Fiction Reviews

Terminal World

(2010) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, 18.99, hrdbk, 583pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07718-8


Quillion is a pathologist living in the Babel tower-like last city on Earth (except it is not Earth) called Spearpoint. It is a structure a few miles wide and many miles tall. One day he receives the body of an Angel that has fallen from the heights of Spearpoint down into the zone called Neon Lights: Spearpoint is divided into clearly defined zones of technological sophistication with the Angels' realm being ultra high tech and Neon Lights equivalent to mid-20th century.

However it turns out that the dead Angel is not quite dead and has a message for Quillion to get out. It transpires that Quillion himself is an Angel who years ago was modified to look like a normal human to go undercover in Neon Lights. However Quillion went rogue and now there is a faction of Angels after him so he has to leave Spearpoint and lie low.

Leaving Spearpoint involves going to through the lower zones. First to Steamville, which has Victorian steam-driven technology, and then to Horse town. He needs a guide and is provided one by the only person in Neon Lights who knows Quillion for what he really is. The guide is knowledgeable of the world outside Spearpoint, only the thing is she really hates Angels and would not have taken on the job of being Quillion's guide had she known he was one of them. Notwithstanding this, and the journey's human dangers, there is the problem that the division between the zones of different technology is not arbitrarily defined but governed by the very laws of physics that operate differently from place to place.

Leaving Spearpoint also means running the risk of encountering the wild, maniacal and ruthless skull boys: you do not want to run into them. Then there are the Vorgs: you really do not want to run into them. Finally, there is the Swarm: also best avoided. Needless to say that in the course of the story we encounter all these and more.

Of course the reader will have questions, such as what is going on and where are we? These are all largely answered, albeit in some cases covertly. However here I give you a tip. Take everything in the book at face value: do not assume that the author is paying personal homage to anyone or anything but that anything you come across in reading the story is relevant to what is going on. (Also here you may want to be wary of reading other reviews of this novel as some have foolishly included major spoilers! And you can take this last as a plea from the author himself if you wish.)

I have a feeling that this could be the first book in Reynolds' ten-book deal with Gollancz; though I may be wrong as the time lag from beginning writing to seeing print is typically 12 to 18 months. Either way Gollancz may be having a niggle as to whether their recent sizeable investment was a sound one? Of course if they do have any qualms it will only be a niggle as the man has a dozen or so books under his belt already and without exception they are all markedly above average and some are landmark treatments of SF tropes. He is one of the few SF authors that both Tony (for example see Galactic North) and I both rate exactly the same, as one of the World's best space opera and hard SF writers of the 21st century! (He certainly gives Iain Banks a run for his money.) So the question you are no doubt wanting to have answered is whether or not he has managed to sustain his marathon run of SFnal quality and is Gollancz's investment safe? Here the answer is an unquestionable 'yes'.

True Terminal World is not the epic space opera for which Reynolds is frequently known, but as a mix of steampunk underpinned with hard SF verging on science fantasy, the story does have an epic, big canvass feel to it. His regulars will not be disappointed. And, yes, by the book's end we do get more than an inkling as to what Spearpoint really is and why things are the way they are, but to find out that is a journey you are going to have to make for yourself. Suffice to say the clues are there (and as a help let me assure you that the space-astronomy references are not a nod to Reynolds' ESA past (as I initially thought) but are clues as to where the story is set). So get ready to make this journey but stand by with the anti-zonals.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Ian's review of Terminal World.

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