“Lady, one trip through that thing is enough for me”

Century Rain - Alastair Reynolds

Paris times two. One which Hitler never invaded but nevertheless the scene of rising fascism and a mysterious death. The other is a ruin on a destroyed, uninhabitable Earth, courtesy of the “Void Century”. The connection between these two worlds is just one element in an ambitious, very enjoyable, novel that while by no means a failure stumbles a little under its surfeit of knockout ideas.


In fine SF style “Rain” leverages modern fears for its plot. The central idea – the “Silver Rain” – is exactly the sort of threat Prince Charles was fretting about when he talked of the perils of “grey goo” and Reynolds, God bless him, has no qualms depicting in graphic detail what happens when that rain falls. Then there is the terror of  “the Forgetting” which will be all too familiar to anyone who has had a hard drive with precious data turn into a brick. There are also secret wormhole entrances in Parisian train tunnels, “war babies” running around killing people, quantum snapshots of Earth encased within so-called “Anomalous Large Structures” and much more… Reynolds is nothing if not reliable when it comes to ridiculously engaging ideas. The narrative switches between one Wendell Floyd, an American detective in Paris with a side-line as a musician (although we don’t rarely see any of the musicians in this novel playing their instruments), his partner Custine and his enjoyably spiky German ex Greta unravelling a European-flavoured murder-mystery that mines new territory for a Reynolds novel. That this murder-mystery is eventually revealed to involve the smuggling of memorabilia to an alternate-future Earth is pure jam. Meanwhile, in scenes that appear to come from a completely different novel, impetuous archaeologist Verity Auger (Reynolds likes his archaeologists) gets co-opted into a retrieval mission through a wormhole to Earth Two. In this, she quickly succeeds. Returning proves trickier. It’s all great fun and ends with a knockout last line. Plus I can’t not enjoy a novel that fields “Asimov-compliant” robots or wormhole entrances buried under the surface of Phobos, recalling Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”.   


So that said it seems churlish to criticise a novel so brimming with ideas and written so engagingly but there is a sense that back in 2004 Reynolds was still learning how to juggle his elements here. Auger is remarkably well-informed about politics and military manoeuvres for an archaeologist. Musical gumshoe Floyd experiences zero perceptible culture shock being confronted by much outside his frame of reference and it’s all-too convenient he is the one who twigs how to decipher the coordinates of Earth 2. We only experience the Polity civil war third hand making it difficult to get enthused about and the finale involves the pursuit of a character we have met once only fleetingly and bears not a passing similarity to Roger Moore playing space invaders at the end of “Moonraker”. The Enigma machine gets a cursory walk-on role (why would this have been invented if World War II was avoided?) and music, while important, is more of a grace note. I have no evidence but ‘Rain’ feels like an early unpublished work exhumed after the success of ‘Revelation Space’. It’s in no means a failure or an unenjoyable read but the dexterity with which Reynolds handles his material elsewhere means it’s more noticeable when he grinds the gears a little, as here. Still ‘Rain’ does nothing to diminish Reynolds’ must-read status in my book; it’s a big piece of SF cake where some of the ingredients don’t quite marry, and honestly, a lesser novel from this author is several wormhole-jumps ahead of so much other modern popular fiction. So, great stuff, occasionally clunky but in a nutshell….“I’m not sorry we had this adventure.”