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Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

01/03/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Terminal World in the USA - or Buy Terminal World in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 583 page enlarged paperback. Price: 12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-08493-3).

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Following a widely-publicised 1 million, ten-book deal from Gollancz in 2009, Alastair Reynolds may currently be one of the best known living British writers of Science Fiction. Starting with 'Revelation Space' a decade ago, all eight of his novels so far have been firmly in the stable of hard SF. This is perhaps not surprising for a man with a PhD in astronomy who worked for the European Space Agency until becoming a full-time writer. However, his latest novel, 'Terminal World', is a departure from previous form, being as much steampunk as it is hard SF. Is this change of sub-genre a success?

'Terminal World' is set in and around Spearpoint, a strange carbuncle on the surface of a far-future Earth, rising from the equator into space like the legendary Tower of Babel. Its inhabitants live on its outer surface, which is divided into distinct zones. The level of technology that can function in each zone increases the higher up you go, from horses and ploughs at the bottom to computers and rockets at the top. Most people live all their lives in a single zone as moving between them causes zone sickness. Without rapid medical treatment, it's a sickness that ends in a painful death.

Doctor Quillon used to be one of the winged Angels who live in the Celestial Levels, the highest inhabited zone on Spearpoint. He has spent the last nine years of his life under deep cover, posing as a pathologist in Neon Heights, having been surgically altered so he can survive in the lower zone and pass for a human. When a rebel angel deliberately crash-lands in Neon Heights, condemning himself to a slow death in order to meet Quillon, the news can't be good. The Angels think something catastrophic is about to happen to the whole of Spearpoint. If it makes the Celestial Levels uninhabitable, their plan is to invade the lower levels and take over. To do that, they need to capture and dissect Quillon to understand how his alterations have helped him survive in the human levels for so much longer than expected. If he wants to live, he needs to get out of Spearpoint fast.

Contacts in the shady underbelly of Spearpoint society help Quillon to escape, led to relative safety by a foul-mouthed female agent called Meroka. They make it to Spearpoint's base and head off towards a nearby ground-level trading station. Half-way there, however, the Angels' prediction comes true. A sudden huge zone shift kills their horses, makes them both ill and appears to knock out most of Spearpoint. They recover, courtesy of Quillon's medicine bag, then come across a slave caravan wrecked by the zone shift where they find a witch called Kalis and her nine year-old daughter Nimcha locked up in a cage. Many Spearpointers are scared of these mythical witches or tectomancers as they're known. Quillon dismisses such primitive folklore and rescues them. It doesn't take long for him to realise he's wrong on two counts. First, that the tectomancer is not the mother but her young daughter. Second, that tectomancers do have genuine powers, as Nimcha soon shows by creating a small zone shift when she gets scared.

Shortly afterwards, the four of them are taken prisoner by a crew from the Swarm, Spearpoint's historic enemies, who have created a mobile city comprising hundreds of airships. Quillon meets and is fascinated by Ricasso, military commander of the entire flotilla and scientist researching for a cure for zone sickness. He persuades Ricasso that Nimcha's gift may be powerful enough to abolish the zones forever. To do that, however, she needs to be taken back to Spearpoint, the centre of all the recent instability. In parallel, Quillon finds out that Ricasso's research has generated a huge amount of medicine that could help Spearpoint's people recover from the recent zone shift. Quillon persuades Ricasso that the Swarm should travel to Spearpoint, not only for Nimcha's sake but to distribute this medicine to the suffering city.

The journey back to Spearpoint takes them over previously uncharted territory where they find a second Spearpoint, this one dead and broken, alongside evidence that an earlier human civilisation achieved interstellar spaceflight. However, when they finally get close to Spearpoint there are so many further obstacles to be dealt with that Ricasso's plan for overcoming them looks suicidal. Will they ever manage to put Quillon's grand plan into effect?

I enjoyed 'Terminal World' hugely for the pace, the characters, the invention and the common humanity that runs through the whole story. I loved the protagonist, Doctor Quillon, a complex and fully realised character. He is an outcast, an alienated figure, neither human nor Angel. Yet he is also the most humane person we meet. He is thoughtful, empathetic and caring. I sometimes started wondering how he could have such reserves of fellow-feeling for the less likeable characters he met, yet Reynolds always managed to motivate his sympathy for others convincingly. Even so, Quillon is not a perfect being. He is too passive in some situations and can let his medical ethics blind him to the dangers of the real world.

Meroka is a great foil to Quillon. Where he is calm, rational and sometimes passive, she spends her life angry, feisty and quick to action. Yet although she's tough, she also has her tender side. It is Meroka, not Quillon, who reads picture books to the terrified little girl, Nimcha, to help her get to sleep at night. Perhaps this tells us something about the difference between being humane and being human.

The levels of invention in this book are impressive. Spearpoint is an extraordinary idea, both as a series of zones to live on and in terms of its original space-faring function, which is hinted at when the Swarm happens across the broken Spearpoint Two. Many wonderful creatures also inhabit this world, including the Angels from whom Quillon has come, a race of carnivorous cybernetic wolves called vorgs and the Mad Machines, huge autonomous robots who live deep beneath the surface of Spearpoint and may, with Nimcha's help, be able to find the solution to the zone shifting problem.

The importance of humanity, compassion and rationalism are repeatedly stressed throughout the book. If Quillon hadn't persuaded Meroka to help him rescue Kalis and Nimcha, despite her fear of tectomancers, they would never have had the possibility to fix zone shifts permanently. Equally, it is Ricasso's scientific research and the drugs that result from it that will ultimately save Spearpoint's people.

I have two minor gripes about the novel. In the first chapter, Quillon extracts components for a powerful gun from the dying angel's body. This seems highly significant at the time. However, the gun stops working very quickly and then isn't mentioned again. I couldn't, therefore, see why so much had been made of it in the first place. Second, although Nimcha ultimately emerges as the central character of the novel, she never really became a three-dimensional person to me. I would have liked to have seen and heard more from her during the story. Getting to know her better would, I think, have made her eventual fate even more compelling than it was.

These are, however, very minor shortcomings in an extremely enjoyable story. Reynolds' move into a new sub-genre is most certainly a success. 'Terminal World' is a great read and a worthy addition to his existing stable of hard SF novels. The ending sets things up nicely for a sequel. I'm looking forward to it already.

Patrick Mahon

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