Fiction Reviews

Terminal World

(2010) Alistair Reynolds, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 487pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07718-9


In the 53rd century, Spearpoint is the last human city, a huge spire, infested by the clinging 'Zones' which are city states and each with a defined, and enforceable, level of technology. One is pre-industrial while another has electricity, and another is cleverly sort of steampunkish in a way. These are time zones themes that Reynolds has previously visited in his book Century Rain, although he is not wasting time being less than obvious as the Zones have names like Horsetown, Steamville, and Circuit City among others, while right at the top are the celestial levels where winged post-humans soar.

At the start of the novel, Quillon – who has his own secrets – is working away incognito as a pathologist in the Neon Heights city morgue when he has to deal with a near-dead angel, one of the city’s celestial beings, and when he does he learns that his identity and location have been discovered and he will soon be killed because he knows secrets that he’s not even aware of knowing, and is going to die unless he can leave the sanctuary of the city and venture into the wilds surrounding it with the help of his friend Fray who has the clout to get him outside and also the desire to help as he is the only one who knows what Quillon really is. Thus, begins a dark and noirish tale with some of the trappings of a hardboiled detective story, such is life in Neon Heights. Although getting through the Zones is not an easy task, technology cannot be carried from one zone into another, and while people might make the journey, it does have side-effects, some of which can be staved off with the use of drugs, but being in the wrong zone will eventually kill you. Quillon manages to get out with the help of the mercenary Meroka, but no sooner are they outside than the Zones shift with disastrous results for Spearpoint, forcing them into the wilds.

Outside there are dangers in the form of the Skullboys, witches called Tectomancers, and the Vorgs, shorthand for the Carnivorgs which feed on flesh and brain matter to keep themselves going and there is also the Swarm made up of hundreds of airships that are insect-like in that they swarm and move from place to place, consuming what, and everything they can with the justification that they are maintaining law and keeping order. The zonal and reality shifts that besieged the city are also prevalent outside, a mystery that Quillon has to solve even if it costs him his life.

I was reminded of some of the works of Gene Wolfe in that you have to work a bit to figure what is going on, no info-dumping getting in the flow of the book here, and also with the notion of different technological zones we are perhaps straying into similar territory to Vernor Vigne’s 'Zones of Thought' from his novel Fire Upon the Deep, and there are nods, or similarities to the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max and recent Steampunk novels like Boneshaker and the works of China Miéville.  There is action, and adventure, and there are interesting characters and interesting character development, but all in all this is frustratingly less science fiction (which becomes lesser as it goes along), with the central conceit of Spearpoint and its contrasting zones almost a glossed over plot device that offers some tantalizing glimpses of things that are never truly fleshed out, developed, or followed up and are quickly discarded to get into what is little more than a steampunk romance. Reynolds sets up a whole lot of questions that he does not, or will not answer, and there are throwaway, missed opportunities, but maybe next time. This is an imaginative, good read that never lives up to the potential of its beginning, and the jury is out if it will spawn a series or not, but hey if it does, that is some of Reynolds other books for his £1million pound deal with Gollancz sorted out.

Ian Hunter

Jonathan has a separate review of Terminal World.

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