Terminal World, Alastair Reynolds
Terminal World, Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 496pp, £18.99
There’s a pun in the title of million-Pound author Alastair Reynold’s latest novel. It’s not an especially good pun but, sadly, it’s somewhat characteristic of the book. Which is not say that Terminal World is a bad novel. If it disappoints, it does so in comparison to Reynold’s other novels. Whether this is because it’s not set in the universe of the Revelation Space books, or because it is not the New Space Opera for which he is best known for writing… Well, your mileage, as they say, may vary.
The world of the title is dominated by Spearpoint. This is a huge edifice, of no immediately discernible purpose, shaped something like a spike, and on the outer surface which are many zones. These zones are cities and exist at different technological levels. Quillon lives in Neon Heights, which has electricity and resembles in many respects the mid-twentieth century. It’s very noir. Below Neon Heights is Horsetown, which has only steam power. Above is Circuit City, which is highly technological. And above that are the Celestial Levels, where angels live. The zones are not enforced by law or custom, but by the laws of physics of the world, by the nature of reality. Electronics simply refuses to work in Neon Heights and below. Electricity has no power in Horsetown.
Quillon is an angel. Years before he was surgically altered in order to infiltrate Neon Heights. But the mission failed, Quillon turned renegade, and now he lives incognito and works as a pathologist. When a fallen angel is brought to his morgue, he knows that he has been found and must escape. With the help of Meroka, who regularly smuggles people from Neon Heights to lower levels, Quillon makes his way from Spearpoint into the surrounding wasteland. He’s not merely running from the angels – there’s a greater mystery here: whatever it is that governs reality, and causes the zones, is failing. Technology is beginning to break down, and some of the higher zones are so dependent on technology their inhabitants cannot survive without it.
It’s not that Quillon discovers this, nor even sets out to fix it. He observes it as he flees Spearpoint and, after numerous adventures in the wastelands, subsequently returns and helps prevents the world’s terminal decline. He’s not the agent of salvation, only an enabler. He is also the reader’s guide to the strange world of the novel and, it has to be said, some of his escapades are fun. Swarm, the giant fleet of airships, for example; or the carnivorgs. Perhaps here and there it seems a cinematic sf aesthetic dominates, with some of the visuals owing a little too much to films – the Skullboys could be straight from Mad Max 2 – but it all hangs together entertainingly. Reynolds even throws in a nod in the direction of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun in having Quillon find a diorama he cannot understand but which, from the description, is plainly of a landing module and astronauts.
It’s clear some hundred pages into Terminal World that it’s set on a terraformed Mars, but this is never explicitly stated. If there’s a reason for this lack, it’s not obvious from the story. But that failure is characteristic of the whole novel. Spearpoint is plainly intended to be taken as the remains of an orbital elevator. Yet when its true purpose is actually revealed, it doesn’t seem to make much sense – and in no way explains the zones. And it’s the zones which are the real puzzle at the heart of this book – it’s not why anyone should want Quillon dead, as perhaps the noir feel to the opening chapters might suggest. There’s no mystery to why Quillon has been targetted. The true mystery of Terminal World is why the world is as it is. What caused the zones? How can they exist? What is Spearpoint?
Terminal World is a science fiction novel and, like all such, at the end of the book the world has been saved. But there’s no real understanding of how or why. Around three-quarters of the way through, one character attempts an explanation for the zones but it never quite convinces. As a result, Terminal World feels like the first book in the series, but is meant to be a standalone. It’s a novel which seems to focus more on its visual scene-setting than it does its story. It’s as though Reynolds had an idea for a world – “a snarling, drooling, crazy-eyed mongrel of a book, equal parts steampunk, Western, planetary romance and far-future sf”, as the blurb puts it – but never quite figured out what led to such a mishmash of genres on a single world. Which is not say that Terminal World is short on exposition. It’s a science fiction novel; exposition comes with the territory. Especially in a world as counter-intuitive as that of Terminal World. But if there’s a rules-set which underlies the carefully-broken laws of physics, the differences between the novel’s world and ours – what we as readers are willing to accept, to suspend our disbelief for – then the book’s explanation of them never really gels. Perhaps that’s a failure on my part, perhaps there’s some cosmological theory upon which Reynolds has based Terminal World‘s central conceit. If so, then the novel fails to get it across it.
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