(2008) Greg Bear, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 470pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08189-5
This is, quite simply, Bear's best novel for some considerable time (the last 'notable' one being Darwin's Radio back in 1999); it should also appeal to fans of Rudy Rucker and Greg Egan (and mathematically inclined philosophers!). What it is not, sadly for some, is satisfying from the point of view of someone expecting a strictly linear narrative, with a neat little payoff at the end, all tied up in a pretty bow.
The Kalpa, the city of the title, is surrounded by the Chaos which has eaten its way through the multiverse, starting with all the possible pasts. The city is home to the last remnants of humans and their, now, trillion year old offshoots. The Chaos is under the control of (and 'is') the Typhon, a being trying to become a god. In a bid to make contact with a 'lost' city, Nataraja, the culmination of humankind has created the 'ancient breeds' from what remains of matter from the age of the Brightness (which is to say, these few billennia in which suns shine, ie. matter as we currently understand it). Jebrassy is a would-be warrior-adventurer, insatiably curious and all too aware of his ignorance; Tiadba, equally curious, wants to be an explorer. Both cannot wait to go on a 'march' to try to find the lost city. But also, both dream. The lives they dream, through the entanglement of the matter of which they are made, are 'real' in the present (our present, or one very like it) in Seattle. Those lives belong to Ginny and Jack, each of whom, in their turn, dream of their counterparts in the future. They are also fate-shifters, capable of switching between universes to other counterparts of themselves, and this they do because they are hunted by the servants of the Chalk Princess. In addition to their dreams and talents, Jack and Ginny are also possessors of sum-runners, sometimes called library stones or 'sometime' stones. What these artefacts are is unknown. A third present day human is Daniel. He too possesses a sum-runner, but when he fate-shifts he has the ability to take over anyone's body, not just counterparts of his own. There is one other difference: Daniel does not dream. As reality breaks down, crashing accordion-like into the Terminus, past and future meet with all parties seemingly on the same quest: to save what's left of 'reality'...
All of which still barely scratches the surface of this complex and lovely novel. One of the strongest themes that runs through the book is about books, and fiction, and memory itself. History is fiction, as we all know (right?), because modern historians were not 'there' (which is to say 'then'), and therefore can only interpret, but never 'know'; and contemporary historical sources may well have been, through bias, ignorance and lack of reliable sources of their own, 'wrong'. Memory, too, is fiction. How often have you or a friend, both present at the same event, 'remembered' the facts differently? Or told a good story, but juggled the facts to make yourself look better (or even stolen someone else's good story, but substituted yourself for them)? Or perhaps you were just too pissed (that is drunk, for our American friends) to remember things correctly. I hope you see what I am getting at.
Is there an end of time? Can there be? And why would the books be the last things to be 'eaten'? If all possible universes have been, is there any point in a new creation beyond the end of time, if there can even be a 'beyond'? If you like having your mind boggled, this is the book for you!
Here is Jonathan's separate review of The City at the End of Time.
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