Terminal World is Alastair Reynolds' latest novel. To be frank, it's not his best novel. It doesn't matter, however: all hist books to date have been great reads. From his Revelation Space-trilogy (or quadrilogy if one includes Chasm City), to his stand-alone novels like Pushing Ice and the present installment, he always manages to convey a sense of wonder, mystery, excitement and dread, using good characters to paint his stories across canvases of space and time. It is a hard sci-fi novel, blending in elements from steampunk, Jules Verne-like fantastic travel-stories and gothic horror.
Like much hard sci-fi, his stories are usualy carried by ideas, taking scientific speculations to the extreme, inventing gadgets, creatures and vast timelines, weaving a tale that uses such as essential plot devices rather than just “cool stuff”. The basic idea for Terminal World is humanity's last city, Spearpoint, which is divided into different zones where the laws of nature are slightly different, somewhat like Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep (see another blog post): at the bottom, in Horsetown, almost nothing mechanical can be made to work, creating a wild west-like environment. Further up, we have Steamville, Neon Heights, Circuit City and finally the Celestial Levels, where posthumans, “angels”, fly around on genetically engineered wings. All around spearpoint is a wasteland, where Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic conditions prevail. The main character, Quillon, is an angel with an amnesia, forced to leave Spearpoint and head for the wastelands when his past catches up with him.
It sounds like a silly idea, and it really is, but Reynolds spins a believable tale. At the same time – and this I was actually grateful for – the complete story of the Terminal World is never told, leaving room for interpretations and speculations on the reader's half. It's great stuff. For example, the sense of sheer wonder he manages to inflict on the reader during Swarm's travel through the Bane made me read the chapter twice: Quillon or the other characters have no way of understanding what they see, but as an experienced hard sci-fi reader living in the present the reader is allowed to draw his or hers own conclusions.
Thinking back, what still lingers in my memory from time to time, nine years after reading Chasm City, is the dread I felt when the main characters entered the “grub ship”. These aliens had no moral concepts like we know them, making it a dangerous place to be. Also, the grubs incorporated people physically in themselves, a tormenting a horrible way of “living” for the victims. I the same dread reading Terminal World, during the encounter with the vorgs. Since this is a review, I will not spoil it further – suffice it so say that it is grim, in a Frankenstein meets Mad Max-way.
Some parts of the book are a bit slow, spoiling the page-turner nature of the rest. Some of the dialogue is perhaps thin, with moral discussions stretched too long for my taste. Still, while not as good as his previous novel House of Suns, Terminal World carries Alastair Reynolds' hallmarks as one of the top five hard sci-fi writers out there.
Let's say 4 out of 5 stars.