Review of Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds
by Alastair Reynolds
Every single review panning this story for not making sense is entirely deserved. Time travel stories are difficult to write and, even when written well, difficult to parse and read. If it’s not your thing, that’s fine.
But Permafrost is so very much my thing.
In structure, it reminds me of Palimpsest, by Charles Stross. Both are novellas with a single protagonist recently initiated in time travel. Both are fairly convoluted in terms of how the author implements the logical principles of time travel, particularly when it comes to causality. Palimpsest remains my fave, I think, although I should re-read it again. But I love me more time travel stories.
In other ways I’m reminded of Travelers, a TV show I got into during its final season (boo) on Netflix and which had a great use of time travel. Both stories involve last-ditch attempts to save the human species through time travel, with coordination by AIs and the displacement of people’s consciousnesses in the past rather than physical time travel. And, of course, in both cases, things go horribly awry!
As usual, Alastair Reynolds’ ideas are big but he manages to apply them satisfactorily to a smaller scale when it comes to the individual characters. Valentina and her vehicle, Tatiana, have an interesting rapport that drives the climax of the novella. This is a story about accomplishing a desperate objective despite the tremendous personal cost, not necessarily out of any sense of self-sacrifice or heroism but perhaps only because … what else is one to do?
I understand why some people don’t like the constant jumping back and forth between past and present, or how the novella opens with events that we don't return to until much later in the story. At first it threw me off—but of course, that’s the point. Time travel is confusing by its very nature, and there is no way to tell it in a straightforward, linear way, because once you introduce causality violations, your plot by its nature is no longer a straight line of cause and effect. The jarring transitions from past to present mirror Valentina’s own transitions and how it must affect her perceptions.
If this were a full novel, I might be less charitable in my praise of such a structure, but novellas are a sweet spot. Longer than short stories, they provide a freedom in terms of page length to develop characters and ideas. Yet shorter than novels, they don’t have the same burden of sustaining a plot for as long. I don’t read a lot of novellas, but I’m starting to think they’re a great length for more experimental time travel fiction like this.