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Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

Permafrost (edition 2019)

by Alastair Reynolds (Author)

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"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?"--… (more)
Authors:Alastair Reynolds (Author)
Info:Tor.com (2019), 176 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

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Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

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“‘My mother worked on quantum models for single-particle time travel. She showed how an electron -- or anything else, really, provided you could manipulate it, and measure its quantum state -- an electron could be sent back in time, looped back into the past to become a twin of itself in the future, one half of a Luba Pair. if you manipulated either element of the Luba Pair, the other one responded. You could send signals up and down time. But that was all. You couldn't send back anything much larger than an electron -- maybe an atom, a molecule, at the extreme limit, before macroscopic effects collapsed the Luba Pairing. And just as critically, you couldn't observe that time travel had happened. It was like a conjuring trick done in the dark. The moment you tried to observe a Luba Pair in their time-separated state, you got washed out by noise effect.’

‘Paradox", Margaret said. "Black and white. Either present or absent. If you don't observe, paradox hides its claws. If you attempt to observe, it kills you -- metaphorically, mostly.’

I nodded. ‘That's correct.’

‘But your mother went beyond binary paradox," Cho said. "She developed a whole class of models in which paradox is a noise effect, a parameter with grey values rather than just black and white.’

‘She spoke about it less as she got older," I replied. "They hammered her, the whole establishment. Treated her like an idiot. Why the hell should she indulge them anymore?’

‘Your mother was correct," Cho said placidly. "This we know. Paradox is inherent in any time-traveling system. But it is containable...treatable. We have learned that there are classes of paradox, layers of paradox.’

Margaret made an encouraging gesture in the direction of Director Cho. ‘Say it. You know you want to.’

Cho reached for his beer, smiling at the invitation. "Paradox itself is...not entirely paradoxical.’”

In “Permafrost” by Alastair Reynolds

Sorry, gotta go back to work now so that I can finish up reading “Permafrost” during my lunch break.
2080. A collapse of the ecosystem (which started with pollinating insects - a theme treated in a surprising number of early or late apocalyptic SF novels). Under the aegis of World Health, the last existing authority, the ultimate generation of humanity (this expression will be explained in the novel), which survives only through military rations, develops an ambitious plan: to go into the past, through a technology of time travel, search for genetically modified seeds that can change everything. The peculiarity of this technology is that one does not travel physically to the past: thanks to what one could call a “transtemporal quantum entanglement”, one can transfer the tiny self-replicating base of a medical nanotechnology, which is fixed in the brain of a subject and builds a way to divert its neurological functions, including speech, motor skills, sensory input, etc. In 2080, a "pilot" with the same kind of nanotech implant can then take control of the host's body in the past, the consciousness of which remains intact but is reduced to a role of spectator. In short, it is temporal telepresence, or piloting drone / host body through time. As is customary in this kind of temporal SF, the narration will be broken up into different intertwining threads: one takes place in the "present" (from the point of view of the protagonists), namely in 2080; another takes place in 2028, so in the "past"; but we are also entitled to scenes showing how Valentina, the "pilot" we follow, was involved in the Permafrost project.

Of course, it's déjà vu. Okay, do not expect surprises, and hijacking of tropes. But we could still have hoped for something very well done. Well not really, actually. Admittedly, the narrative lines at different times are rather well intertwined by Reynolds, certainly, the characters are OK; the rhythm, whether overall or revelation, is good, and yes, it's relatively well written and not bad to read. But in any case, you never touch the stroke of genius, the unforgettable book. We have the feeling that Reynolds makes (and especially for an author of this caliber and reputation) the union minimum, but I never found the deep admiration (or immersion) felt for a book like Mike McQuay's “Memories”.

One of the main problems of “Permafrost” is its excessive resemblance to other famous works devoted to time travel: thus, the fact that one does not travel "physically" in the past but that only the consciousness makes it, evoking the Mike McQuay's “Memories or Michel Jeury's “Le temps incertain”. The big difference being that Reynolds, in the field of Hard SF, lays an explanation much more detailed, scientific and solid than these two. Although personally, I remained a bit dubious about the exploitation of the almost classic, now quantum entanglement by a writer of the caliber of Alastair Reynolds. No doubt a Greg Egan would have laid something for us at once less stereotyped and more exotic at the same time.

