Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds, Narrated by Natasha Soudek

Most of my exposure to Alastair Reynolds has been in the form of grand, far-future space operas. Reynolds’s work appeals to me, in large part, because it’s typically heavy on the darker aspects of human nature–as well as the incomprehensible or frequently sinister nature of other intelligences humanity encounters amongst the stars. Of course, there’s also the necessary focus on the uncaring and hazardous nature of the universe itself.
While Permafrost takes place on Earth, in our not-too-distant future, it’s imbued with that theme of humanity struggling against forces of a universe that is indifferent to our survival. Only a couple of decades from where we find ourselves today, an unexpected global catastrophe begins. As insect, plant, and other animal life dies off, we find the remaining human population facing imminent starvation and dwindling numbers. The only solution is to find a way to make small changes in the past that will allow the humans of 2080 to implement their only chance of saving the human life that remains.
Unfortunately, we can’t send anything like a human being into the past. However, scientists have discovered a way to tether two consciousnesses separated by half a century or more via a neural interface grown from nanoscale machines transported back in time. By sending pilots–individuals who will assume control of an unwilling and presumably unwitting subject–downstream and into these hosts, the Permafrost project hopes to salvage the only thing that can save the future.
The unlikely protagonist of Valentina was a surprising choice, an elderly woman and mathematician, the daughter of a mathematician who specialized in paradox and the potential for time travel. Chosen as the first pilot sent back, Valentina soon discovers unanticipated consequences of assuming control of a host. More than that, Valentina learns the chilling truth that there might be forces further upstream, unexpected foes who might not want them to succeed in their mission.
The final scene of this novella is positively heartbreaking but totally in line with the sort of ending one might expect from Reynolds.
Natasha Soudek’s narration is perfect for both Valentina and Tatiana, capturing the differences between the two characters with effective nuance. She successfully managed to tackle the other characters no less effectively.

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