I’ve joined Sci-fi month, which is hosted this year by Over the Effing Rainbow and There’s Always Room for One More! This is my first post of the month, and I’m going to try to keep up a steady stream of sci-fi reviews for November. This review of Terminal World kicks off the month, and the continuing read-along of The Expanse, with Babylon’s Ashes, will also be a weekly feature.
Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds
Published: Ace Books/Gollancz (2010)
“The world has been broken for longer than human memory. Many humans live in Spearpoint, a vertical city that is striated by zones that restrict the level of functioning technology. People are limited by these boundaries, as well, and cannot survive in zones much different from their original homes. Quillon is an exception. He was an ‘angel’, an advanced human that could only exist in the highest reaches of the city. An infiltration research project gone wrong has left him living as an ordinary human in a lower zone.
It was inevitable that his former countrymen would one day find him, and on that day he must go on the run in earnest. His journey out of Spearpoint and through the dying wastes of the planet will introduce him to both horrors and revelations, with unexpected friends along the way. The key to his future, and the future of his world, may lie in its past.” ~Allie
I really enjoy Alastair Reynolds’s stories, and I listened to this one on audiobook. The narrator, John Lee, was excellent. He gave a lot of life and individuality to the various characters.
Terminal World is a departure from the usual far-future space opera that I expect from Reynolds. Instead, it is a dying-Earth adventure story, with something of a steampunk/Mad Max aesthetic. As in these types of stories, there is not a particularly strong throughline, and the protagonist wanders through a series of encounters with different creatures and communities. I really liked the characters, particularly the protagonist Quillon. As a doctor and a disguised angel, he was less physically capable and more compassionate than most heroes that grace these kinds of stories. He was balanced by his guide, a tough, pragmatic, foul-mouthed woman named Meroka. Along the way they meet a number of other interesting people, including airship pilots, scientists, and a ‘magic child’ that surprisingly did not annoy me.
The most notable communities Quillon encounters are his home of Spearpoint and a large airship community called Swarm. I enjoyed seeing the differences in the character of these two groups. For instance, Spearpoint is full of webs of organized crime, secrets and dark tunnels, while Swarm has a constant focus on movement and forward momentum. It’s not surprising that Swarm is where we see one of my favorite things--rediscovering science in a fictional world. One of the airship leaders, Ricasso, is intent on reviving science, both for progress and to understand the origins of their world. It was fun reading discussions on these topics, and slowly seeing how the different clues scattered through the story fit together. Ricasso and the others are working with very limited information, though, so there’s still plenty left to speculation. These were some of my favorite parts of the book.
As much as I liked the parts about studying the past and developing science, I also enjoyed all the action and excitement that seemed to constantly find Quillon. He fled from pursuing angels into a waste filled with violent “skull boys” and organic-mechanical “carnivorgs”. His path wanders from one crisis to another, with intense airship battles and betrayals along the way. I felt that ending came a bit abruptly, and it did not resolve everything in a way I expected. There is enough resolution to allow you to speculate what the future holds for Quillon and the others, so I was pretty satisfied. It is a rather open ending, though, and it doesn’t appear that Reynolds has any plans to write a sequel. Overall, this was an interesting world, and I would be happy if he ever decided to return to it.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Terminal World is different from the kind of story I expect from Alastair Reynolds. Rather than space opera, this one is a dying-Earth (though not literally set on Earth) adventure. I found the cast to be varied and interesting, and I liked the atypical hero we follow in the doctor Quillon. The story had plenty of excitement and action, and I especially enjoyed seeing the characters attempt to methodically understand the origins and prospects for their world. The ending was rather abrupt, but sufficient to conclude the story. After such an entertaining book, I’m even more eager to catch up with other books of Reynolds’s that I have missed!