Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce, July 2010
I am a Fan of Alastair Reynolds. I love the Revelation Space novels, I adore Pushing Ice and House of Suns, his name in an anthology gives me a thrill. Terminal World, therefore, was a very exciting prospect: a world with an atmosphere-piercing spire, and a city on it that ranges from electrical to pre-industrial? Unstable reality? Part Western, part steampunk, part far-future SF? Sign me up!
This is all a lead-up to the sad fact that Terminal World was a disappointment.
It’s entirely possible that other readers will enjoy this book more than I did. I came to it with perhaps impossibly high expectations. It’s not that it’s a bad book –far from it. In fact, I basically enjoyed it. But I didn’t love it, and there are serious flaws.
The world-building is the most exciting and unusual aspect. It really is part steampunk and part far-future SF, and while this has been done before, Reynolds has accomplished something glorious here. The first quarter of the book, and the focus of the rest of it, is Spearpoint: a vast spire of rock on which, it seems, much of humanity lives. It is divided into sections, based on what sort of technology will work where: from the pre-industrial base, through steam, electricity, possibly all the way to nuclear energy, although that’s not made clear. This difference in technology is thanks to the zones that affect the entire world, which not only effect the sort of technology that will work in certain areas but also have a physical effect on the human population. These zones are largely, but not entirely, static; and when they move, you really know about it, if you’re caught in it.
This world is a wonderful, amazing place. It’s the sort of place I can absolutely imagine a series of stories being set, exploring the different sorts of people who inhabit such a world, their coping strategies, their desires and history. It has huge possibilities. I love the idea of different technologies living not just on different continents, as seen throughout Earth’s history, but cheek-by-jowl. How do the upper levels keep people from the pre-industrial sections out? And then there’s the rest of the world. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that there is indeed life beyond Spearpoint, and it too is exciting. There are flotillas of dirigibles, which are awesome and filled with the full spectrum of humanity, as well as people on the ground. So, the world isn’t the disappointing bit.
The characters are mostly interesting, and diverse. The central character is Quillon, a pathologist and not what he outwardly appears to be. Over the course of the novel he develops and changes as he learns more about his world, and the people in it, but he still felt too static, too unchanged, for the discoveries he makes and decisions he takes. So that was disappointing, in the end. The plot is initially advanced when he finds himself in the sort of trouble that can only be dealt with by being far, far away from the source, which introduces him to Meroka, a woman with a serious chip on her shoulder, a ferocious attitude, and seriously violent tendencies. I really liked her, but she felt even more cardboard-cut-out-y than Quillon. The chip on her shoulder got in the way of more in-depth character development.
Interestingly, the other most interesting characters in the novel are also female. Kalis, a woman Meroka and Quillon encounter out in the world along with her daughter, are among them. Kalis has some moments of awesomeness, but is largely obsessed with her role as mother. I am still trying to decide whether this maternal focus is a problem for her character. While it is appropriate, given the circumstances, ultimately I think it was somewhat limiting and not entirely fair to the sort of character Kalis could have been. Within her limits, though, she was great, and she certainly balanced out some of the insanity Meroka represented. On the other hand, Curtana is perhaps the most balanced of all. Captain of a dirigible, she is a capable and efficient woman, willing to be violent but also humane, devoted to her people and her leader while being capable of foresight and reasoned opposition to that leader. I loved her, and there wasn’t enough of her.
Of course, there are male characters too, but as mentioned I didn’t find them quite so intriguing; this may be a problem for male readers, if they have a problem with too many women running around. There are a couple of criminals – which of course doesn’t prevent them from being interesting characters, and they do have great little plot arcs. Yet, while vital, they are indeed little, and they don’t allow for a huge amount of character development. There are men in the dirigible fleet, and the leader there, Ricasso, is – aside from Quillon – the most well-developed and interesting man. He is something of a renaissance man, which is fun in the context of the crazy technology situation, combining both aggressive leadership and a penchant for science in a world where that discipline largely doesn’t exist. Scenes including him frequently had really great dialogue.
So, the world is completely fantastic, and many of the characters too are interesting, if occasionally a little wooden. The disappointment of the story, obviously, lies ultimately in the plot.
It is, of course, difficult to discuss this disappointment without revealing major spoilers, which I won’t do because some of the twists and surprises actually are quite good. The problem lies partly in motivation, and partly in the ultimate conclusion. Quillon’s motivations are not, to my mind, ever sufficiently clear, either in the initial set-up or at the end. Moreka’s characteristics fail to account for some of her actions, and some other characters too have unexpected turnarounds that felt… unexpected. It’s no spoiler to say that the issue of the zones, their movement and their origins, is one of the central issues, and it’s here that I had most problems with the plot. Because while I understand and appreciate suspense and mystery, and don’t want everything explained to me in dot-point form, I still appreciate light-bulb moments where things make sense. I was expecting this to occur at the end of Terminal World, and instead what I got was more mystery, and a conclusion that just left me somewhat bewildered. And not in a way that suggests a sequel, either.
It may be, as I said above, that this book only disappointed me because of the unrealistic expectations I brought to it. It certainly won’t stop me from buying more of Reynolds’ stuff that is set in space, but it will make me think twice about reading more ‘planetary romances’ (which is such a weird name for the subgenre) if he writes them.