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Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds (2010) 487 p.


Alastair Reynolds has fast become my favourite writer of fun, enjoyable sci-fi potboilers. After the near-future-set Pushing Ice and the far-future-set House of Suns, Terminal World changes gears quite a bit: it certainly slots somewhere in the fantasy or sci-fi genre, but is very different from the hard sci-fi space operas Reynolds typically writes.

Terminal World begins in Spearpoint, a city of thirty million people built on and around a gargantuan megastructure which thrusts up from the earth in the shape of a rapidly tapering cone, the inaccessible higher reaches extending into the upper atmosphere. The book’s world is divided into invisible “zones:” humans born in one cannot travel into another without medication lest they risk life-threatening illness, and certain zones render more complex technology useless. At Spearpoint, the zones are split into higher technology the higher one travels, and neighbourhoods are named after the level of development found there: so around the base of the cone is Horsetown, which ascends to Steamtown, then Neon Heights, then Circuit City, and finally the upper echelons of the Celestial Levels, populated by posthumans called “angels” implied to be living in a sort of nanotechnology paradise. The plot begins when a dead angel is found in Neon Heights, apparently having fallen from the upper levels, and is delivered to medical examiner Dr. Quillon. As it turns out the angel isn’t quite dead after all, and delivers a cryptic message to Quillon which forces him to flee the city.

It’s the kind of strange high concept stuff – with Reynolds throwing the reader straight in the deep end – which would have confused and irritated me as a kid, but which I love to read these days, even if it falls apart if you think about it for more than five minutes. (It’s never really explained how thirty million people in the only city in the world get fed when the rest of the planet is a lawless wasteland, but who cares?) Reynolds has a great visual sense of place, and the early chapters in particular reminded me of the 1998 film Dark City: Quillon fleeing his pursuers through a bizarre, noirish amalgam of different eras, through late-night diners and laundromats and train stations and bathhouses. But events soon lead away from Spearpoint entirely, and indeed most of the book takes place out in the wider world, which is no less creative and fascinating. Like most of Reynolds’ works, Terminal World slots very firmly into the category of a sci-fi mystery, as Quillon attempts first to merely survive in the hostile world beyond Spearpoint, but then to determine exactly what Spearpoint is, or was, and the mystery of why his world is divided into “zones” in the first place. (The world is not ours, but nor is it fictional, and after it becomes clear that we’re talking about a post-terraformed Mars millenia in the future, part of the fun is picking up all the other clues, like the occasional curse phrase “fear and panic.”)

A lot of readers disliked Terminal World, and I can understand why. Reynolds’ other books are generally hard science fiction revolving around things like time dilation and the theory of relativity. That would be a jolt for a certain kind of sci-fi fan, expecting one thing and instead getting a fantastical swashbuckling steampunk adventure. Personally I’m always quite happy to read one of those, especially when they’re pulled off as well as this.

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July 2019