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Terminal World
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 487 pages

Terminal World
Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds was born in 1966 in Barry, South Wales. He spent his early years in Cornwall, moved back to Wales and on to university in Newcastle, doing Physics and Astronomy. Then it was on to a PhD in St Andrews, Scotland. In 1991, he moved to Holland, where he met his partner Josette, and worked as ESA Research Fellow before his post-doctoral work at Utrecht University.

Alastair Reynolds Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Thousandth Night and Minla's Flowers
SF Site Review: Revelation Space
SF Site Review: House of Suns
SF Site Review: House of Suns
SF Site Review: Galactic North
SF Site Review: The Prefect
SF Site Review: Zima Blue and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Pushing Ice
SF Site Review: Pushing Ice
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Absolution Gap
SF Site Review: Turquoise Days
SF Site Review: Redemption Ark
SF Site Review: Revelation Space
SF Site Review: Chasm City
SF Site Review: Revelation Space

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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What Alastair Reynolds does really well is spectacle: the vastness of space, the speed of interstellar travel, the immensity of the alien objects with which his universe is scattered.

What Alastair Reynolds does in this new novel is the small scale, the slow, the low-key decay we've come to associate with steampunk. It is hardly playing to his strengths. So it is perhaps not too surprising that this is one of his less successful novels.

We start in what could be any western city anytime in the last half century or so, which is about as advanced as the technology gets anywhere in this novel. Except that this isn't some familiar here and now, it is a city perched part way up a massive spire known as Spearpoint. And at the very edge of the city an apparently dead angel is found. Angels come from higher up Spearpoint where a more advanced technology is possible, but every so often one ends up in the city and, when they do, they are taken to Quillon. Quillon is a pathologist who has been making a study of angels; but this one isn't quite dead, rather he has undertaken a suicide mission in order to get a message to Quillon. The message is: flee.

Quillon, we discover, is himself an angel who has been surgically retrofitted so he can survive in the lower technological levels of Spearpoint. Part of a secret mission that went wrong, it now seems he is privy to some vital knowledge that even he is unaware of, and certain forces are after him. When we do, eventually, learn the secret, it is after we have been faced with other, bigger mysteries, so that this particular revelation feels like no more than a casual afterthought, a device to get the plot moving and no more. And Quillon does indeed run, to his only friend in the city, a former cop turned underworld boss, who in turn introduces him to Meroka, a feisty woman who will guide him away from Spearpoint.

So much happens in the first thirty-odd pages of this nearly 600-page novel, and it promises much: pace, intrigue, mysterious technology. Except that the novel rarely again matches this frantic piling of incident upon revelation; the revelations never live up to the mysteries that have preceded them; and Meroka leads Quillon down to less developed technologies not up to more advanced levels. At every opportunity, it seems, Reynolds chooses the path that will take him away from what he does best.

There are, of course, hair's-breadth escapes, gutsy fight scenes, unfeasible coincidences throughout the rest of the novel, and one or two moments where Reynolds does achieve an authentic sense of wonder. Yet somehow the moment Quillon starts his escape, the pace seems to slow, the wonders seem familiar, and the novel fails to take flight. We journey down Spearpoint, through a steam-powered city and out into a wilderness of wild gangs known as Skullboys. Here Quillon and Meroka rescue a strange woman and her daughter, then are themselves taken up by the Swarm, once Spearpoint's military arm (though it is hard to think of anything as diverse as Spearpoint being coherent enough to ever have a single military arm) now an independent flying city of dirigibles. Quillon is immediately accepted by the upper echelons of Swarm, finds himself inadvertently entangled in rebellion, and becomes the saviour of Spearpoint when a call for help brings the Swarm back to the spire. All of this contains action enough, and there is sheer enchantment when the Swarm flies across a wasteland of downed aircraft then visits the ruined sister to Spearpoint (though these scenes, a match for anything in Reynolds's previous novels, are tangential to, indeed practically irrelevant to the rest of the plot). But I, for one, kept feeling I'd been here before. The Swarm is a transformation of the floating city in China Miéville's The Scar (and anyway, dirigibles now seem de rigueur in any contemporary steampunk, see, for example, Cherie Priest's Boneshaker); the Skullboys are straight out of Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley or the Mad Max movies; Spearpoint could be every monumental structure from Ted Chiang's Tower of Babel to Robert Silverberg's Monad.

Perhaps the most familiar aspect of this novel is the major element in the whole construct. The reason technology is less advanced the lower on Spearpoint one is, is because the world is divided into zones. Cross a boundary in one direction and you find complex electronics become possible, cross it the other way and you're back in the steam age. This feels to me like another iteration of the Zones of Thought from Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, except it is set in a smaller compass. Where Reynolds differs from Vinge is that the boundaries between the zones have become unstable: you don't need to cross a boundary, the boundary may simply cross you.

This is a neat idea, and it's what drives the whole plot, but I kept feeling that Reynolds hadn't really thought it through. Right at the beginning, the angel manages to give Quillon a gun which works one way in his current zone, but works another way in lower technological zones. This is an interesting device that we see Quillon use twice, in two different zones so we notice the difference; then it is abandoned, and this whole possibility of transzonal technology is never mentioned again. And in the best moment in the novel, as the Swarm flies over a wasteland that has been made accessible for the first time in centuries owing to a shift in the zones, we see the desert floor littered with strange abandoned aircraft representing different levels of technology. The inhabitants of what we soon realise is the twin of Spearpoint had clearly, over what may well be generations, been making desperate attempts to escape while their technological ability declined inexorably. It is a heartbreaking moment that suggests a tragic past, but Reynolds does nothing to develop this any further. It is as if the novel is made up of a sequence of images suggested by the core idea of these technological zones, but this sequence is never connected into a coherent, solidly built world. Consequently the book feels only half complete, there's an interesting idea but Reynolds hasn't yet worked out how to make it into a fully-imagined setting for a story.

At various times during the reading of this novel, I became convinced that it was only the first volume in a sequence. There's too much here that feels like it needs further explanation (how and why the zones came about, for instance), or that is ignored (we never see the advanced technological realm of the angels). Yet the story comes to a conclusion that warrants no sequel. There's a lot of hand-waving at the end that really makes no sense, but you don't get the impression that this story needs to continue. It's just that this is a half-formed, not fully thought-out novel that never comes close to achieving what it promises.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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