Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

Publisher – Tor

Published – Out Now

Price - £2.33 Kindle eBook

Fix the past. Save the present. Stop the future.

2080: at a remote site on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a group of scientists, engineers and physicians gather to gamble humanity’s future on last ditch experiment. Their goal to make a tiny alteration to the past, averting a global catastrophe while at the same time leaving recorded history intact. To make the experiment work they just need one last recruit: an aging schoolteacher whose late mother was the foremost expert on the mathematics of paradox.

2028: a young woman goes into surgery for routine brain operation. In the days following her operation, she begins to hear another voice in her head…an unwanted presence which seems to have a will, and a purpose, all of its own – one that will disrupt her life entirely. The only choice left to her is a simple one.

Does she resist…or become a collaborator?

I think every day now we see ever more signs of an environment we are taking to breaking point be it extinction of species, destruction of ice caps or extreme weather. In Alastair Reynold’s novella he takes this to a logical extreme and we see in 2080 a world where plant life is on the verge of extinction and by coincidence humanity is also meeting its fate. But this story proposes a very unusual solution, and someone is still trying to stop them.

In an extremely tense opening, we meet Tatiana after she has just killed a friend of hers and is about to go on the run into an aeroplane with a wounded colleague in Russia. Another ex-fried is trying to stop them. We soon realise that Tatiana is actually a time traveller named Valentina but is being sent back mentally (think Quantum Leap) into the conscience of Tatiana along with those of several others to try and change the future. They’re not going to be able to change history too much or risk wiping their own fragile future out instead a very simple mission that if they can retrieve an object and then hide the item the future may carry on a good while longer. Unfortunately, Tatiana is understandably not impressed to have an invading conscience in her head and another unknown power is killing or turning her team against her. Its up to Valentina 60 years from home to find a way through.

I was very impressed how much is packed into this novella. Reynolds throws AIs, time-travel, paradoxes and environmental catastrophe together. The future of 2080 feels bleak for Valentina (our narrator) is a schoolteacher who realises her class may be the last generation…it feels plausible. At the same time Reynolds adds humanity to the survivors who have humour and a desire to help. We are worth surviving. The 2028 scenes are more a thriller as firstly Valentina trues to control Tatiana’s mind but pleasingly this novella addresses consent – Valentina must persuade, and this makes the two women must learn to trust one another. There is even an unusual threat of another opposing force in the future that seems to be taking over members of the team (not all of which are human) and eventually Valentina must put herself in huge danger to save the world. There is a great deal of tension and suspicion as to whom is doing this and the pay-off is logical, heart-breaking, hopeful and surprising.

It a very impressive piece of science fiction with an epic storyline written in novella form.  The central mystery pulls you along and the concepts being explained while clever are not taking over the emotional power of the story be it Tatiana coming to grips with the future she is told about or Valentina’s struggle against her foes. If you enjoy a good SF thriller this would be a great read.