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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Terminal World" by Alastair Reynolds (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Alastair Reynolds Website
Order "Terminal World" HERE
Read FBC Review of "House of Suns" HERE

INTRODUCTION: As my number one sf writer of the 00's, any novel or story by Alastair Reynolds is both an asap and a must and based on the exciting blurb below, "Terminal World" had been one of my top 5 anticipated novels of 2010 and the one I would have given the best odds to be my top sf of the year.

"Spearpoint, the last human city, is an atmosphere-piercing spire of vast size. Clinging to its skin are the zones, a series of semi-autonomous city-states, each of which enjoys a different - and rigidly enforced - level of technology. Horsetown is pre-industrial; in Neon Heights they have television and electric trains . . . Following an infiltration mission that went tragically wrong, Quillon has been living incognito, working as a pathologist in the district morgue. But when a near-dead angel drops onto his dissecting table, Quillon's world is wrenched apart one more time, for the angel is a winged posthuman from Spearpoint's Celestial Levels - and with the dying body comes bad news. If Quillon is to save his life, he must leave his home and journey into the cold and hostile lands beyond Spearpoint's base, starting an exile that will take him further than he could ever imagine. But there is far more at stake than just Quillon's own survival, for the limiting technologies of the zones are determined not by governments or police, but by the very nature of reality - and reality itself is showing worrying signs of instability . . ."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Terminal World" stands at almost 500 pages and is divided into three parts and thirty chapters. The main character and POV of the novel, (literally) "fallen angel" and current pathologist in the moderately advanced technologically Spearpoint zone of Neon Heights, Dr. Quillon, will take an unplanned tour of the whole world, going way beyond Spearpoint as fate has it.

"Terminal World" mixes steampunk adventure - a sort of hard sf-version with airships instead of sailing ships of China Mieville's The Scar - with the sense of wonder, essential-sf idea of "zones" with different physical laws. The short classification would be "new weird hard sf" if this makes sense.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "Terminal World" has been a frustrating read for me for several reasons. I will try to be as spoiler free as possible, but be warned that there are some spoilers ahead.

The main conceit of the novel is that some 5000+ years ago, the world of the novel passed through a cataclysmic event that gave birth to "zones" - areas in which physical law is different and that range from places where no complex biochemical activity is possible, hence no life, like The Bane, to places where you can have a pseudo-feudal culture, then simpler steam based engines and then increased complexity up to sophisticated blood based nano-machines at the "celestial levels" where the meddling angels who are not really liked by anyone else live.

The zones seem to "emanate" from the equatorial spire-like city of Spearpoint where the action of the novel starts and ends. For a thousand years if not more, Spearpoint is described as relatively stable, divided into various zones which we visit following our main character Quillon. But now a big "zonal storm" seems to be brewing in the air.

There are anti-zonal medicines that help with zone transitions at a cost, but the implications of this zone division at a fundamental subatomic level, so at cellular level including in formation of nervous tissue and whatever else defines a "human", are quite deep and disturbing and as with the rest of the novel Mr. Reynolds alternates between talking about them and glossing over them.

The ambivalence - "see what a weird world is here" and some of the implications of that, contrasted with, "well things have been like this for a long time and we take them as they are"- which extends to everything from characters, cultures and actions struck me as very implausible. Leaving on the edge of reality- and that is "real reality" as in hard physics not as in metaphor - just does not fit with the sort of normal, business as usual societies described in the novel, and Quillon reflects that too with attitudes that alternate between common sense and ridiculous.

The way "Terminal World" read for me was like Mr. Reynolds failed to truly consider the implications of the "zones" idea and just wrote a good hard-sf adventure with steampunk overtones that would have been superb with a stronger lead character, but from time to time he decided to explore the world he built in detail and the two modes of the novel conflict, even quite badly here and there, rather than mesh in a balanced whole.

So ultimately I think that is the main flaw of the novel - the balancing act between a sense of wonder exploration of a brilliant conceit like the zones and a steampunk adventure, chase and shoot them up novel - is not achieved and the novel bounces between this two modes more or less randomly. I also think that from here it follows why the execution of the novel seems so slapdash with scenes that just feel contrived at best, not to say silly like when the heroes discuss/declaim before shooting the villains in what's supposed to be a surprise attack so Terminal World reads like a draft that needs a lot of editing and tightening.

Another problem with the book is the main hero Quillon who just does not have the weight to carry the ultra-ambitious Terminal World as an adventure, while he is not really given the chance to carry it as a sense of wonder/idea sf - the author tried to compensate with stronger characters like Fray, Meroka, Curtana and even Ricasso, but they are all supporting characters that seem to come and go as the script requires rather than in a natural way. If Terminal World would have gone all steampunk adventure with the various conflicts between The Swarm, the factions of Spearpoint, the Skullboys and whomever else, a lead character like Curtana would have made it excellent but Quillon is just not suited for the role.

There are lots of moments of brilliance which show how awesome the novel could have been and the exploration of The Bane and what is found there, or the Spearpoint tunnels and what lurks inside are memorable, but for me all that added to the "how brilliant and awesome this novel could have been" feeling. For once the ending is excellent but I would have loved the novel to start there so to speak and skip most of the rest or just be "most of the rest" and forget about the "zone" details...

An A- and a moderate disappointment
but a novel that should be read even only for the glimpses of awesomeness that are scattered everywhere.


NoV'al Publishing said...

You're right... it does so crazy confusing. I think that when writers create novels such as these, they have to consider the learning mindframe of the reader.

Anonymous said...

The most recent full books from Reynolds have been of clumsy dialogue. This also felt like another attempt have a hollowood movie made of his book. And the ending was total anticlimax (well, if what that movie made, leave it open)

Liviu said...

Reynolds has not been the greatest stylist ever and his first books are full of narrative walls, but still they were awesome for their many goodies; the problem is that this one brings lots of goodies (the zones, the angels, the geomancers) and instead of exploring them, it goes "hey-ho let's have an airship adventure with pirates" - which would have been fine on its own also since i would not mind a "hey ho" adventure form the author.

But together they just do not fit, though again the book has so many great tidbits that it is still superior to most recent sf

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