BOOK REVIEW: Permafrost

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Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds (SF Novel, March 2019).

I’m likely to catch flak from purists by tagging a time travel novel as “hard SF.” But in this case the author has gone all-out to present a fairly rigorous theoretical basis for how it’s achieved. No physical bodies are dispatched to what used to be part of the old Soviet Union. Instead, the consciousness of the time travelers are sent back to occupy and possess people of time in order to provide some part of the world of 2080 a chance to survive an unfolding ecological apocalyptic nightmare. Oh, I know. It’s likely all higher-math-based hand waving, of course. But at least Reynolds makes it sound plausible.

The book itself jumps right into the plot with zero explanations up-front. The novel’s first-person protagonist has just had to shoot a colleague dead. She jumps into a car with another team member and they speed off to an airstrip as the next step in an obviously desperate bid to escape with–well, with whatever they’ve gotten hold of. We’ll soon learn it’s 2028, but the people running these bodies are from almost 60 years in the future. Further along we’ll get to know just what is in the package they’re transporting, why it represents humanity’s last-gasp chance of avoiding extinction–and in time even why some of the team of time travelers seem to have turned against fulfilling their assignment.

After that tense opening, the book doubles back to let Valentina begin explaining how she went from a middle-aged school teacher in a wheelchair to inhabiting a much-younger if seriously ill woman over 5 decades in the past. From there the novel moves back and forth between the time periods. Reynolds does a commendable job of unveiling the plot in gradual and limited doses, even as he also builds our understanding of and respect for the central characters. The many mysteries conjured by the opening are peeled back, layer by layer, in very capable fashion and new twists keep coming without unduly damaging the overall effect.

Despite a long list of genre credits, this happens to have been my first taste of Alastair Reynolds’s work. I found his writing first-rate, blending imaginative super-science with good characterization and well-described, real-feeling settings.

At 173 pages, Permafrost is a comparatively brief yet satisfying throwback to a time in which SF novels didn’t have to be gigantic tomes to wade through. Well and highly recommended.

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