Recently I recommended Alastair Reynolds’ new book Inhibitor Phase. In subsequent conversation with Wyrd Smythe, I remembered that there were a couple of books in Reynolds’ backlist that I had missed. One of these is Century Rain, a novel that, based on Wyrd’s assessment, was definitely worth reading. Century Rain is a standalone novel, one that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t take place in any of his other fictional universes.
The initial setting appears to be Paris in 1959, but it immediately becomes apparent that something about this version of Paris is off. It seems much more dystopian than what you might read about 1950s Paris.
Meanwhile, in the 23rd century, Earth has become a frozen uninhabitable wasteland, the result of a “nanocaust” in the late 21st century. In an attempt to control global warming, nanobots are released into the environment. But those nanobots run out of control, with all attempts to control them only making the situation worse. Within a short period, all life on Earth is eradicated. The only survivors are those who aren’t on Earth at the time.
Humanity has subsequently become divided into two broad ideologies, the threshers and the slashers.
The threshers, taking to heart the lessons of the nanocaust, abhor nanotechnology, to the extent that they appear to minimize their use of any microtechnology. For instance, messages are passed on paper through a pneumatic tubing systems rather than electronically. That’s not to say the threshers aren’t advanced by our standards, but they take their technology just to the threshold of nanotech and stop there, hence their name.
The slashers, on the other hand, while regarding the nanocaust as an obviously horrible and cautionary event, haven’t allowed it to inhibit their use of nanotech. The typical slasher is infused with a cloud of it constantly buzzing around them and going in an out of their body. They also genetically engineer their bodies, with many keeping relatively small energy efficient forms, so that many of them appear like children to threshers, even through they’re full adults. The result is that they’re effectively immortal, at least until the next nanocaust or war.
In addition, the slashers have discovered a network of wormhole-like tunnels connecting interstellar destinations with each other, apparently built by some alien, and now absent intelligence. Reynolds’, being a trained physicist, is careful to stipulate that these are very similar to wormholes, but aren’t wormholes of the Einstein-Rosen bridge variety. This network is referred to as the hyperweb and the wormhole-like connections as hyperweb portals. The hyperweb has allowed an interstellar civilization to form, mostly dominated by the slashers.
Naturally threshers and slashers often don’t get along. A particular point of contention is what to do with Earth. The slashers want to terraform it (an ironic use of that term) to make it habitable again. But it would involve full scale destruction of the ruins and the complete loss of humanity’s legacy. It’s a move the threshers are unwilling to make, and they currently control the Earth and its surroundings. A war seems imminent.
In the midst of all this, a hyperweb portal is discovered by the threshers inside the Mars moon Phobos. It leads to another version of Earth, one where it’s currently 1959 and World War II never took place, tying us back to the initial setting and the characters there. There is some conjecture in the novel whether this is really Earth in 1959 (post nanocaust records are so limited that 23rd century scholars can’t be sure), a computer simulation of some kind, or an actual physical copy.
As it turns out, there are reasons to believe it’s a physical copy right down to the quantum level, apparently made c. 1939, just before World War II, where its history deviates from the original Earth’s. E2 also has a copy of the moon, but it and E2 itself are enclosed in a sphere around 10 light seconds across, a sphere which appears to simulate a sun and the rest of the universe. It’s almost like somebody decided to make a backup copy of Earth for safe keeping.
It’s basically a different take on the simulation hypothesis, in this case involving a physical copy of the original, but only up to a point, and depending on a shell to emulate the rest of the universe.
The threshers have agents surreptitiously studying E2 and sending back artifacts. But when one of those agents is killed, another archaeologist is press-ganged into service to retrieve key information she left behind, information of a secret plan affecting the inhabitants of E2 and the thresher-slasher conflict.
This is one of the few Reynolds stories that feature any form of faster than light travel, but he situates it firmly in Clarke’s Third Law, an alien technology that no one really understands. Whoever the aliens are, they appear to have control not only of time and space, but also matter down to the quantum level.
So, a lot going on in this novel. I enjoyed it a great deal and recommend it if hard(ish) science fiction is your thing.