the Little Red Reviewer

Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

Posted on: July 7, 2019

Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

published in March 2019

where I got it: purchased new






Time travel is quickly becoming my favorite science fiction subgenre.  I blame Doctor Who, who made it look fun, safe, and something that can be resolved in an hour.  I blame my love for the phrase “what could possibly go wrong?”. So yeah, time travel is the best!  Novellas? Also my new fave, and the best.


If you enjoy time travel stories, if you want a novella that’s excellently paced and grabs you on page one, a story that’s packed full of smart information but never info dumps, a story will great characters and a compelling story line, Permafrost is for you.


50 years from now,   we’ve just about killed the Earth, our crops are dying, our soil can’t grow anything, seed banks that we thought would sustain us have either failed or the seeds won’t grow in our dead soil.  The last generation of humans has already been born. It’s looking pretty grim.  Remember the opening of the movie Interstellar? It’s a little like that, except we don’t have space travel, we don’t have a black hole, and we don’t have any other planets we can maybe colonize.  We don’t have any of those things, but what we do have is math and a fledgling time travel project. The goal is to go back in time, get viable seeds, and bring them to the future.


Except you can’t send people or objects back and forth through time.  But you can send pairs of particles. The goal of Dr. Cho’s Permafrost project is to send messages back in time so that seeds can be placed somewhere, so that in the future his project can find them.  Cho recruits the elderly school teacher Valentina to his cause, her connection to his work is even more vital than the fact that her mother invented the mathematical equations that time travel hinges on.


Ok, so what really happens if you do successfully change the past? No one ever put a cache of seeds somewhere,  but then time travelers go back in time do exactly that. Once upon a time, did that event never occur?  On a smaller scale, if the time travel math shows that in five minutes you will drop your pen, and then the moment comes and your purposely drop two pens, what happens?

What happens is that the record changes to show that you always were planning to drop two pens. The math changes to show that the person always put that cache of seeds in that exact location.  And your memory changes along with it. You, and your memory, and your brain, accept this new reality as fact. Even if it wasn’t always. As the lab technicians explain to Valentina “Even time travel becomes normal when it’s your day job.”   (by the way, the word permafrost literally means something that is permanently frozen. Is the past permanently frozen? )


Dr. Cho’s rudimentary lab can’t send people or objects through time.  With special implants in your head, your consciousness can go through time, and you basically take over someone else’s body, “piloting” this other person, and hopefully able to force them to do whatever you need them to do.


Hopefully the person you land in is in the right location for you to get them to do what you need to do.


Hopefully they are ok with a foreign intelligence literally taking over their body.


Hopefully they aren’t institutionalized for suddenly becoming schizophrenic.


Valentina successfully goes back in time in this manner. Her friends aren’t so lucky.  Dr. Cho pushes his lab and his technology further than it was ever meant to go. He has limited resources, and with the future of humanity at stake, is any risk too high?  Cho’s methods, simply put, are not safe. His machinery is cobbled together, the project experiences deadly failures, and yet pilots still line up for the job.


Permafrost is compelling, terrifying, beautiful written, excellently paced.  I especially loved the discussions about paradoxes, what happens when particles go through time, how the record and our memories will correct themselves. For those you who prefer to have your questions answered, YES, there is an explanation at the end about why the book opens with Valentina killing her co-worker and the specifics of the machinery used for time travel.


If you’ve not yet fallen for novellas (you skipped Murderbot? really?), this is the book that will convert you.   I often complain that I wish novellas were longer – with Permafrost, I can’t make that complaint. Reynolds told exactly the story he wanted to tell, it was a perfect story, and that story happened to be novella length.  I loved everything about this book!


I love that Reynolds didn’t tell this story in chronological order. And don’t let the non-chronological order scare you away!  At less than 200 pages, this is an easy book to read twice, and I highly recommend reading it twice, as that killer opening scene is even more heartbreaking the 2nd time around, and going into the story knowing all of Cho’s secrets gives you a completely different view on why characters act certain ways. It makes the story even more tragic, actually.


If the past is successfully changed, then what? Will you know that something changed? Does it matter? Our brains will tell us that whatever changed had always been like that.   If you save the world by changing the past, will anyone know you did it?


If all of this sounds interesting, but you’d prefer a lighter, less heart breaky, less tragic and end-of-the-world story about if the past can be changed and how to know if you’ve succeeded, I recommend Last Night at the  Blue Alice, by Mehitobel Wilson.


Hhmm….  I should do a post that’s just a list of my fave Time Travel stories.


5 Responses to "Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds"

Well this sounds awesome! And it’s already on my tbr, so I really should just pull my finger out! 😀
And I’d love to read a post of your favourite time-travel stories – count my vote! 😀


I wrote the time travel book recs post! It’s going up later this week. 😀

Liked by 1 person

Ah, awesome! I’m looking forward to it! 😀


Please do post your list. Time Travel stories are my all-time favorite. I tried to read all of them. I would like to see your list and compare it against mine!


It should be going up later this week. It’s mostly Time Travel books I like, but i had to put some TV shows on the list too!


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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