The novella “Permafrost” by Alastair Reynolds was published for the first time in 2019.
Valentina Lidova is 71 when she has the opportunity to participate in an experiment involving the application of a mathematical theory developed decades earlier by her mother. Her interest is not scientific because the purpose of the experiment is to send her consciousness from 2080 to 2028 inside another person’s body. If successful, she may attempt to alter the past to avoid the approaching extinction of humanity in her present but there are many unknowns.
Before becoming famous as a science fiction writer, Alastair Reynolds earned a Ph.d. in astrophysics and worked for ESA. His training and his experience led him to write stories in which the technological and scientific elements are important and well developed with fiction based on realistic foundations.
“Permafrost” is a novella based on time travel, a subject on which there are many hypotheses but no certainty. However, Alastair Reynolds uses a scientific approach to create a story that has at least some internal consistency in developing some hypotheses on the subject.
In the version of time travel told in “Permafrost”, only the traveler’s consciousness goes back and occupies a host body with possible unexpected side effects. Paradoxes are a potential problem and there are artificial intelligences that help manage them. This is an interesting element even if the limited length of this novella allows to fully develop only the point of view of Valentina Lidova, who tells her story in the first person. This also means that the unexpected events of the mission are only told in detail when they happen directly to the woman.
The events that led to that apocalyptic 2080 are also told by Valentina Lidova. The woman is a school teacher and therefore she knows history but she summarizes it as if it were a lesson. The reader understands the importance of the seeds sought by the protagonist in the past without an infodump but that may not be enough for readers who prefer to have details on the Scouring, the catastrophe whose consequences are bringing humanity to extinction.
Other parts of the story also remain in the background because Valentina Lidova doesn’t experience many events that are connected to her mission because she only becomes aware of them later. The role of the artificial intelligences and more would have required much more room but Alastair Reynolds’ choice was to focus on the protagonist’s story.
The author’s choice makes “Permafrost” an intense novella, with lots of action and twists. Alastair Reynolds uses a classic theme such as time travel to tell a post-apocalyptic story that follows an ecological collapse in which the characters have to make tough choices that are important to the future of humanity. I recommend it to anyone interested in these themes.