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City at the End of Time
Greg Bear
Gollancz, 576 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: City at the End of Time
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 Greg L. Johnson

With City at the End of Time, Greg Bear returns to the kind of big idea science fiction that first marked his appearance in the field. Bear's theme here is nothing less than the nature of reality and the possible fate of the entire universe. That's an awfully big topic to take on in the course of a work of fiction, and one that possibly no one could successfully address in the telling of a story. City at the End of Time doesn't completely succeed in its task of melding its vision of the incredibly far future with the need of keeping it all within the framework of a science fiction story, but it does provide ample moments of wonder, awe, and a sense of humanity in the face of an implacable universe. Whether City at the End of Time is eventually ranked with the best of Bear's novels only time will tell, but it's certainly his most ambitious work, well worth the attention of any serious reader of modern science fiction.

Kalpa is the city of the title, the last city on an Earth that is not just billions, but trillions of years in the future. Human beings and other have, over the course of history, both adapted themselves to the changing conditions of an ages old universe, and found ways to extend that universe's existence. In the process, they have staved off the inevitable approach of Chaos, the eventual breaking down of matter, energy, and the physical laws of the universe that comes with the end of time. But now Chaos is approaching the edges of the city, and the rulers of Kalpa know the end is drawing near. In a last attempt to stave off the end of their existence, they have re-created humans in their ancestral form, and sent them out in to the Chaos that surrounds Kalpa in order to learn what is happening there and possibly save the city. Two of those people are named Jebrassy and Tiadba, and their story is central to the depiction of events at the end of the universe. At the same time, we are introduced to three characters from our own time. Jack, Daniel, and Ginny share the ability to move from one historical universe to another, inhabiting alternate versions of their own and others' lives along the way. Jack and Ginny also have another thing in common. They dream of a city at the end of time, and in their dreams they share the lives and experiences of two people who live there, namely Tiadba and Jebrassy.

As the story goes on, Jack, Daniel and Ginny become aware that they are both being hunted, and that time and the universe are decaying around them. The past is disappearing, an event that shows itself in the changing, sometimes disappearing texts of books. The same thing is happening in the far future, and it is evident that the forces of Chaos are spreading through time, threatening to end not only the universe, but also to erase the whole history of reality itself.

That's a pretty big problem to place in the hands of a few human beings, and their problems don't end there. There are also forces allied with the Typhon, the Kalpa's name for the force that is bringing chaos, that are seeking to prevent Jack, Daniel, and Ginny from getting together, and from coming into contact with Jebrassy and Tiadba.

If that description sounds like an attempted simplification of what is an immensely complicated story, it's because that's exactly what it is. City at the End of Time deals out its story in hints and allusions. Truth and falsehoods are wrapped up together and tangled up in the memories of beings whose view of existence is tied to a universe with trillions of years of history, mythology, and legend. Even the ending does little more than hint at just what Ginny, Jack, and the others managed to accomplish.

Stories of a far-future universe have a long and honored place in science fiction. City at the End of Time, especially in the first half of the novel, owes a significant debt to earlier works such as Arthur C. Clarke's City and the Stars and Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. In the second half, as first Tiadba, then Jebrassy, Ginny, Jack, and Daniel find themselves journeying through the fantastic landscape being formed by the forces of Chaos, the incredible visions and bizarre apparitions manage to recall, both the decayed urban landscape of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren and Dante's vision of Hell. Bear's writing is at its best here, and his vision of the end of the universe is a thing of both nightmare and frightening beauty. The problem is that while individual moments like Tiadba's and Jebrassy's search through Kalpa's library for books that are re-writing themselves to Jack's experiences in a version of history where all the choices are bad are compelling and gripping, the individual moments fail to coalesce into a greater whole. That may be, in the end, a product of trying to portray such a grand theme inside the confines of fiction, and of trying to balance the need for character against a historical and philosophical framework that dwarfs the life of any single human being. With City at the End of Time, Greg Bear has taken on as a subject nothing less than the eventual fate, and meaning, of the entire universe. Even if that means that the novel doesn't entirely succeed as a work of fiction, it's hard to not admire him for trying.

Copyright © 2009 by Greg L. Johnson

Greg L Johnson would like to think that somewhere in Kalpa's great Library there is also room for a reviewer at the end of time. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.

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