WOW! What a cracking - but crazy - read. I'm still reeling from it. It doesn't get muddled or daft and yet it has everything... really... everything
: time travel, spies, archaeology, cyborgs, a love triangle, wars, wormholes, virtual reality, a quest, death and sacrifice, murder mystery (with all the usual clichés lovingly included), nanotech, code-breaking, genocide, bodysnatching/ swapping, bootleg music, ecological disaster, white-knuckle chases, wraith-like horror characters, alternative history, secret passages, ethics of immortality, terraforming, some steampunk, a nod to Casablanca and an even bigger nod to The Truman Show, and the weirdest biological weapon I've ever heard of! It even has some strong and significant female characters, which is not exactly the norm in sci-fi.
SETTING & PLOT
It is primarily a detective drama in a noirish sci-fi setting. Whereas all the other Reynolds' I've read have three threads of story, this has only two: Paris in 1959 and Paris in 2266. The difference between the two versions of the city were enhanced because I read this before and after Mieville's "The City & The City" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/396185571), which is also a noirish detective thriller, featuring archaeologists and set in two versions of a city, albeit a very different sort of separation.
Floyd is an impoverished private eye in 1959, whose excitement at the prospect of a case echoes my own feelings about the book: he "felt a weird sense of vertigo: a combination of fear and thrill that he knew he would not be able to resist. It would pull him deeper and it would do what it would with him." Similarly, there's a character who doesn't want to be a detective, but gets sucked in - just like the reader.
One thread starts off as a slightly odd murder investigation; the other is a slightly odd quest to retrieve historical artifacts (though the most important artefacts turn out to be a rather bigger concept). As with any good thriller, what seem like trivial asides often turn out to be important later.
As usual, Reynolds' story is told in a very visual way: at times it is almost like watching a film: the chases, the wraiths, and especially a nail-biting scene where someone is looking for a vital bit of paper that is not quite hidden (will they find it or not?).
There are a couple of places where the exposition of backstory and science is explained in a slightly heavy-handed way (and a couple of the baddies are not much of a surprise), but those are trivial issues when there is so much good stuff crammed in barely 500 pages.
When you climb off the walls from the relentless excitement, this raises many profound issues:
* How do we know what is "real" and what is simulated - and does it matter? Who decides? Do simulants have the same rights and feelings as "real" people? How would you cope if you thought you yourself weren't real?
* If you could be immortal, or virtually so, would you want to be, and to what lengths would you go?
* If you could have the (appearance of) whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, would you tire of it? What if you could even conjure things we can't imagine: "colours were unfamiliar (and heart-wrenchingly beautiful) , but she could hear them, fell them, smell them"?
* Every archaeologist's dream must be to travel back in time to see and experience things first hand. But the risks - ethical, practical, psychological - are high. "As much as she longed for all the time in the world to explore it, she did not want to become its prisoner."
* What are the ethics and etiquette of taking over someone else's body?! Once there, would you evict a friendly usurper if it meant they would die? What if they wanted to do something altruistic, but which imperilled you body: "My body was mine to throw away... [but] you just don't do that with someone else's."
* If the Nazis had failed to invade France so that Enigma codes were not cracked, how much later would the computer revolution have happened, and with what consequences?
* What are the dangers of digital (over physical) storage? Or maybe the past has nothing to teach us, so we can we live in the present and not worry about the past?
* "New patterns would begin to emerge from the doughy grey of unstructured cloud... But right now the clouds were bickering. The patterns formed and decayed at an accelerated rate, with lightning of a kind of emphatic punctuation to the dialogue. The clouds fissioned and merged, as if negotiating age-old treaties and alliances."
* "Charm was what he excelled at. If anyone sensed his underlying shallowness, they usually mistook it for well-hidden great depth of character, like misinterpreting a radar bounce."
* On the dangers of studying maths too deeply (Reynolds was a physicist before turning to writing): "she had studied mathematics so furiously that after an evening manipulating complex bracketed equations, simplifying forms and extracting common terms, her brain had actually started to apply the same rules to spoken language, as if a sentence could be bracketed and simplified like some quadratic formula for radioisotope decay."
* "like an electric shock without the pain... a sharp inquisitional light... it lasted an eternity and an instant."
* "The trains waited with snorting impatience, pushing quills of white steam up towards the roof... Its red tail light spilled blood on to the polished surfaces of the rails."
No technology is omnipotent even if, to quote Arthur C Clarke, it is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic: "In the presence of a wizard, she wanted miracles, not excuses." With this book, I felt the story was being told by a wizard with words; no excuses were necessary. WOW!