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City at the End of Time
Greg Bear
Del Rey, 476 pages

City at the End of Time
Greg Bear
Greg Bear was born in San Diego, California, in 1951. With a father in the navy, Greg Bear had travelled to Japan, the Philippines, Alaska and all over the US by the age of 12. At 15, he sold his first story to Famous Science Fiction and in 1979 he sold his first novel, Hegira, to Dell. His awards include Nebulas for his stories "Hardfought," "Blood Music" and "Tangents" and one for his novel, Moving Mars (1993), plus Hugos for his stories "Blood Music" and "Tangents." As an illustrator, Bear's artwork has appeared in magazines such as Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction along with a number of hardcover and paperback books. He was a founding member of ASFA, the Association of Science Fiction Artists. He did the cover for his own novel, Psychlone, from Tor. Heavily involved with SFWA, Greg Bear co-edited the SFWA FORUM, chaired the SFWA Grievance Committee, served as VP for a year, and President for 2 years.

Greg Bear Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Quantico
SF Site Review: Darwin's Children
SF Site Review: W3: Women in Deep Time
SF Site Review: Eon
SF Site Review: Vitals
SF Site Review: Blood Music
SF Site Review: Darwin's Radio
SF Site Review: Slant
SF Site Review: Dinosaur Summer
SF Site Review: Foundation and Chaos

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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City at the End of Time, Greg Bear's eschatological new novel, is a book I can admire but not love.

I can admire it because it is ambitious, intellectually satisfying (it panders to the self-regard of all us book readers), complex and rich. Yet I cannot love it because the pacing is erratic though generally slow, the characterisation is not distinctive enough for me to be sure I can always tell even the main characters apart, it builds to far too many false climaxes, and it consistently withholds information from the reader even if that information would not significantly spoil any twists or surprises.

Anyone who can lumber his books with titles like Eon and Eternity is not exactly short of ambition, at least of scale. But City at the End of Time shows Bear stretching for something more. This is not about the grandeur of size (grandeur is hardly a word to use about a novel most of which is set in a colourless, ashen void, or, in those sections set in contemporary Seattle, in a grey, sullen and seemingly permanent rainstorm), but is really an attempt to say something about the nature of reality. If, in the end, what it does manage to say is rather incoherent, it still has a larger and more daring theme than we have become used to in science fiction.

The novel opens with three new arrivals in present-day Seattle. All are young, disconnected, marginalized. They are also running away from something, indeed they have spent their entire lives running away, though what it is that is after them neither they nor we have any clear idea. All three carry with them a stone, which is called a "sum-runner," and which seems like an arbitrary plot coupon that has wandered in from a routine fantasy quest. Actually, despite the fact that this is clearly a hard science fiction novel, much of the plotting and language seem to have been borrowed wholesale from fantasy.

One of the three stone bearers, Ginny, is directed to a strange warehouse, where she finds accommodation and a sort of job helping a strange old man, Bidewell, sort through an immense collection of old books in search of anomalies. For most of the first part of the novel, Ginny's role is to be restless, to bond with the warehouse cats (as in any fantasy novel, the cats are important), and to fail to understand Bidewell or his curious quest (no full explanation is ever offered).

The second stone bearer, Jack, earns a precarious living as a busker juggling live rats, shares an apartment with someone we never meet and who seems to keep forgetting Jack's existence, and generally has even less to do than Ginny for large swathes of the novel.

Jack and Ginny have fled ceaselessly across the USA, but the third stone bearer, Daniel, has travelled even further: he has learned to move from parallel reality to parallel reality. Once, it seems, he simply took over other versions of himself, but when we meet him now he has taken over someone else, a down-and-out who spends his days begging at a rain-swept intersection. Apart from seeking out a book on cryptozoology, Daniel doesn't have much more to do than Jack and Ginny at this stage, but he is the more interesting character, in part because of his amorality, and in part because he has a more developed sense of who and what he is and what he is getting away from.

The enemy is represented by Glaucous, who was recruited some time in the 18th century by the dark and unseen forces known as the Moth and the Chalk Princess (again we are in the realm of fantasy). His employers have granted him immortality and the ability, like Daniel, to flit between dimensions. He spends the centuries hunting down stone bearers, and if, at first, he appears brutish, as events unwind he displays a wily intelligence. He is, in other words, the best delineated and most engaging character in the book.

At one point, Jack nearly falls into Glaucous's trap, and it is only then, getting on for half-way through the novel, that the plot finally acquires a sense of urgency.

