Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Alastair Reynolds - Terminal World

And in that time, before the gates of paradise were closed to them, men and women were as children. And so plentiful were the fruits and bounties of paradise that they lived for four-score years, and some lived longer than that. And in that time the Earth was warm and blue and green and many were its provinces.

Alastair Reynolds’s latest novel is the easy equal of anything the man’s yet written. Terminal World contains many elements familiar to Reynolds readers; in many ways, Terminal World is the culmination of several trends that have popped up in almost everything that Reynolds has written. Despite those, Terminal World is an outlier in the Reynolds catalog, and if you need proof, let's just look at the covers. Spaceship, spaceship, spaceship, spaceship, spaceship... dirigible?

One of the main differences is Terminal World’s extremely focused narrative. Revelation Space didn’t have an astronomically large number of point of views, but they were scattered over awe inspiring distances in both space and time. Chasm City, as well as many of Reynolds’s other work (Absolution Gap, for instance), features two plot threads that don’t come together until the very end of the novel. Since then, however, Reynolds has been making a conscious effort to streamline his stories. In Terminal World, we see the world only through the eyes of Doctor Quillon and a few one off characters. The change is marked. As opposed to something like Redemption Ark, where Clavain and the other main characters were the ones guiding the story, we see events from the periphery a good amount of the time. That’s not to say that Quillon isn’t important, of course, but he’s only one player amongst many. This close focus adds tension to several parts, but can also occasionally lead to a plot without a clear goal.

As a result of Quillon’s dominance, Terminal World is a very personal novel. To that end, it’s a definite plus that the characterization is generally excellent. At times, Reynolds’s characters seem in danger of falling into standard archetypes, but the traditional climaxes, expected from page one, are absent and the illusion always gives way to something deeper. A good example is Meroka. She has good reason to despise Angels; Quillon is an angel of sorts. I don’t think that anyone will be shocked by knowing that she finds out what he is, and that she hates him for it. In that phase of their relationship, she gives Quillon the following speech:

And you’re wrong about me, if you think there’s forgiveness deep down inside, if only you can find it. Truth to tell Cutter, there’s only more hate. That’s what I am. Clinical-grade hate, all the way through. Keep digging, you’ll only come out on the other side.

Amusingly written, but not particularly surprising. Surely, they are going to have a tearful reunion at some point, right? Well…no. Reynolds characters often tread familiar paths, but they do so without the usual road signs. Melodramatic declarations and epiphanies often allow authors to point out the change in characters without having to make the characters actually change. In Terminal World, the characters never go through one hundred and eighty degree reinventions. Instead, their personalities and friendships evolve subtly and naturally.

Thematically, Terminal World deals with many of the same issues that Reynolds has always dealt with, namely man’s struggle to adapt and survive in a vast and uncaring world. In this case, the endless emptiness of space is replaced with the Zones, different areas that each dictate a different level of technology, or, in extreme cases, prohibit all life.

Reynolds’s prose and worldbuilding here is primarily set to evoke wonder and awe. Moments like the first vision of the Swarm were powerful enough to make me put down the book for a few seconds and just revel in the image. The majority of the book is built like that, with the effect of making the contrasting scenes all the starker. Fleeing in a train that feels like it’s going backwards in time, the delicious strangeness of the scene is stabbed through by the appearance of hellish hunter angels. The variety between the feel of scenes set in Neon Heights and Horsetown, let alone the hellish wastes, is nothing short of amazing.

One of the main feelings you get from reading Terminal World is that of a world with tremendous depth. Everything that we’re shown feels like a part of something much larger, and it’s something that the very limited point of view only emphasizes. As opposed to some settings that feel like a city prop for a play, vibrant when in use and husks of wood when not mid performance, this is a world that feels like it exists round the clock. I can picture people living their lives in Horsetown, and I can picture running in fear from Skullboys even when the camera’s far in the air in another part of the world. I’m praying for a sequel to this world at some point, though I’m unsure just how likely it actually is.

Terminal World’s ending is one of its few weak points. With a few notable exceptions, Reynolds’s endings have always been hit and miss. Now, it seems to me that you can have two kinds of ambiguous endings. You can have the kind where a character’s personal goals are accomplished, but the grander struggle goes on, or, to inverse that, one where the character’s life is still in flux, but the greater battle is done. Both can, and obviously have, been done to great effect. Unfortunately, Terminal World’s ending is ambiguous in both ways, leaving the reader with the feeling that the movie cut out in the final five minutes.

Still, complaining too much about a slightly disappointing ending after reading such a marvelous book feels petty, and the ending does not, after all, come anywhere near damaging the rest of the book. Terminal World is one of Reynolds’s finest works yet. It has everything that has made him such an excellent writer over the years, as well as a whole host of new things, almost all of which succeed brilliantly. If you are even remotely interested in Reynolds (or just good science fiction), you owe it to yourself to read this.

1 comment:

  1. Just finished Teminal World this morning, and though I do agree with the broader tone of this review, I have to say that the weak ending annoys me, especially considering the size of this book. It feel perfectly set for a sequel, but as we all know this was never Likely to happen due to the pressure for a new set of revelation space titles, so this book is a folly, Reynolds trying out a new direction. I respect that, but as such it should have been written as s single entity and the required loose end tied up. I don't want answers to everything, and the end of Pushing Ice is perhaps my favourite of all reynolds books (I re read it just for the ambiguous ending), however I do feel we deserve at least some final explanation of the zones, and spearpoint. Still an excellent read though. I'm off to start revelation space again.