Monday, 16 May 2011

Angelic science fiction

As alluded to previously, birthday/Christmas 2010 yielded me a new Alastair Reynolds novel. In what's becoming quite common for Reynolds now, Terminal World is another set outside of his Revelation Space series, and another that creates and fills its own universe. So, what's the universe like this time?

Quillon, a doctor working in a morgue in the last human city Spearpoint, is an angel. Or, rather, he was an angel. Sent in disguise by his fellow angels from the towering, high-tech heights of Spearpoint to its lower, and low-tech, levels, he was tasked with infiltrating the humans there to act as a spy. Rebelling against his angelic masters, he was forced to disappear into the society he was sent to undermine, making a living as a coroner known for strangeness, but with an interest in the occasional angel corpses that fall from above. The delivery of one such body to Quillon, one who is less dead than he first appears, reveals that the angels above have not forgotten about him, and forces Quillon to break his cover and escape from Spearpoint. Through shady contacts made during his time in the lower levels, Quillon is paired with the business-like Meroka who acts as his guide and protector as they descend through the zones of Spearpoint and head for the surrounding territory.

But the adventures of Quillon and Merkoa don't end once they have escaped Spearpoint and the attention of the angelic Ghouls sent to kill them. Instead, in the badlands that ring the city, where technology mysteriously no longer functions, they encounter Skullboys, members of a violent and terrorising gang, Vorgs, organic cyborgs with an interest in human brains, and the Swarm, a flotilla of airships that once served as Spearpoint's military. They also encounter a persecuted mother and child, Kalis and Nimcha, who both seemingly bear the mark of the Tectomancer. This mark purportedly grants the bearer supernatural powers, and instils fear and suspicion in the inhabitants of the badlands. Quillon is more skeptical, but his attention is drawn when Nimcha saves their lives using inexplicable means.

Meanwhile, back at Spearpoint, a shift in the zones that shape the technological landscape causes disaster. Now captured/rescued by the Swarm, Quillon persuades Ricasso, their dilettante commander, to mount a rescue mission to deliver much-needed supplies. But Quillon also believes, and Ricasso concurs, that Nimcha's powers hint at connections between so-called Tectomancy, Spearpoint and the byzantine technological zones that divide their world. The return journey involves intrigue aboard the airship flotilla, tantalising hints about the history of earlier, high-tech societies, and a full Skullboy onslaught. And the troubles continue on arrival, with treacherous gangsters now running Spearpoint, Ghouls still on the lookout for Quillon, and unexpected revelations in the deep core of the city.

To answer my opening question, this universe is pretty cool. As Reynolds has shown again and again and again, he has no trouble conjuring up original and distinctive visions of alternative futures. His creation of Spearpoint is no exception, and he does a pretty masterful job of keeping it largely under wraps and only slowly letting the reader find out what's really going on. To the extent that, at first, it reads a little more like a baroque fantasy novel, with the Angels standing in for the elves, and the Skullboys filling in the role of Orcs. Until the revelation count picks up in the latter third, only the occurrence of high-tech weapons, and the appearance of the distinctively science fiction Vorgs, reminds the reader that physics rather than flimsy mythology underlies Reynolds' world.

In passing, but on the subject of Reynolds' deft hiding of details, it's only now that I've had a look at the novel's Wikipedia article that the penny's finally dropped about the actual location of the novel. There are hints throughout (where are the oceans?), but I never thought deeply enough about them to realise that Reynolds was pulling an impressive fast one with the setting. He leaves rather clever clues dotted through the novel, but I don't think that it ever once breaks cover and baldly makes the point (though, obviously, I'll be pretty embarrassed if it actually does and I just missed it). My cap is most definitely doffed.

Leaving aside Reynolds' new world, how does the rest of the novel stack up? Overall: pretty well. But much as with his last novel, House of Suns, Reynolds starts well, finishes very impressively, but rather sags in the middle. Annoyingly, he does so for very similar reasons too - an extended, and largely tangential digression, into dull detail and characters. While the Swarm are definitely an interesting invention, and come off somewhere between the RAF and an honourable band of good-natured pirates, the delving into their internal politics is almost completely beside the point. Paradoxically, it's also where Reynolds somewhat pushes fast-forward on the revelations, but he does so by introducing Ricasso, and allowing him to converse at length with Quillon on the nature of their world.

Reynolds repeats his pattern of an exponential flux of revelations near the end of the novel, also from House of Suns. In only a few short pages, the reader is shown a great deal of what underpins Spearpoint, although Reynolds still (pleasingly) leaves tantalising loose ends. This is a getting to be a bit of a habit for Reynolds' non-Revelation Space novels, but it's one that I quite like. The alternative, where the novelist lays all of the cards on the table by the end, affords some immediate satisfaction, but leaves the cupboard uncomfortably (and, arguably, unrealistically) bare of mystery. Reynolds' approach also leaves a good deal of breathing space should he ever need to clamber onto the sequel train, but thus far (and creditably) he's resisted the temptation (except, obviously, with Revelation Space). That said, I'm sure that some readers will be put out by what are really quite significant unresolved threads.

Overall, a very enjoyable addition to his canon. Clearly not without its flaws, but they occur in the middle portion of the novel, so are largely forgotten by the end, and aren't exactly terrible either. Just unnecessarily long-winded and beside-the-point (IMHO). So, once again, I'll definitely be waiting for his next novel. And will be wondering what sort of world he'll be creating next.

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