The trap is quite ludicrously simple: Glaucous places an advert in the local paper asking "Do you dream of a city at the end of time?" This is the other thing that unites the stone bearers; except, of course, it's not a dream. Ginny and Jack find themselves looking through the eyes of Tiadba and Jebrassy respectively, two "breeds" (reconstructed humans) in Kalpa, the last city on Earth, perhaps in the entire universe. Around Kalpa the Chaos has gathered, the reality generators are starting to fail, the end times are upon us. Again there is an intrusion of fantasy into this science fictional scenario. It should be chilling enough that here we have the last redoubt of humanity grimly holding on to reality as the dissolution of chaos gathers all around it, but Bear has to make the end of time the deliberate work of a supernatural entity known as the Typhon, as if we can no longer trust the inexorable and impersonal force of nature to make a sufficient antagonist. In fact, Bear does next to nothing with the Typhon, and the science fictional aspects of the end of time that he presents are far more scary, far more gripping, than any supernatural intervention.

The elite of Kalpa, under the leadership of a character known as The Librarian, are described as Eidolons and they are, as we learn quite late in the novel, tied to Kalpa, unable to leave the city. They are, we may assume though it is carefully not made explicit, inhabitants of a computer programme. In response to the enclosing Chaos, however, they have recreated a version of old humanity, the breeds, for the purpose of leaving the city and crossing the wasteland in the hope of finding another surviving city which may offer a chance for survival. None have yet returned, or managed to send any message back. For the first half of the novel, alternating with the stories of Ginny, Jack and Daniel, we follow the oddly undirected and formless training that Tiadba and Jebrassy undergo in preparation for their own march. This training seems to consist primarily of discovering ancient books that tell the story of a legendary spacefaring hero of Kalpa.

So we have it; for most of the first half of the book the two strands that make up City at the End of Time are really little more than set-up for the story to come. There's enough to hold your interest, Bear's writing is, at times, among the best I've seen from him, but it's a slow plod and you keep waiting for something, anything to happen.

Then, within the space of surprisingly few pages, Jack is caught by Glaucous but manages to escape, is assisted by a group of women who call themselves the Witches of Eastlake (one of far too many literary allusions to possibly list here), and joins Ginny in Bidewell's warehouse. Meanwhile Daniel is found by another agent of the Chalk Princess, tries to flee into parallel realities but cannot because he is right up against the end of time (the most powerful science fictional moment in this entire book), escapes nonetheless, joins up with Glaucous and eventually gets to the warehouse. At the same point, Jebrassy is swept away by agents of the Eidolons and taken to the Librarian, but Tiadba and a group of others set out on their march into the Chaos.

There's almost too much going on at once, but then this tremendous dramatic tension is allowed to lapse. In the warehouse, Bidewell promises revelations, but what he tells us is incomplete and resolves nothing. Ginny, Jack and Daniel are set up for a carefully choreographed encounter with some supernatural force, but there seems no reason to the ritual and the encounters fail to move the plot forward one inch. Indeed, considering that the end of time is tearing away everything outside the warehouse and their feeble defences may collapse at any moment, the group gathered here spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around, drinking cheap wine and sleeping. If the characters have no sense of urgency, why should the readers?

Meanwhile Tiadba and her colleagues trudge through the colourless, featureless wasteland of Chaos, encountering a series of threats that turn out not to be all that threatening. It is as if every time a climax seems to be arriving, Bear adds some other piece of business that doesn't move us forward, just delays things. It is curious, for instance, that when Jebrassy finally sets out in Tiadba's wake, he reaches the same destination in considerably less time.

Then, abruptly, Bear gets the whole story moving again. In a move that more or less renders the previous 100 pages of rituals and revelations meaningless, Ginny abruptly leaves the safety of the warehouse and is instantly in the Chaos following after Tiadba. Jack, Daniel and Glaucous follow after her (Bidewell and the Witches are abandoned) and so (I'd say by coincidence, but that is probably not the right word when all of time has come down to one point) we get all the main characters in the same place at the same time, and Bear can tie off his story with an ease and brevity that doesn't seem to fit with the slowness and complexity of all that has gone before.

Don't get me wrong, there is a great deal to admire about this book. For a start there is a bravura notion and a richness of detail that leave you wanting to like it. It is an intelligent book, and also one that is littered with literary references (particularly to Jorge Luis Borges), which is appropriate given that the novel suggests that what keeps the world real is what we read. The writing, at times, is excellent, especially when Bear comes to describe the dissolution of time. And yet, somehow the whole feels less than the sum of its parts.

Copyright © 2008 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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