-traveling climate fiction adventure.” It takes place in two timelines.
In 2080, humanity seems to be coming to an end, mostly due to a lack of food. Valentina Lidova, an elderly Russian math teacher, attempts to continue teaching her malnourished students, knowing all the while that it’s futile.
Then she’s visited by someone from an institution called Permafrost who offers a crazy-sounding solution. They claim to have invented time travel and want Valentina to be the first person who travels back in time. They’ve chosen her because it was her mathematician mother, now dead, whose widely-mocked theories they used to invent the technology.
Valentina won’t physically go back in time, but her consciousness will be implanted into the brain of Tatiana, a woman who’s having an MRI (that’s how they transfer her consciousness) back in 2028. Four artificial intelligences, called Dmitri, Ivan, Alexei and Pavel (after The Brothers Karamazov), will help.
The plan is for Valentina to take over Tatiana’s body and, along with some partners who’ve also gone back in time, steal some specific seeds and take them to a seed bank for safe keeping so they’ll be available in the future. Thus, they hope to avert the famine that’s killing off the world’s plants, animals, and people.
But, as these things are wont, the project doesn’t go exactly as planned. It seems there are forces that the Permafrost scientists were unaware of, and they have an agenda, too. This leads to all sorts of time paradoxes that threaten to undo all of their efforts or, possibly, to make things even worse for the future.
Permafrost is a mind-bending thriller that focuses less on the “climate” suggested in the publisher’s description, and more on the “time-traveling” aspect. The role of artificial intelligence is also a main theme. I thought the MRI scheme was clever, as was Valentina’s mother’s idea about how to think about time — not as a river, but as a lattice that’s a little bit flexible. The story is intense and exciting, with lots of twists.
I listened to the audiobook version produced by Macmillan Audio and narrated by actor Natasha Soudek (Star Trek). She’s so good with the Russian accents. This was a great way to read Permafrost.