Saturday, January 4, 2014

Terminal World - Alastair Reynolds

As usual an Alastair Reynolds review to kick off the year. I've progressed to his 2010 novel Terminal Word, which turns out to be an odd one in his oeuvre. It's not part of any series, although the ending is such that a sequel can't be ruled out in the future. Reynolds has stated he doesn't intend to return to this world though. For the moment we'll consider it a standalone. The book is advertised as a Steampunk novel. I'm not entire sure if that is a fitting label but I guess readers of that subgenre will enjoy this novel. For established readers of Reynolds' work it is a bit of a gamble. Personally I liked to but I also think it is a bit rushed.

The city of Spearpoint is a tower rising up from the surface of the planet into space. The city is at the mercy of zones, a set of physical conditions that allows technology to work only to a certain level of sophistication. At the foot of the tower, only the most basic technology works. On the Celestial levels technology has allowed a post-human society to develop. The boundaries are hard to cross, the exact a physical price on the traveller that can prove fatal without medical supervision. One day, Quillion, once a post-human angel but now a pathologist is the moderately advanced Neon Heights, finds one of his former compatriots on his dissecting table. It is the start of an adventure that will take him beyond the boundaries of the city, out into a dangerous and dying world. He learns disturbing things about his world, matters that need to be addressed for its continued survival.

I was surprised at the pace of this novel. Despite it being almost 500 pages long, Terminal World is a very fast read that doesn't really allow the reader to catch their breath along the way. In a number of earlier novels Reynolds occasionally had trouble with the pacing. Terminal World clearly doesn't suffer from that problem. Quillion is only very rarely able to reflect on what is going on, especially since his insistence on adhering to his personal moral code lands him trouble more than once. For readers who like a good adventure, I don't think Reynolds could have done much better. It is a very sharp contrast with his earlier novels that are firmly founded in the hard sciences though. I also think that he doesn't really do justice to the worldbuilding he's done for this novel. There is so much of it in this novel that is rushed past in this story that it seems like a waste not to explore it further.

The zones do receive their share of attention as they are vital to the plot. They divide the city of Spearpoint but also rule the rest of the planet. Crossing boundaries is problematic everywhere but especially outside Spearpoint, especially since the infrastructure to produces drugs known as antizonals is not in place. Quillion soon finds out it is a lawless land, with various groups trying to survive at the cost of others. Quillion ends up with Swarm, an armada of airships -  hence the Steampunk label that is attached to this novel - making their way across the planet, always on the lookout for fuel and resources to keep the fleet running. Swarm is the place were the most interesting things in the book happens. Their exposure to much of the planet gives Quillion a much deeper insight in his world and the mysteries it contains. Reynolds weaves a bit of politics into Quillion's journey too and really ramps up the tension in his story.

Swarm is one of the many levels of technology that show up in Terminal World. Airships carry quite a bit of technology and are therefore limited to the zones that can support them. In some zones almost noting technological works at all and people go at each other with swords (Reynolds has a thing for swords in this novel, note the character names) and crossbows. In others high energy weapons are working just fine. Quillion travels by electric car, steam train, horse and airship for instance. The people of Spearpoint accept these differences as a matter of course and that gives the story a bit of a fantastical atmosphere. This huge variety in available technology will stretch most readers' preconceptions of Steampunk a bit but it is definitely not straight science fiction either.

Reynolds doesn't abandon science altogether but it is an element that is underexposed in a way. The problems of the Spearpoint can be explained at the quantum level and one of the characters has an intuitive understanding of what is happening. He explains it using a checkers board but it is clearly based on quantum mechanics. As near as I can figure out it has something to do with different values for the Planck constant. It isn't much further explored than that though. I think I would have preferred if it had been but I guess that would have gotten in the way of a good adventure story. Essentially, although we do get an explanation of what is going on with the world, the problem it faces is not really solved or even fully understood by the characters.

One of the big mysteries of the book is the origin of the world. It is referred to as Earth but is clearly not our world. Throughout the book there are hints that the world Spearpoint is built on is a smaller planet. Distances are measured in leagues, which Reynolds doesn't define but assuming he is talking about the English one, thee miles, he gives the reader enough information to calculate a circumference. Some people have actually bothered to do this and, form this evidence and other tidbits scattered throughout the book, arrived at the conclusion the author might have used Mars for a model. Personally I think that Reynolds took a few liberties with the vertical scale of the planet is that is the case but it does fit with the slowly escaping atmosphere of the planet among other things. He also describes landscape features that could be linked to the volcanoes on Mars and the Vallis Marinersis. It is an interesting puzzle worked into the story.

It does lead to the question of how the planet was terraformed and what purpose the huge structures that can be found on it served. Here the novel turns a bit unsatisfactory for me. The history is barely explored at all. Apparently the Chinese have something to do with it but their purpose remains shrouded in mystery. There are hints of a purpose, hints of origins, hints that a disaster that befell Spearpoint had consequences felt beyond a single planet. There is so much that points at a set up for a series things that are not resolved in this volume, that if you look beyond the fast paced adventure story, the novel doesn't work that well as a standalone.

In the end I thought Terminal World was a very readable and at one level enjoyable book. If you read it just for the adventure it works just fine. Reynold's readership will probably expect a bit more from it though. It is a departure from the rest of his oeuvre and I very much doubt his established readers have been unanimously supportive of it. He took a chance here and it only partly paid off. It's an interesting experiment, showing that Reynolds is capable of writing stories outside his usual solar system or even galactic settings and personally I wouldn't mind if he returned to it. As it is the novel has a bit too many loose ends to be really satisfying though. It's a fun read but ultimately a mild disappointment.

Book Details
Title: Terminal World
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 490
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08850-4
First published: 2010

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