Permafrost by Alistair Reynolds

Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Tor
Format: Paperback, 176 pages
Genre: Science Fiction


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 one 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 ageing schoolteacher whose late mother was the foremost expert on the mathematics of paradox.

2028: a young woman goes into surgery for routine brain surgery. 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?


This incredibly short novella by Alastair Reynolds—all 176 pages of it—offers so much promise but, for me at least, it failed to deliver. I think if the author had bothered to write a full-length novel and added better depth to both the story itself never mind the characters, it might have been an over-all better read.

As it is, there is a total lack of credibility to the time travel aspect and theory, which, while an intriguing idea, is not expounded upon at any length or depth. And just comes across as sloppy writing.

Which is a shame, because the author could have come at it from any number of angels and we could have still believed better than as it stands.

Had Permafrost been presented as such, we might be able to suspend our sense of disbelief better. But then again, only if the characters themselves had been in any way , shape, or form, believable.

As it was I felt the MC was there more as an after thought. Permafrost seems to be more about the concept of time travel than an actual story about people involved in trying to time travel, especially as we are supposed to believe they are out to save the world. Though what from, other than—apparently—their own hubris, I don’t know.

Nothing is fully explained—whether that’s motivation, plot, or characters—nor is the concept of Permafrost’s time travel given more than a cursory explanation via a flimsy backstory. Then there is the whole ending which, quite honestly, left me laughing, and not in a pleasant way. It was ludicrous.

The story hinges on a set of parameters set up by the author, himself, about how the characters would time travel, and about the paradoxes that would be created up and down the timeline and then, ignores his own rules right at the end, without consequence.

Let me explain. The story hinges on the fact a character, Antti, is supposed to go back, find what everyone is looking for, then fly it to an exact location to be found in the book’s present with our main protagonist, Valentina. But … the main character destroys the experiment after being warned by Antti that they are creating a desolate future beyond their own present. So in destroying the experiment in her now, she stops Antti ever going back to begin with (still with me here?) so how is it, all this is ignored without time “grandfathering” up and down the time stream? Which would, of course, result in them all forgetting, and the item never arriving in the present in order to save the world, which it does?

All in all, this is a rather dull, uninteresting look at the possibility of time travel, via characters who are never fully fleshed out or given any depth. With sloppy science, never mind a flawed rational that flopped badly at the end because the author forgot the plot.

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