Still in the chapter similarities, one will find highly suspicious convergences, in my opinion, with “Timescape” by Gregory Benford: consider that in this novel, a scientist of 1962 receives tachyonic messages from 1998, where an ecological collapse took place; as in “Permafrost”, temporal paradoxes have a major role to play in the plot, especially that of the grandfather. And then of course, we will think about the enormous mass of SF, written or cinematographic / television, where in a futuristic post-apocalyptic world, someone goes back in time to correct the situation and avoid the cataclysm. What is important, however, is not so much the similarities with any particular work, but rather the strong feeling that in the hyper-repetitive theme of time travel, Reynolds brings nothing new (apart from his Hard SF explanation of the quantum and nanotechnological mechanisms involved, as well as his model of time as a crystal -which did not convince me at all). Certainly, to make something original in terms of Space Opera becomes increasingly difficult given the plethora of novels (or movies, series, etc.) that exist, but it does not prevent trying to at least introduce a small twist in the narrative. Everything is déjà-vu, the revelations or twists are predictable (except the ridiculous blow up of the dog), and the end is not surprising. In short, unless you are a complete beginner in terms of Space Opera, it’s hard to cry “genius” let alone originality by reading “Permafrost”.

In short, “Permafrost” is not a bad novel (short), it's worse than that: it is unattractive, offering nothing better and especially nothing more than mimicking a plethora of other works published before it, and in Reynolds’ bibliography, it is one of his most dispensable works.

The good thing about this novel thing about it and going off on a tangent…

First, we don't know what time "is". We give it the symbol "t", and then devise mathematical relationships which involve "t" that replicate what we observe. We measure "t" by using something else that measures a unit of "t" (consistently, we hope), but that just tells us whether the "t" which separates two observable events is twice our basic measure or three times that measure. It doesn't tell us what "t" is. And that allows us to co-ordinate "events" - to put them in order of ascending or descending order of our basic measure. The "t" as in "now" is just that event which falls between events observed in the past and events which fall in the future. It has no special place. And what is past and future is predicated by your choice of whether A causes B or B causes A. (I'm exaggerating. What occurs "here and now" is actually quite important since what doesn't occur "here and now" requires an additional inference of how distant relationships can be observed, which is really what relativity is all about. Relativity assumes that "here and now" can be observed with no adjustment.)
The trouble with entropy as an indication of the direction of time is that it only deals in probabilities, not in certitude. The direction of time is a far more complex problem.

Consider the following:

The molecules of an isolated body of a gas, in equilibrium, will most often be observed as being evenly distributed throughout the volume in which they are confined. That is maximal entropy. It's also (from statistical mechanics) the most probable distribution.

But statistical mechanics itself is based upon that assumption that the most entropic state is the most probable state, so when it comes to this conclusion that it is less revelatory than it first appears. It's logical, it's consistent, but it's not independent.

And nothing says that the gas could not now evolve into a state where all the molecules were located at one end of the volume. Which would represent a reduction of entropy. It's simply that this lower entropy configuration will be observed on fewer occasions.

In short, the entropy of such a system does not always increase with time. It oscillates, and statistical mechanics leads us to believe that it will spend more time in the higher entropic states than the lower ones.

The direction of time is really, really weird. Arguable it doesn't really matter. If time goes in the reverse direction, you just have to invent a new physics which reverses "cause" and "affect".
Is the direction really a fundamental, can it ever be "knowable"?

Or is it just choice of convention which then dictates how we write the physical laws so that they accord with our observations? Maybe that makes it better to define the arrow in terms of entanglement, of actual interaction, rather than probability of state. Seems like a time direction is necessary for knowledge to exist. But maybe there is only forward. Any pasts we could travel to, are actually in the future. All possible pasts are in the future too (including a duplicate of our past). That would mean that entropy could continue to increase and conveniently eliminate the concept of the paradox and our ability to manipulate the present by operating in the past.

Possibly, but then you are stuck.

If you define the direction of time in terms of the reduced uncertainty of how a wave function will be resolved (given that some resolutions of the function have been eliminated with the progress of time), that is a choice of convention. You are simply imposing a definition of time.

