Terminal World

Terminal World
Alastair Reynolds

There is a certain pleasure that comes from watching a master at work: a Brecker or Steely Dan CD, Steve Nash or Xavi directing the offense, Iron Chef Morimoto making something insane. I get this feeling sometimes reading books by Alastair Reynolds, a favorite of both the British sci-fi invasion and the Space Opera Renaissance. He is (justifiably) best known for the Inhibitor universe, but does have other ideas to explore. Terminal World made waves when it was published in 2010, as Reynolds dipped a toe into steampunk, or something somewhat like steampunk, and kept his characters firmly on our home planet. No more aliens, starships (FTL or otherwise), nebulas, or beam weapons. Instead we have dirigibles, trains, doctors, some horses, and a cyborg hooked up to a steam powered calliope. I am not making the last one up.

That Reynolds is a science fiction writer surprises no logical being, but his creations never fail to. A Welshman with a PhD in astronomy and a former employee of the European Space Agency, Reynolds is the archetypal Hard SF author. Anyone raised on a steady SF diet would see this background and expect to read about competent white men rationally solving questions about a Big Mysterious Object, possibly with some awkward romantic interludes or cringe-inducing treatment of minorities. Not so fast, as my favorite football announcer likes to say. I don’t know what they taught in his astronomy classes, but the fevered imaginings that creep out of Reynolds’ PhD brain never cease to amaze me. He also has an uncanny knack for plots that peel back layer after layer to reveal whole worlds inside of what should be a small and uncomplicated box, as well as characters strong enough to somehow keep all of the insanity human. (This is no small feat when said characters are lesbian bodyguards afflicted by Tourette’s, coroners who are inexplicably growing wings out of their backs, or the aforementioned cyborg hooked up to a steam calliope.)

Steampunk is a bit of a strong term for the book, though Reynolds uses it in his own description. The word is accurate for the technology in play for much of the book, but not so much for the society or time period in question. In some ways, Terminal owes more to Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and its Zones of Thought than any neo-Victorian tale. Like Vinge’s Zones, Reynolds’ Spearpoint, and really the rest of the world, is divided into zones where certain technologies work and certain people can live. Circuit City, Neon Heights, Steamville, and Horsetown are easily understood, descriptive names for the zones. People are wary of zonal shifts because their bodies are also affected; just like a computer stops working in a lower zone, a computer user’s cells go haywire as well. There are drugs to help people stay temporarily in other zones, but few are able to withstand repeated change.

Speaking more of the zones, why they exist, and how they change, would drift far into spoiler territory, since reading a Reynolds book is all about discovering the unknown. Suffice it to say that he arrives at dirigibles somewhat by default, but the world is flexible enough for all sorts of crazy stuff to appear. But again, all this crazy stuff is not really the point of the book. Making my way through Terminal, I figured something out about Reynolds. (Or at least I think I did. He might read this and cry, “Bollocks!”) Let’s back up a few years, to the end of Absolution Gap, an end that not just betrayed expectations for an inevitable, climactic galactic battle, but threw them absent mindedly in the composting toilet, mulched a field of brussels sprouts with them, then roasted the resulting sprouts deliciously in olive oil and salt without ever paying heed to the reader’s feelings that fertilized the evening’s dinner. How could he do this?

Fast forward back to Terminal World, where things are not quite so abrupt, but the ending leaves the characters with a purpose and some possible answers, but further from an ultimate resolution than most authors start their characters with. Reynolds writes on his website that he has no plans to write a sequel, despite the fact that in some ways the story is just beginning. What to make of this? To my eyes, it’s not the story that’s the thing for Reynolds. At least, not as we think of it, with the Three Conflicts, Three Acts, Campbell’s archetypes, and whatnot. At the end of Terminal, the characters have a road map to overcome their problems; the bulk of the book is spent learning what their problems are. The author is, in fact, world building right before our eyes, doing the same things that other authors do in advance, then hide from the reader in order to tell their story. This is, in spite of the complete departure from the usual cliches, the purest form of Hard SF. The plot is simply the characters, and the readers for that matter, learning about the world around them and finding the answers to the mysteries in place from the beginning.

I would go so far as to say that Reynolds is writing Science, as a Platonic ideal. The formulation and execution of plans is Engineering, which he finds much less interesting. Science, as an ideal, is the bold discovery of the unknown, while Engineering is problem solving the known on the way to a solution. Thus, knowing the nature of the Inhibitors is enough, showing the ensuing battle is superfluous. Understanding what Spearpoint is wins out over restoring a world on the brink. Looking at things through the Science – Engineering lens makes everything much clearer.

Setting aside rumination for recommendation, it’s time to make the call on Terminal World. Somebody, somewhere may not like Alastair Reynolds, but I can’t imagine many discriminating SF readers holding that opinion. I’ve liked everything of his that I’ve read, and Terminal is no exception. It’s a bit less daunting that the Inhibitor universe, but no less rewarding. Any serious SF fan should definitely check this one out.

Rating: Those guys that look at the football pitch and see not human beings kicking a ball, but chess-like strategies in motion.


3 thoughts on “Terminal World

  1. A most interesting and insightful review.
    I’m reminded somewhat of a Philip Jose Farmer series “Riverworld,” that I read lo these many years ago, back in the early 1980s, when Pep was just a little shaver, gamely trying to dribble a soccer ball on the pitch. Farmer dreamt up a world in which all living beings were resurrected to a late 1800s technology state, save for “grails” which mysteriously appeared and gave them food. Predictably, the worst of human nature asserted itself, and soon we had Nazis like Hermann Goering (I believe he was the chief villain) holding large remnants in “grail slavery” while Richard Burton (the explorer, NOT the actor and sometime husband of Liz Taylor)
    The series built and built, and I was desperately looking forward to the last volume, when all would be explained. This was to be a resurrection without God or religious significance of any kind, and I wanted to see if Farmer could pull it off. He couldn’t, and he didn’t. The last volume was sadly disappointing, a tremendous letdown, not unlike finding out your girlfriend doesn’t look so hot without her clothes on. (Oops, sorry about that chauvinistic piece of drivel!)
    And so I cheerfully salute anyone who can pull this sort of stuff off and keep it believable, even while asking the reader to suspend his/her belief. Only Patricia McKillip and Michael Moorcock have so far been able to write stuff that I can read that doesn’t even have to be believable in order to be fun as hell. And even then, I get confused so easily that I do like to have a little something objective to cling to.

    • I need to read Farmer. I have a few books here at home, but I’ve never really dug into any of them. I will say though, that the more I read, the more I realize how difficult it is to pull off a good ending. The thing with Reynolds is not that he can’t finish off a book, it’s that his idea of resolution seems very different from the norm. Only Chasm City seems to end in a conventional way (of the books I’ve read), all of the others have the mystery solved, but not the action. It’s a different approach to storytelling.

  2. Oops, one quick error in that last post:
    I meant to say,
    “while Richard Burton (the explorer, NOT the actor and sometime husband of Liz Taylor) and Mark Twain, the chief protagonists, tried to make sense of it all.” Got distracted by my very pretty wife and forgot what I was writing!

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