Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review of Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

There are increasing number of new niches in speculative fiction created as it expands toward realism and the mainstream, and, as they are being created, the interstices are also slowly being filled.  Some writers strike out, trying to till fresh ground, but there remain others who feel more at home plowing the fields of their forefathers.  Alastair Reynolds is one such writer (though I continually wait for something more challenging as I know he is perfectly capable*).  His 2004 Century Rain is a perfect example of retro sci fi published in, or at least the moments this review was being written, the modern era, nothing new to evolve the genre.
Century Rain is a split narrative that eventually dovetails into one.  The first tells of Wendell Floyd, private eye for hire, and the strange commission he receives one day. Living in an alternate history Paris 1939, Hitler was thwarted before he began, leaving Europe in a state of peace.  But this doesn't stop the French from rendering Paris a police-controlled city. Hired by a suspicious neighbor to investigate what police are calling a suicide, Floyd delves into the bizarre details of Susan Day’s death, eventually finding things literally out of this world.  The second story thread is of Verity Auger. A historian (of sorts), she digs beneath the ruins of Paris seeking the details of why a nano catastophe destroyed Earth. Auger a member of a polity calling themselves the Threshers (for their belief in the need to limit technology), her efforts are constantly under threat from their rivals, the Slashers, (a group who—inevitably—believes technology should be developed and applied freely). Called upon special assignment per the specific request of Susan Day, it isn't long before Floyd and Auger's versions of Paris collide.

Century Rain an overt and acknowledged attempt at hardboiled noir, all of the stereotypical elements are in place: Paris of the modernist era, jazz music, the coffee guzzling private eye, the continual gloom overhanging the city, heavily contrived scenes of action, the singing damsel love interest—even an unabashed Casablanca moment.  Readily willing to indulge himself, Reynolds puts no fresh spin or, at least, veneer, on the noir concept, the story rather blasé as a result.

But for as unoriginal as it is, Floyd’s narrative, at least the first half, moves positively.  I mention this as later, when Auger's reality is eventually brought in as the main setting (and introduced via a terrible info dump conversation), Floyd's “world” is abandoned and replaced with a James Bond takeover scheme as cheesy as can be, rendering the story re-, rather than progressive. 

“Why am I telling you this when Niagara already has the weapon? Simply because you are our only hope of stopping this from happening.  If that weapon is released into the atmosphere of E2, understand that it will work.”

The back cover blurb indicated as much pulp, so I should have been warned.  The tech often magic rather than so called hard sc-fi (the Censor and the shields, for example), fidelity is lost one reveal after another.  Like a balloon losing air, the story foozles to a conclusion.
The cheese does not end there, however.  Check the following quote for the introduction to the main horror element of Floyd's storyline.

“They sent children against us. The Neotonic Infantry: genetically engineered, cloned, psychologically programmed killing machines, packaged to look like children.”
Poor style only renders the story more simple and unengaging.

    “Then I guess that makes it personal.” Floyd said.
    “Drop the case, my friend.  Drop the case and go with Greta to America.”
    “Not yet.  Like I said, I’ve already got an interview lined up with the sister.”
    “You’re playing with fire.”
    “No,” Floyd said, “I’m playing with the only lead left in this whole case.  And the only thing that’s going to lead me to those children, and get you off the hook.”
In the end, Century Rain is an attempt to braid detective noir into a space thriller of universe-takeover proportions.  The first half of the novel moves strongly.  The noir portion, as hackneyed as it is, remains the best part, but, in reality, is not saying much.  When the space thriller motif is added, things start to fall apart. Retro sci-fi may be appreciated as "camp", but when published in the modern era without an effort to at least partially reinvent it, can't help but appear weak in comparison to more progressive genre.  The nano children horror element, heavily contrived scenes (the drama of the factory bulldozing is eye-rolling), and overall loss of control of plot devices toward the conclusion deconstruct the novel. Fans of Reynolds’ brand of sci fi will undoubtedly take me as strongly misguided, but stories which simply seek to rehash genre of old in poor style is not at the top of my list of quality literature. 
*I keep waiting for Reynolds to use his intelligence—the scientific background and insightful knowledge of the genre's history I see come to full light in interviews—to write a novel which exceeds the shallowness of pulp sci fi.  I know he is capable of writing more humanist material, for example, in the general vein of Arthur C. Clarke or Kim Stanley Robinson, as evidenced by his presentation here.  But like Paolo Bacigalupi, Charles Stross, and others, Reynolds seems to continually grant entertainment its place over literary value, and thus I keep waiting…)

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