Book review: Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds
Permafrost - Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds's short stories and novellas can be seen as a testing ground for other ideas that lie outside the author's varied space opera, space adventure universes of the Revelation Space, Revenger, Inspector Dreyfus or Poseidon's Children series. A testing ground however doesn't necessarily mean experimental since if anything Reynolds tends to turn to the shorter works in order to try his hand at other traditional SF tropes, some inspired by pulp science-fiction, and some inevitably work better than others.
Permafrost is Alastair Reynolds' latest novella-length story and it's very much within a science-fiction field that Reynolds has only touched on before; time travel. To make a time-travel adventure credible requires some hard-science work on quantum physics, and Reynolds is bang up-to-date on recent developments on sending electrons back from the future in that field. It also requires some measure of creativity to explain the complexities and paradoxes that will inevitably arise, and Reynolds handles these well in Permafrost, if not with any great originality.
As with any time-travel experiment in science-fiction, anyone visiting the past takes great risks in altering the future in unexpected, unforeseen and sometimes cataclysmic ways, but in Permafrost, the potential time travellers have little option. In 2080, a global catastrophe has already wiped out food stocks, grain and seed stores have failed, and the world really is close to extinction. Dr Cho, a Russian scientist, has however developed a way to time-embed volunteers back into the bodies of selected individuals back in 2028 in the hope of finding a way of bringing seeds back to the future to replenish food supplies.
The process is still in the experimental stage and hasn't yet been fully tested,so the risks are great and the chances of things going terribly wrong are high, but you might say that time is of the essence. A 71 year old mathematician, Valentine Lidova has been selected as a suitable time-traveller, since her mother was instrumental in developing the theory that permits Dr Cho to create the technology that is now ready to be used. Valentina finds herself in the body of Tatiana Dinova back in 2028, but unexpectedly and worryingly she finds that she shares consciousness with the other woman in the past.
There are more challenges however that arise than just persuading the other woman to help them obtain the seeds that they came back for. We already know that something has gone badly wrong because the novella opens with Valentina shooting one of her time-travelling colleagues back in 2028, so things evidently haven't gone to plan, but the changes that Valentina witnesses in the ripples between past and future hint at an even greater catastrophe that could occur in her own time, unless she is able to do something about it.
It's hard to keep time-lines straight in any SF time-travel adventure, but Alastair Reynolds' handling of the subject is a model of clarity, explaining the process of paradoxes resolving themselves as time realigns to the changes made in the past, where the greater the change the greater the 'noise' it creates. Aside from time-travel, Reynolds brings another favourite pulp SF theme into Permafrost which I'm obviously not going to spoil, but it adds another interesting complication and development to the mix that makes this novella an entertaining little diversion from Reynolds' longer works.