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Century Rain

Alastair Reynolds

Victor Gollancz / Orion Books

UK First Edition Hardcover

ISBN 0-575-07436-1

Publication Date: 11-26-2004

506 Pages; £14.99

Date Reviewed: 12-05-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Science Fiction, Mystery

03-21-02, 04-15-02, 07-02-02, 07-30-02, 09-20-02, 10-03-02, 10-08-02, 12-13-02, 01-07-03, 01-27-03, 02-25-03, 05-15-03

A private eye walks the rain-slicked streets of Paris, wondering if the accident he's been asked to investigate is instead a murder. Beneath layers of ice, a young archaeologist attempts a daring excavation to extract a newspaper from the ruins of Paris. While science fiction and mystery have often been combined, no writer has done so with such intelligence or originality as Alastair Reynolds in his latest novel, 'Century Rain'. The description "science fiction mystery" is usually applied to a mystery set in a science-fictional backdrop, and these types of books are justly famous, from Isaac Asimov's 1954 classic 'The Caves of Steel' to recent efforts such as Jon Courtenay-Grimwood's 'Arabesques'. Reynolds, who pushed the envelope of space opera with literary prose in titles like 'Revelation Space', 'Chasm City', 'Redemption Ark' and 'Absolution Gap', manages in 'Century Rain' to open doors to a unique literary form that is both pure mystery and pure science fiction and more than both combined.

As 'Century Rain' opens, Wendell Floyd, an expatriate American living in Paris, and Andre Custine, his partner, are hired by a concerned landlord to investigate the death of one of his tenants. When they're not detecting, they're musicians, but the music biz has drained away because Floyd's ex, Greta, has left Paris to pursue a career with a better band. Blanchard the landlord is certain that the death of Susan White, which the Parisian police have written off as an accident, is murder. Floyd is not so certain, but he's willing to investigate. In a scene seemingly from another novel, Verity Auger finds herself responsible when her archaeological dig beneath the frozen ruins of some far-clung future Paris goes terribly wrong. The victim of political infighting, she's going to be hung out to dry for all the wrong reasons.

'Century Rain' presents the reader with a passel of mysteries, both internal to the plot of the novel and external, at least initially, in that the two narratives have little in common other than Reynolds, fine detailed prose. As one might suspect, there's quite a bit going on, yet Reynolds' strong storytelling skills not only keep the pages turning at a rapid rate, they keep his complex ideas and fascinating mysteries every bit as clear as they need to be. 'Century Rain' represents a departure for Reynolds from space opera, and shows that he's clearly a talented writer able to innovate, explore new forms and still keep the reader riveted. It's a spectacular performance.

In addition to the obvious plot-based mysteries -- who killed Susan White, and who framed Verity Auger, there's the obvious mystery of how these two chains of events are connected. Then, of course, there's the science fiction mystery of how Verity's world future developed from ours. And even better, there's the question of precisely what is up with Floyd's Paris, which is rendered in pointillist details, some of which seem, well, hinky. Rest assured that Reynolds has the answers to these mysteries to hand, and even better, he unravels them with a masterful cross-cutting plot that's equal parts hard-boiled and mind-boggling. I'd recommend not glancing at the dust jacket, which to my mind tells more than the reader wants to know. Finding out the true nature of Reynolds' intricate creation is certainly one of the most fun aspects of reading this novel, and the less you know about the plot, the better. You haven't found out anything here that will detract from your enjoyment.

While Reynolds prose does offer an enjoyably detailed texture that enhances both the science fictional and mystery threads of the plot, the feel of this novel is substantially different from his previous work. Gone are the Gothic cathedrals in space. Reynolds hits a much lighter tone here, with touches of mordant humor and noir romance -- dames, guns, and bent coppers. The pacing is incredibly fast on a number of fascinating levels. Reynolds paces the book both as a standalone mean-streets mystery, a futuristic thriller, and as a surreal fusion of both. Readers who enjoy Philip K. Dick's self-contained, self-referential shenanigans will love what Reynolds has put together. But in spite of all the disparate threads, the novel reads seamlessly, one thrilling page after another woven tightly and brightly.

Noir mysteries require a strong male lead, and Wendell Floyd is a memorable addition to the canon. Science fiction thrillers, on the other hand, have a history of featuring strong female characters and Reynolds' Verity Auger offers the perfect combination of bravery, self-doubt and obstreperousness. But 'Century Rain' includes a huge complex cast with that Reynolds handles with great panache. Custine, Skellsgard, Tunguska, Blanchard, Maillot -- readers are apt to have a number of favorites here, all of them memorable enough to make the reader wish for a sequel -- though one is not necessary, nor is one planned. Reynolds provides a wealth of details on every side of the spectrum -- from the 1950's jazz music scene in Paris to the cutting edge of quantum physics, entertainingly explained for the non-physicist. Readers are apt to be as happy to be on the receiving end of Reynolds' explanations as his characters (sometimes surprisingly) are.

The details stack up nicely to create fully rounded characters at every level of the novel. Between passages of fast-paced action, Reynolds layers hints and red herrings as to who is responsible for what. And readers like myself who enjoyed his sense of the horrific will be glad to know that he's created some terrors both disturbingly individual and awesomely Lovecraftian. Given the wide variety of characters, places, genres and plots at hand in 'Century Rain', perhaps the most surprising aspect is not what happens so much as the fact that everything that happens comes together so naturally. Reynolds manages to take the reader on the trip without whiplash. In a single novel, he steps from the mean streets to the far future.