Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack July, 2010
Greg Bear has long been a writer of strong, hard science fiction – big ideas, on a big scale, carefully worked out, and often explained by rigorous science. City At the End of Time continues this tradition. Although it has many strengths, it is a novel that ultimately fell a little flat for me; it didn’t offer a lot of emotional involvement.
In a time very like the present, perhaps on our world, a number of people are coming together. Jack, Ginny and Daniel are three young people who have spent their lives skipping from world to world. Each can sense misfortune and bad things coming, and have the ability to instinctively find and “jump” to a world where something different – better – is about to happen. Jack and Ginny are haunted by mysterious dreams of a city at the end of time; Daniel doesn’t dream. But all three are finding that their skipping options are getting fewer and fewer. The number of worlds with “good” options seem to be reducing dramatically.
And are they being hunted? Each sees an advertisement in the personal column asking for contact from people who dream of the city at the end of time. Each senses danger and doom if they respond to the ad. And yet, the thought of picking up the phone draws each of them strangely and strongly.
Meanwhile, in the city at the end of time Jebrassy and Tiadba find their minds periodically occupied by those of others. Jack, Ginny, Jebrassy and Tiadba are trading minds and knowledge in their dreams. This is particularly unsettling for Jebrassy and Tiadba, ignorant of so much of the past; but it may ultimately prove to be the key to saving the world – or at least, human consciousness.
The main difficulty I had with this novel is that I found it hard to really care about any of the characters. Without that engagement or real interest in what happened to them, it was harder to wrap my head around some of the complex ideas that they embodied. And as I didn’t find myself able to care a great deal about what happened to them, for me there was no real climax to the novel. It was simply a big idea that unfolded and then eventually kind of stopped.
Not everyone will necessarily find this a problem with the novel. If you’re more wrapped up in the big ideas (including the physics) at the centre of the novel than I was, then you may be able to overlook the flatness to the characters. This is very definitely a novel with a lot to offer readers looking to stretch their minds. Bear does draw his worlds vividly, making them believable. And he’s very good at explaining those big, complex ideas in a way that will make sense to even lay readers (although if your grounding in science is a little shallow, you’ll have to put a little more effort in to follow him). It’s just that the characters seemed to lack the extra spark required to bring them alive.
So this is a novel that should be enjoyed by readers looking for the big ideas, and readers looking for science fiction with the emphasis on science. It’s a digestible read even for those without a strong scientific background, and has lots of interesting little ideas that aren’t the main focus of the novel. Readers who place high importance on emotionally engaging characters may find
City at the End of Time somewhat lacking, but even they are likely to appreciate the interesting ideas that are at the heart of the novel.