For some reason I had missed this novel from Alastair Reynolds, published not long after the author’s famous Revelation Space saga, and once I read the synopsis of the story I was more than intrigued because it sounded quite unlike my previous experience with Reynolds’ works.
Century Rain is a story of two very different halves destined to mesh together: the first half follows humanity in the 23rd century, as it exists on arcologies in space, since Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by the Nanocaust, an extinction event that obliterated all life on the planet in one single, devastating sweep. Humans have divided into two factions, the Slashers, who embrace technology to the point of integrating it into their bodies, and the Threshers, who use technology but refuse to undergo such merging. Verity Auger is a Thresher archeologist trying to recover the vestiges of the past from ice-encrusted Earth and she is enrolled by her superiors for a very peculiar mission – not exactly on Earth but on a weird facsimile of it. Here the other half of the novel comes into play: scientists have discovered a sort of wormhole leading to a 1959 version of Paris, one where history followed a very different course, as the failed Nazi invasion of France did not develop into World War II and scientific progress seems to have been halted. In this alternate Paris, expatriate Wendell Floyd, a struggling jazz musician, makes ends meet by working as a private detective: the latest case he took concerns the suspicious death of a young woman, and in the course of his investigation he will cross paths with Verity Auger and discover a heinous plot concocted by some fringe elements in the Slasher faction.
Blending such different story-lines can deliver an intriguing novel, but in this case – much as I reasonably enjoyed the book – I’m afraid Reynolds fell somewhat short of the mark: I’ve come to believe that in trying to do too much he ultimately defeated the purpose of the idea, and that if he had stayed with only one of the narrative threads, Century Rain could have turned into a much more spectacular work. The future half of the novel shows us a fascinating view of humanity, relegated in space by the disaster that destroyed Earth, and trying to repossess what remains of the past while being still torn by internal conflicts that oppose two widely different ways of exploring one’s potential. Once the theme of the “bad” Slasher faction comes into play – even though its motivations remained a little cloudy for me – there is a great potential for showing the effects of unchecked technology and of the evolution of mankind outside of its birth world: unfortunately, this narrative thread became at some point bloated by huge info-dumps that slowed the pace considerably and, in my opinion, took much of the wind out of the book’s proverbial sails.
The alternate history half of Century Rain is the one that held the greatest appeal for me: here the pacing is much swifter, and following Floyd’s investigation it’s possible to learn much about this version of Paris, and the bleak political climate one can breathe there, where a xenophobic movement seems bent on creating a reign of oppression and fear that lays a dark veil on the City of Lights. I instantly connected with world-weary (but gifted with a quirky brand of humor) Wendell Floyd and his struggle to survive in a world where the music he loves is under threat of banishment, and where the ugliness of the Nazi Germany we know seems to seep, slowly but surely, into the gracefully lively Parisian atmosphere, under a different name and identity. And then there are the fascinating changes in the course of history: having missed WWII, this world did not experience the death toll of millions from the conflict, but on the other hand it did not enjoy the scientific progress fueled by wartime needs, and this version of Earth looks a little stagnant, a little… frayed around the edges, for want of a better definition.
Once the two threads merge, the story loses some of its steam and becomes mired in the sort of madcap adventure we usually see in the Bond movies, but without the tongue-in-cheek self-mockery that’s often part of that franchise. There are a few details that I struggled with as well, like Floyd’s too easy acceptance of the existence of a different temporal line a few centuries beyond his own: I would have expected a few problems with “future shock”, but there were none, not even when he finds himself in the wormhole-traveling contraption used by Verity to reach the alternate Paris. And then there is the romantic relationship between Verity and Floyd: while it starts well enough, with suspicion and mistrust from both parts, and then moves toward a tentative alliance laced with humorous repartees, I never felt a real connection between the two of them – it was as if we were being told the two were falling in love, not shown, and there was never a real feel of an emotional attachment between the two of them, to the point I wondered more than once if it had been put there just to check another item on a list.
It does not help, either, that the book feels too long – or rather, it indulges far too much on the kind of “as you know, Bob” exposition that often annoys me, and moves far too swiftly over items of interest like the way history changed, in the alternate Earth, after the failed invasion of France, or the origins and development of the Thresher and Slasher factions in the future.
Still, despite the length and pacing problems, Century Rain was a moderately enjoyable novel, although not on the same level as other Reynolds works – but at least I’m glad I explored this one as well.