Reduced uncertainty is the direction of time. Why, fundamentally, should that be the case? That's simply the convention that we have chosen. Absent some other dramatic breakthrough, I don't believe in an "absolute" direction of time. And I don't think that it matters. Time is just an ordering of data. More than, less than, put it in order of occurrence. Now figure out some predictive rules. Take temperature. If we set absolute zero at 1,000 degrees and the melting point of water at 0 degrees, would it change a thing? It would change a few equations, but would it affect how we understood how ice forms? How does consciousness work if environmental connections consistently are severed rather than created? If time's running in the "opposite" direction, you know less as it passes. If you follow the straight relativistic block-time idea, you can run backwards or forwards equivalently as you wish, but from the inside it's the direction of increasing entropy that seems to make sense to a living consciousness that's evolved to accomplish various goals.

Cause and effect. Reverse them, reverse the direction of time, and you would perceive no difference.
The direction of time, and the categorisation of "cause and affect" are both arbitrary (so far as we know at the moment). As a result, there is no absolute direction of time, but rather a choice of how we choose to describe the world. The entropic argument (as generally presented) doesn't work. Isolated systems in equilibrium are perfectly able to be found in an entropic state less than an earlier state. Their entropic values oscillates. Do you want time to run back and forward according to each isolated system you can create? In which case, which system directs your time arrow?

Entropy isn't the answer. It is far, far more complicated. The universe according to: general relativity = continuous, quantum theory = discrete, loop theory = granular. It's easy to see where this is going: time will turn out not to be continuous but discrete. This will become the basis of the first unified theory of life, the universe and, most of all, everything. The Zen folk always go on about the importance of the present moment, and there being nothing else. Anyone who has done some meditation knows that time seems to slow down and even stand still. So consciousness emerges from granular time. There, another big one solved! ( )
  antao | Dec 6, 2019 |
Great time travel book. I liked the way it jumped back and forth in time as the story was told. Quite a conundrum. Very much the page turner! A very quick read. The cover said it all, "Fix the past, save the present, stop the future". Can it be done? ( )
  njcur | Sep 16, 2019 |
An intriguing view of time travel and paradoxes.
( )
  PhilOnTheHill | Sep 8, 2019 |
This is a relatively short novella, whose subject is time travel. Around the year 2050, the Earth suffers an extinction level event that results in a “final generation” living in the year 2080. In order to save humanity, a handful of “pilots” must travel back to the present to undertake a mission with the potential goal of altering history in such a way that extinction is averted, without major disruption.

Time travel has any number of facets that, if treated well, can lead to very challenging theory and thought provoking conundrum. As in this case, if you send people back in time to accomplish an important task, and they “change history”, they may never be born in the future in order to carry out the task.

The method of time travel crafted by the author in this case is brilliant. He walks a thin line between entertaining the reader and hopelessly confusing him with time travel paradox. Admittedly, at times he lost me.

Good, challenging science fiction, but very short and overpriced for the content. Can be read in 3-4 hours. ( )
  santhony | Aug 29, 2019 |
I picked up a copy of this at the SF-Bokhandeln in Stockholm while meeting up with family over on a visit to Sweden. It’s not Reynold’s usual fare, but a near-future time travel story. The human race is pretty much over, killed off by its appalling lack of husbandry of its environment (that’s pollution, Global Warming, germ warfare, hunting to extinction, etc, etc), but a group in Russia have perfected time travel and send someone back into the past to make enough of a change to allow humanity a small chance at survival. It’s not actual physical time travel – which means it’s at least free of the risible technobollocks in Avengers: Endgame – but the consciousness of the tempunaut is sent back to occupy the mind of a person of the target period. (A similar conceit, I believe to Michael Bishop’s No Enemy But Time.) Of course, as is ever the way, nothing goes as planned, and protagonist Valentina must race across Russia to deliver the maguffin, only to learn how the future has changed when she returns to it. I thought Permafrost pretty good, but I wasn’t entirely sure why it was set in Russia, or what the setting brought to the story, other than, well, the title. Reynolds has never had much luck with the Hugos, but given that Permafrost was published by Hugo darlings Tor.com then perhaps he stands a chance next year. ( )
  iansales | Aug 24, 2019 |
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