For my review this week, I decided to try an author I’d heard lots about, but had never read anything by before – Alastair Reynolds. As Permafrost is a novella, it seemed like the perfect way to dip a toe in the water. Did I like it, or did it leave me cold? Read on to find out!
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In the year 2080, humanity is at the brink of extinction. Following the cataclysmic events of the Scouring, the world’s last hope rests on the experimental Permafrost programme, the aim of which is to secure a batch of particularly hardy seeds from a vault, giving what’s left of the human race a fighting chance at survival.
Unfortunately, there’s only one place to go to get these seeds. Or rather, one time. Permafrost have developed an ingenious way to send people backwards in time, which involves sending a tiny piece of technology into the past and implanting it in the brain of an unwitting host. Their “pilots” can then take control of these individuals, with their aim being to use them to secure the seeds in 2028 so they can be left somewhere to be retrieved in 2080. Occupying a host body in the past from the floating facility, aged pilot Valentina Lidova will have a key part to play in events to come.
Or should that be events past?
It can be very easy to get things a little confused and wrapped around your neck when attempting to discuss time travel, but Reynolds has an extremely elegant way of cutting through a lot of the complication. By referring to “upstream” and “downstream” we are able to work out exactly what characters mean when they talk about time, without them having to jump through endless semantic hoops. There is a wholly satisfying feeling of just clicking with the theoretical side of things too, and when this moment comes it’s if a light has been switched on. That isn’t to say that things are unclear until this point, more that they are intentionally mysterious and misleading. An early demonstration of how paradoxes can be created and the effect this then has on Valentina’s recollection of events is a truly audacious piece of storytelling, demonstrating how a key theory works while forcing us to question Valentina’s reliability as a narrator. As an exploration of some of the core concepts of time travel, it’s both playful and extremely grounded in what feels like very believable science.
Of course, this isn’t just Valentina’s story. Her host in 2028 – Tatiana – is recovering from surgery when Valentina takes her over to pilot her, and intends to make her displeasure at this turn of events known. In a twist unanticipated by the scientists of Permafrost, she is able to speak to Valentina inside her own head, with the two having a number of conversations which serve some key purposes. Firstly, exposition – Valentina’s explanations for why she’s occupying Tatiana’s body help fill in some of the blanks in the story for us, and don’t feel at all awkward for their presence. Her account of events between 2028 and 2080 also seems chillingly plausible. But as well as this, these conversations also allow Reynolds to consider the morality of what Permafrost are doing by making Valentina attempt to justify their actions to Tatiana. It’s one of many moments which carry a surprising amount of emotional weight.
Other key moments are given an extremely clever treatment by the narrative form chosen too. By making the narrative non-linear, events which occur earlier within it are given a completely different spin when we find out more information later on. Events are revisited, with our initial ideas turned on their heads when we see them from new perspectives. It’s intricate, certainly, but never to the point of being beyond our grasp. The compact format of the novella seems perfect here; any longer and things would perhaps become unwieldy – we’d struggle to keep the multiple timelines and the paradoxes arising and resolving square in our own heads.
Ideal for fans of Twelve Monkeys, Inception, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Permafrost is an exciting and ingenious take on time travel. It’s also an extremely rewarding read, full of big but well explained ideas and packed with twists and turns throughout it’s almost misleadingly low page count. It was published by Tor.com last year, and was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Novella. You can order a copy through this affiliate link.