Century Rain

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.

15 thoughts on “Century Rain

  1. Like so many other books, I clicked on the link to consider buying a copy only to find that I bought the book last July. The problem with eBooks is that they don’t stay at the top of the list for long (I am always reading other books when I buy new ones) and after they get 2-3 pages down they become almost invisible. (The Kindle app used to have something called the carousel, which I wish they would bring back. You could remove things from it after you had read them, and the other books would ratchet up the grid.

    I have enjoyed reading most of Reynold’s books, so I assume I will enjoy this one, although I have lost my taste for dystopian fiction. In Reynold’s case it is always a mix, there are always at least two segments to societies: those moving on and those moving back, so they are not entirely dystopian.

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    1. I have the same problem with my Kindle library. I wish they gave us some tools to organize books, such as putting them into folders. Or at least sorting them by their read / unread status. It wouldn’t guarantee that books didn’t slip through the cracks like that, but it would help. As it turns out, the other Reynolds book I haven’t read has been in my Kindle library for several years, and I rediscover that every time I go to buy it again.

      Reynolds definitely likes his dystopian settings. Although like you said, he generally doesn’t make the entire universe dystopian, just pockets of it, or periods of its history. A lot of this book does have a neo-noir feel to it, but I’m the same way with not liking pure dystopias, and I didn’t feel put off by the level in this book. Of course, tastes will always vary on things like this.

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  2. This might be interesting even though I don’t read much fiction.

    An interesting question is whether humans should attempt engineering to fix our current ecological problems. For a long time, I thought no but lately I’ve been thinking we should do it. I think whatever technology is chosen, however, needs to have an ironclad back out and mitigation procedure in case it doesn’t work exactly as expected. Nanobots would be a red flag since they would not likely be easily controlled. On the other hand, giant factories that consume and store CO2 could easily be shut down (and perhaps even the CO2 released if necessary). We are already altering the environment in well-understood ways with little or no regard for the consequences, so can it be any worse if we try to do it with regard for the consequences?

    At any rate, if our eventual future is no CO2, no O, and no plant life, we’re going to need to do something at some point if we want to remain on earth.

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    1. It’s a fun read, but I should warn you that the ecological issues are really only background material. The main story takes place on E2 and in space.

      I agree on engineering the ecological problems. It probably would have been better if we could have avoided those problems to begin with, but we don’t seem to have the will to do that, so fixing it will likely be our only recourse. Any solution is likely to take time, so it would (hopefully) give us ample time to react if the environment doesn’t react the way we expect it to.

      It seems inevitable that we’re eventually going to have to deal with nanobots. We can only hope there isn’t such an asymmetry in their development that we end up releasing them without defenses against them if they go rogue. Reynolds pictures a situation where the nanobots have basically evolved their own machine ecology. So defending against them might eventually be very similar to the way we defend against viruses.

      On the plus side, nanobots would probably give us much more potent weapons against natural viruses, and similar to the slasher society described in the book, might well banish death, barring accidents, disasters, or wars.

      Definitely we either need to be off the Earth in a few hundred million years, or be able to control its orbit so we can pull it back from the sun, or alter any other factors that might threaten our habitat. Or be able to modify ourselves so it doesn’t matter.

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    2. FWIW, I recently finished Termination Shock, Neal Stephenson (2021), in which a Texas billionaire concerned about global warming begins shooting small rockets into the stratosphere where they burn sulfur to create a sulfur dioxide sunshade. It’s fiction, of course, but just barely science fiction in that most of the tech is available now.

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      1. The problem with that is that once the SO2 is in the atmosphere we no longer have control over it. So if overdo it, we can’t back it out easily. We could miscalculate especially if we put a lot into the air then by chance a bunch of volcanoes decide to erupt. I like the idea of removing the CO2 but putting it into a form that could be easily released if it needed to be. We might be able to tune the amount to the exact level we need to stay out of a glacial period but not overheat.

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        1. Well, obviously, we don’t overdo it! 😀 😉

          Stephenson’s book, IIRC, touches briefly on CO2 removal. The problem there is volume. Per Wikipedia, “Global annual mean CO2 concentration has increased by 50% since the start of the Industrial Revolution, from 280 ppm during the 10,000 years up to the mid-18th century to 420 ppm as of April 2021.” A bit later is says, “Each part per million by volume of CO2 in the atmosphere represents approximately 2.13 gigatonnes of carbon, or 7.82 gigatonnes of CO2.” The difference in ppm is 420-280=140 ppm, which amounts 298.2 gigatonnes of carbon (or 1094.8 gigatonnes of CO2). For comparison, the Empire State Building is a mere 0.000365 gigatonnes. (Another comparison: In 1997, the total supply of petroleum for the USA was 1 gigatonne.) So the question is: Where are you going to put it? Also: How long will it take to extract a significant amount? It took us 250 years to put that much in.

          It’s a complicated topic where all solutions have their own problems. The conflict (which leads to an actual act of war) in the book comes from that even moderate cooling to save unlivably hot areas and stop sea level rising has negative consequences for some nations.

          I like the idea of solar sails shading the Earth. Those can be adjusted as needed, but (as the book points out) even a perfect solution will have negative consequences for some.

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  3. If it turns out we’re living on E2, the Flat-Earther/Hollow-Earther/whatever-else-Earther conspiracy theory people will be totally insufferable once the whole simulated sun, planets, and cosmos thing is revealed. More insufferable than they already are, I mean.

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    1. Haha! Well, we’d still be on a sphere, just one located inside a much larger sphere. But I guess those people could say, “Aha, I told you guys the world wasn’t the way all them uppity scientists said it was.” And they’d have a point. Of course, we could always point out they were just as wrong as everyone else. But I’m sure that point would be completely ignored.

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  4. Sounds interesting. Thanks for the review, Mike. It’s on the list!

    The topic of where and how to intervene on global warming is a tricky one. I’ve got little faith that we’re presently capable of deploying solutions that don’t produce other perhaps equally intractable problems. But on the other hand we seem to be backing ourselves into a corner where not trying an engineered solution at some point may be worse than staying on the track we’re on.

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    1. Thanks Michael.

      I agree with everything you say on environmental interventions. It would definitely be better not to put ourselves in that position. About the only silver lining I can see with it is it will force us to develop technologies we might not otherwise get around to for a long time. But it’s a dangerous path, because if those technologies turn out to be infeasible, humanity might have some very hard centuries ahead.

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