Archive – Terminal World – Alastair Reynolds

We have now reached the year 2010 in my reprinting of my Interzone reviews.

Terminal World
Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, 564pp, hb

If I say that Terminal World feels mechanistic, I’m not talking about the steampunk influence claimed for it by its publicity, nor indeed for the variety of technologies that feature in the novel. Instead, I’m talking about the way it feels as though the main characters are being moved around a factory, picked off one conveyor belt, placed on another, on a mysterious journey that brings them back to precisely where they began. Almost every aspect of the novel feels somehow inevitable, and there are few if any surprises along the way.

The novel begins on Spearpoint, possibly the last city left on a far-future Earth. No one really knows what lies in the world beyond because, for most people, Spearpoint is their world. It’s not one city but many. More than that, thanks to the presence of mysterious zones of influence, each neighbourhood has a distinctive character shaped by the technology that works within it. Not all technologies work in all zones, and humans need drugs in order to safely cross zonal borders. Coincidentally, the most technologically advanced cities are at the top of the tower, the Celestial Levels, which are inhabited by the posthuman angels, while the least advanced are at the bottom, with Horsetown the last outpost of civilisation. Consequently, when Quillon is obliged to make a hasty departure from Spearpoint, his descent from Neon Heights, its technology mostly familiar to us, provides Reynolds with the opportunity to describe how technology changes from zone to zone, and the ways in which people improvise, all of which he does with great relish.

Beyond Spearpoint, the landscape becomes almost entirely conjectural, its inhabitants ranging from the almost feral Skullboys to the quasi-military air force of the Swarm, not forgetting the carnivorous cyborgs that feed on brains and cannibalise humans and each other. Everyone is fighting for survival and strangers are not welcome. Quillon, a modified angel, is fleeing his former masters because of knowledge he supposedly has buried deep in his brain. Outside Spearpoint, he is safe, but outside Spearpoint he has no goal, no purpose, other than to wander around with his guide, Meroka, bumping, one by one, into all the dangers she’s previously mentioned to him. The landscape is so empty, every encounter is inevitably imbued with significance. A chance meeting with a mysterious tattooed woman and her daughter, who seems to possess unusual powers, and the subsequent capture of all four by the Swarm, means the sharp reader can already make a guess at what is likely to happen. The only surprise lies in precisely how the issue will be resolved, and often there isn’t that much of a surprise.

It’s impossible to tell whether this neatness is intentional, or whether Reynolds, having created his landscape and his characters, was at a loss as to what to do with them. Strikingly, much of the real action – the effect of the catastrophic zone shifts on Spearpoint being the most obvious example – happens off-stage because Quillon is always the viewpoint, and he’s not there when it happens. I am sorry not to see what Reynolds would have made of that. There are flashes of the energy that drives the big sequences in the Revelation Space trilogy – I’m thinking in particular of a very dramatic airship battle, and an extraordinarily moving sequence when the Swarm flies over a graveyard of thousands of aircraft, reflecting the desperate efforts, over many years, of the inhabitants of a dead city to escape.

I’ve enjoyed Alastair Reynolds’ previous novels immensely. I like the characters in this novel, I like the settings, but the story frustrates me. In the end, Terminal World reminds me of nothing so much as one of those children’s toys that work by string: you pull it all the way out to set the toy going, and as the toy runs down it winds the string all the way back into itself. This may or may not be appropriate, given the nature of the story, but I am not sure it should be considered a desirable feature.