Alastair Reynolds (Revelation Space) is an innovative master of what’s frequently—but imprecisely in his case—referred to as “hard sci-fi.” I see the term as imprecise only in that it often implies a reliance on science to the point that character and humanity are overshadowed. Reynolds consistently excels at striking a balance between complex science and interestingly nuanced characters. Sometimes the people at the heart of his stories are denizens of a distant future, or, as in his new novella, the time travel thriller Permafrost, a much nearer one: it opens in the year 2080, by which time an environmental catastrophe will have come and gone, with any and all hope for the future lying in the past.
During the environmental catastrophe known colloquially as “The Scouring,” a global insect die-off that left plants unpollinated and most of the world’s soil infertile. What followed was a dystopian hellscape of starvation and forced euthanization. Even giving birth to a child comes to be seen as an act of monstrous cruelty, given the guarantee it will suffer. As the novella begins, we’re down to what could well be the last generation of humans on Earth—but not everyone is ready to give up.
The Permafrost Retrocausal Experiment exists as a flotilla of ships carrying out a bold, dangerous plan to save the future by returning to the past. Making use of a loophole in causality that allows for small bundles of particles to travel back in time, the team is able to implant in certain pre-Scouring humans tiny interfaces that allow for them to be remote-controlled from the future via a quasi-quantum-mechanical pairing. The goal is to gather and preserve incredibly hardy seed variants that could be used to restore Earth’s ability to grow food.
It’s a novel approach to time travel, but there’s more to the story than the clever set-up: one of the members of the project team is 70-something schoolteacher Valentina Lidova, whose scientist mother came up with the method of interacting with the past, having died long before her ideas came to fruition. Valentina finds herself linked with Tatiana Dinova, a hospital patient without much of a future. Though the connection is meant to be one-way, the two women are able to interact, essentially sharing a body while Valentina navigates the foreign past and the unique challenges that lay before them, which include project members from months into Valentina’s own future who know things that she doesn’t and who, as a result, have conflicting agendas.
One of the primary reasons for Reynolds’ success (at least among people who are me) is his finesse in telling stories of real people caught in situations laden with hard sci-fi trappings. His works are generally character-driven narratives set in worlds where science (real or speculative) matters. Permafrost captures that quality in a compact form. The conception of time outlined here posits that, like the rest of the universe, it wants to exist at the lowest-energy level, and is constantly moving toward that ground state. Therefore, minor alterations to the flow of time are possible, but time itself resists anything too dramatic or paradoxical. Thus, the Permafrost team’s the goal is to find a solution to the crisis that doesn’t significantly impact decades of history.
Aside from that complication, Reynolds posits that problem solving via time travel would make any solution a moving target—the “present” of 2080 is in flux as our team of time travelers continually redefines its goals. There’s also a ticking clock element in play: the race to collect the seeds in the past runs parallel to a “present” in which Valentina fights to maintain her connection to Tatiana and figure out who’s working to sabotage the experiment and why.
The time travel action would, by itself, make for a fun and engaging story. Reynolds does one better by grounding Permafrost in the lives and experiences of Valentina and Tatiana, two women with similar names who would be very different even if they didn’t come from very different times. The work of Valentina, and that of her mother before her, is incredibly consequential, while Tatiana is chosen precisely because her life can be hijacked without any real consequences to history. Because of their connection, we’re privy to their developing relationship and burgeoning sense of trust—to the flowering of a bond between two women that becomes, quite literally, humanity’s only hope.
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