Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds – Book Review

I delight in the way in which time travel paradox is rendered across the 173 pages of Alastair Reynolds’ Permafrost. This novella is the kind of read that engulfs you, covers you in a sheet of ice that won’t let go until you’re well and clear; but I assure you, even with its covers closed and the copy safely tucked away in the library, you’ll find yourself thinking about Permafrost for a long while.

Reynolds tells the story of a last-ditch attempt to save a humanity about to starve to death. Following a calamity that killed off both the plant and animal life, the very last food reserves are running out; the year is 2080, and societal collapse is forecasted in, oh, I dunno, nine months? Twelve, if we’re lucky? The last-ditch attempt I mentioned? You guessed it from the opening: time-travel to a point in the past well before the calamity.

The ending is wistful, and melancholy but hopeful, too. I admire that the Point-of-view character Reynolds chose is a seventy-two year-old woman whose voice comes through, weighed down by experience and a lifetime of depravity, much of it accompanied by the knowledge that she is among the very last human beings to ever walk the earth. A schoolteacher to the very last generation of children (humanity has sterilized itself), Valentina Lidova turns out to be uniquely suitable to interact with the past, becoming the first in the ‘Permafrost’ project to transport her mind within another body.

Things get considerably more complex when the consciousness whose body Valentina has taken for a spin talks back–and this is far from the last surprise the time-traveling teacher will come across as she attempts to change history and leave a way for her own world to continue on–despite the costs that must be paid.

The way time-travel is conceptualised, not as a branching out set of possibilities but as the cracks running throughout the full extent of some collosal iceberg, is one of the elements that makes Permafrost more memorable than some other time-travel stories I’ve come across. There’s further complexity, to boot–but I will let you discover it on your own. As far as my first ever title by Alastair Reynolds to pick up, this has been an absolute treat. I recommend it to everyone who enjoys time-travel shenanigans, especially if you’re looking for something you could easily read in one or two sittings.

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