July 4, 2019

Review: Permafrost

Permafrost Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think time travel stories are among the hardest to write well, simply because it's all too easy to get bogged down in illogical paradox loopiness. This is among the better ones I've read recently, and it's definitely not perfect. Mainly because the global event that sets it off, if you stop to think about it, is so grim and hopeless I wondered why these people were even bothering. (And also because I highly doubt the event as described would cause such a shattering planetwide catastrophe in such a short period of time. Even the end-Permian extinction, the most severe of Earth's five major extinction events, took place, at a minimum, over hundreds of thousands of years.) I'm sure a great many of them would have rather just quietly committed suicide rather than face the struggle of trying to live on a planet scoured of nearly all life.

That's neither here nor there, I suppose, although it shows you can't ponder this novella's worldbuilding very much. This definitely gets a one-star dinging from me. On the plus side, the time travel mechanism seems fresh--at least I don't remember reading a mechanism quite like it (although I'm sure there has been). These time travelers are not the people themselves, but rather their consciousness, moving up and down the time stream. There's a lot of high-level quantum physics in this book. The author makes a decent stab at explaining it, but after a while I just substituted the words "Luba Pairs" with "woo-woo," because that was about how well I understood it, and thought, "Just get on with the story."

In this case, the story has to be paid close attention to. The structure of this novella is very much like the time travel shenanigans the author is describing--definitely non-linear, bouncing back and forth between 2028 and 2080, doubling and tripling back on itself. As we come to find out, the time stream can be manipulated, and indeed the protagonist ends up being forced to do so. This contributes to the feel of the story's being rushed; indeed, there are almost too many ideas and concepts here for a novella length. The mission starts to come apart as time paradox creeps in, and one incident in particular, about the middle of the book, gives the reader a horrifying jolt that snaps you back to the very beginning, making you re-evaluate the story. As it was meant to.

I liked this well enough, but I would have liked to spend more time with the two main characters, Valentina and Tatiana. I also would have liked the overall situation to not be quite so hopeless, which no doubt contributed to the rather abrupt ending, as the author seemed to have written himself into a corner. This was readable and interesting, but flawed.

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