Sunday, September 14, 2014

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds. Not terminal at all.

Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz 2009

Reviewed by carol
4/5 stars

Terminal World is my first Alastair Reynolds, a science-fiction writer known for galaxy-spanning space operas, and has a plot and tone pretty much the opposite of space opera:

Meroka, meet Doctor Quillon,’ Fray said. ‘He is, as you correctly surmised, the new package. I’ve just been telling him you you’re going to do such an excellent job of getting him out of Spearpoint.’
‘Hope you told him it isn’t going to be no joyride… Looking at three hard days to get you out, if all goes to plan, which mostly it won’t. Three days of dirt and worry and less sleep than you’ve ever had in your life. Then we have to find the people Fray’s lined up to take you to Fortune’s Landing, and hope they haven’t changed their minds.’
‘You can throw in danger as well,’ Fray said. ‘Cutter’s ticked off some angels. They’ve got deep penetration agents in Neon Heights, and they’ll be aiming to stop him from leaving town.’” 

The story begins with a perspective bait and switch as we follow two employees of a morgue wagon waiting for their 9 to 5 to be over. En route home, they are diverted to pick up a body on a nearby ledge. Surprisingly, it is not just an ordinary body–it is the body of an angel, an advanced human from a more elevated and technologically superior zone. There’s a certain morgue coroner who pays a little extra for unusual specimens, so the two attendants deliver the body to Dr. Quillon. It turns out the angel is just barely alive, having made the one-way journey to warn Quillon the angels are coming for him. Quillon heads to his friend and underworld contact, Fray, a former policeman. Fray’s been expecting trouble ever since Quillon revealed who he is and strongly encourages Quillon to leave the city quickly.  Fray provides an escort, Meroka, to lead Quillon out of Spearpoint. She’s a fierce fighter with a tendency to shoot second, cuss first, and has a chip on her shoulder when it comes to anything angelic. The two leap from frying pan to fire as they try to escape Spearpoint. The only possible refuge is the Swarm, the only other large colony of people on the planet. Before they reach Swarm, they’ll have to cross a wasteland, avoiding roving bands of Skullboys and the carnivorous cyborgs, the Vorg. And from there, it gets stranger.

The setting for Terminal World is a fascinating concept. It takes the idea of microecosystems as applied to mountains and does something quite similar with technology. In ecosystems, a different biome corresponds with shifts in elevation, small ecosystems adapted to changes in atmosphere and precipitation. Lower levels in the Sierra Nevadas, you might see mixed grasslands and woodlands, mid-levels are varieties of pine forests, and at the highest alpine elevations, there will be no trees at all.  

So it is with Spearpoint, a needle-like tower extending into the upper atmosphere of the planet–only instead of environmental zones, there are technological zones.  The highest up, the closer you are to ‘angels,’ flight, and nanotechnology. Next level down, electricity and computers. Further down, the industrial age. Go further, and you descend into Horsetown, where mechanical items barely function. To complicate travel, as life crosses ‘zones,’ it is subject to ‘zone sickness’ (the world’s version of altitude sickness), particularly if the shift from one zone to the next has a steep technology curve. I was impressed with the world-building and thought zones were an extremely creative idea. While they aren’t well explained at first, the journey and careful reading elaborates on many details–except how they originated. The ending has some explanation, but I rather thought there were more fantastical overtones than science ones.

Characterization was my sticking point, the reason I was able to set it down for a week or two and pursue shinier books. It was hard to find emotional resonance with any of the characters. Given the length of the book, I didn’t have the feeling that I knew very much about the major players, even by the end. Although the narrative is largely from Quillon’s head, I found him the least interesting. Inconsistent in ideals and action, he acted more as a mouthpiece for philosophical/moral issues than a person with his own drive. Although his concerns often served to move the plot forward, I did a flashback to the old days of literary fiction and sci-fi when the story was a treatise about human nature as much as plotting. I appreciated two of the female characters, and found they interested me more than Quillon. Meroka, Quillon’s guide out of Spearpoint, is the loner guide, cynical and practical. Curtana is an airship captain, almost loyal to a fault and devoted to her ship. I enjoyed their characters and their determination. I was less enamored of a mother-daughter duo who were essentially defined in terms of their relationship.

Plot is sweeping in scope. While it initially has a feel of detective noir, a dark and dangerous night, it quickly segues into a fugitive chase, ricocheting from hazard to hazard. When Quillon and Meroka meet the airship-borne Swarm city, the prior defenders of the Spearpoint, the story shifts again. It becomes more about city politics, ethics, exploration and a potential rescue mission. The result is an amazing variety of ideas and events crammed into one book; while I found each discrete segment told well, it doesn’t quite gestalt at the end.

The ending was the really most disappointing aspect of the story. Not because there was one (I really only have so much endurance for extreme length), but because it went into a slightly mystical scenario that turned out to have little resolution. 

Overall, there’s a little bit of kitchen sink to this story that makes it a bit indescribable. It has the length and detail of Way of Kings, the action of The Iron Jackal, but without the brisk dialogue and personal characterization to propel it into five-star territory. Certainly entertaining, but as always, your mileage may vary.

cross posted at my blog at:

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