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Book Review: Terminal World, by Alastair Reynolds

A steampunk post-apocalypse. Not even a little bit Victorian.


Terminal World

Ace Books, 2009, 487 pages



Spearpoint, the last human city, is an atmosphere-piercing spire of vast size. Clinging to its skin are the zones, a series of semi-autonomous city-states, each of which enjoys a different - and rigidly enforced - level of technology. Following an infiltration mission that went tragically wrong, Quillon has been living incognito, working as a pathologist in the district morgue.

But when a near-dead angel drops onto his dissecting table, Quillon's world is wrenched apart one more time. If Quillon is to save his life, he must leave his home and journey into the cold and hostile lands beyond Spearpoint's base, starting an exile that will take him further than he could ever imagine. But there is far more at stake than just Quillon's own survival, for the limiting technologies of the zones are determined not by governments or police but by the very nature of reality---and reality itself is showing worrying signs of instability.




I've previously read two of Alastair Reynolds's space operas, which I found to be full of epic ideas and grand spectacles, like a slower-than-light chase occurring over centuries (yes, I know Larry Niven did that years earlier) and gigantic starships and post-human machinations, and rather sterile characters.

Reynolds writes a bit like a modern Isaac Asimov: he is a scientist who uses actual science in his books, but is not afraid to add a touch of science fantasy. He employs huge scope, but while he's not as bad as Asimov when it comes to writing cardboard plot puppets, none of his characters really seem to exist independently of the plot.

In Terminal World, he narrows the scope to a single planet, a world that has become cold and dry and barren over millennia. The protagonist is a pathologist named Quillon, working in a towering city known as Spearpoint which is (so its residents believe) the only civilization left, surrounded by thousands of miles of wasteland inhabited only by raping and pillaging "Skullboys."

Spearpoint is divided into "zones" - certain technologies only work in certain zones. In the celestial levels high in the atmosphere dwell the Angels, who enjoy advanced technology and bodies capable of flight, but who cannot descend to the lower levels because their very bodies will stop working. In the lower levels are places like Neon Heights, Horsetown, Steamville and Circuit City. (Yes, Circuit City...)

The residents of Spearpoint, by and large, do not know or care why the laws of physics change from zone to zone, but when zones shift, with catastrophic effects, Quillon finds himself on the run, first a fugitive within Spearpoint and then fleeing the city altogether, along with a woman named Meroka and later, a woman and a child they rescue from the Skullboys. The child turns out to be a "Technomancer" and the MacGuffin of the book.

Quillon himself is little more than a plot puppet; we learn his secret early on, but we never really learn his motivations or why he's so willing to risk his life for strangers based on some abstract do-gooding impulse. The other characters are often just as interesting, maybe more interesting, but still rather wooden.

This is not a space opera: it's a post-apocalyptic adventure with definite steampunk influences. But it's a harder kind of steampunk, more science fiction than fantasy. Not that Reynolds doesn't mix in plenty of pulp adventure, with airship battles between the zeppelin fleets of Swarm and the balloons and gliders of the Skullboy raiders. There are definitely some exciting moments and some big ideas mixed into this rather odd futuristic post-Earth world. Fans of Hugh Howey's Wool should enjoy this book.

The ending was conclusive if a little muddled; Terminal World could be the start of a series but does not read as if it is intended to be.



Verdict: Alastair Reynolds is a writer of "highbrow" science fiction, and probably one of the best of those writing today. Terminal World was a bit of a departure from his usual space operas, being set in an almost fantasy-like post-apocalyptic world with trappings of transhumanism mixed with steampunk. I enjoyed it, but all of Reynolds's novels I've read so far read like intellectual exercises that don't quite knock it out of the park as stories.

Also by Alastair Reynolds: My reviews of House of Suns and Revelation Space.




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Tags: alastair reynolds, books, reviews, science fiction
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