BRIEF SYNOPSIS: On a far-future Earth, a posthuman “angel” named Quillon flees his aggressors and attempts to discover what makes this technologically segregated world tick.
PROS: Intriguing world-building (as always); interesting mixes of genres; colorful characters.
CONS: The final act of the book felt disconnected from the first act; despite hand waving, a rational explanation of this world goes largely unexplained.
BOTTOM LINE: Even a slightly-flawed Alastair Reynolds novel is still a very good one.
It might be hard to imagine how Alastair Reynolds, known for his imaginative galaxy-spanning space operas, would fare in other genres of science fiction like steampunk. Terminal World might be as close as you get to finding out.
While not an entirely steampunk setting, Reynolds’ world building does allow for zones where steampunk is the order of the day. Set in the future of Earth — we’re told it’s the 53rd century, but we surmise that it’s the far future and a new calendar is in use — the bulk of humanity lives in the planet’s last city: an enormous spire known as Spearpoint. The city is broken into zones whose elevation not only dictates social status, but also the maximum level of technology that is able to function. The lower-elevation levels (like Horsetown and Steamville) are characterized by lower levels of technology than middle levels like Neon Heights; and those levels are archaic compared to the higher, unseen Celestial levels, which serve as home to winged posthumans. There’s a hitch to this setup, though. Not only is technology adversely affected by crossing zones; people are affected as well. Crossing zone boundaries makes people ill, as if their biology cannot handle some newly prescribed set of natural laws. There are some antizonal drugs that can alleviate the effects, but stay too long in a “foreign” zone and you could die. This segregated, technologically-limited society of Spearpoint allows Reynolds to dabble in other literary playgrounds and serve up a genre smorgasbord: hard sf, steampunk, western, and even zombies to a certain degree. It also allows for some intriguing mash-up concepts, like steampunk cyborgs and robotic zombies.
Against this strange milieu Reynolds introduces us to the main character, Quillon, an angel-in-hiding who has been genetically altered to live secretly amongst the people on the lower level of Neon Heights. The reason for Quillon’s presence started as infiltration but turned into self-imposed exile with Quillon acting as a district pathologist as the story begins. When another angel from the Celestial levels is found nearly dead on the outskirts of Neon Heights, he brings a warning: Quillon has been located by those angels seeking to kill him and he needs to leave Spearpoint.
Quillon’s exciting escape is the thrust of Terminal World‘s fast-moving first act. Entrusted into the care of Meroka, a tough mercenary type who can handle herself quite nicely, thank you, Quillon works his way down the spiral city, into areas where technology regresses further and further, and he eventually travels outside the limits of Spearpoint itself into the desert-like lands beyond. As Quillon discovers, that region is not as empty as the people of Spearpoint believe it to be. The area has its fair share of societies, too, including a post-apocalyptic faction of Skullboys, witches known as Tectomancers, and the airborne society known a Swarm, who live aboard a fleet of airships. There are even carnivorous cyborgs (carnivorgs, a nice horror element) which survive by eating and absorbing the brains of their victims. Quillion’s quest eventually turns from escape to one of discovery and salvation as he tries to figure out why the Earth is subject to technological zone shifts and what a young Tectomancer might have to do with it. Dispensing antizonal medicine to combat zone sickness isn’t enough for Quillon; something isn’t right and he aims to find out what it is.
One thing becomes obvious early on: the proximity of zone boundaries is smallest near Spearpoint indicating that it is the source of the zone effects. So Quillon must eventually work his way back there (through the forbidden zone known as the Bane) to finally, one would think, face his aggressors. The events of this final act did not satisfactorily accomplish this, however. The dramatic tension that drove the first act of the book was resolved way too quickly with a brief, underground encounter. The focus shifted from his heritage, his escape and the events surrounding it, to the nature and history of Spearpoint. While this world building was well-imagined and fun, it felt disconnected from Quillon’s original quest.
Then again, the sense of wonder evoked in Terminal World revolves around the impending explanation of the zonal shifts. What happened to change the laws of nature such that electricity is impossible in certain geographical regions? Why does technology fail as you descend the spiral? Why are humans adversely affected by this, even to the point of it killing them? The answers are long in forthcoming and involve a lot of hand waving and ultimately much of the explanation behind the setting remains a mystery. I get the sense that there is more to come in this “steampunk opera” as these somewhat unresolved questions and plot lines need more closure. But even so, a slightly-flawed Reynolds novel is still a very good one.