Science Fiction Though the Decades

Saturday, April 21, 2012

2008: City at the End of Time (Bear, Greg)

Bear's worst sci-fi: bleak, repetitive, boring (2/5)
April 30, 2010

Having read fifteen of Bear's science fiction novels and two of his own short story collections, I considered myself very well versed in the books which Bear produced. Everything I read up to Darwin's Children was inventive and usually quite good (though Psychlone and Beyond Heaven's River didn't rank very highly). When Bear wrote Darwin's Children, the sequel to Darwin's Radio, it felt like Bear was taking a shot at the mainstream market, like Crichton does with his brand of science fiction. Sure enough, the next three novels were Deadlines, Vitals, and Quantico... all of which I passed up because they weren't written with the same awe and wonder as Eon, Eternity or even Hegira. When I heard that Bear was penning a new science fiction novel, it immediately went on my to-buy list.

Rear cover synopsis:
"In a time like the present, in a world that may or may not be our own, three young people–Ginny, Jack, and Daniel–dream of a decadent, doomed city of the distant future: the Kalpa. But more than dreams link these three: They are fate-shifters, born with the ability to skip across the surface of the fifth dimension, inhabiting alternate versions of themselves. And each guards an object whose origin and purpose are unknown: gnarled, stony artifacts called sum-runners that persist unchanged through all versions of time. Hunted by others with similar powers who seek the sum-runners on behalf of a terrifying, goddess-like entity known as the Chalk Princess, Ginny, Jack, and Daniel are drawn into an all but hopeless mission to rescue the future–and complete the greatest achievement in human history."

The City at the End of Time is NOT written in Bear's grand science fiction tradition as The Forge of God, Blood Music or Moving Mars. Sadly, Bear has taken it to himself to continue to pursue a more mainstream market, only this time his intended target is young adults. This book isn't exactly for the serious science fiction reader unless you like magic stones, enchanted books, and mysterious cats, which sounds more like a Fritz Leiber's fun novel Gather, Darkness than it does a Gear Bear sci-fi novel. It meanders and skips its way too far into the boring realm of fantasy than it does march up to the comforting fortress walls of science fiction.

I just can't wrap my head around what Bear was aiming for, usually never a problem for a 100-books-per-year reader like me. Bear pours too many proper nouns for deities or beings or people or places which are given very little description or purpose (e.g. Chalk Princess, the Librarian, the Mistress, the Great Door, City Prince, the Bleak Warden). Nearly every page the reader is confronted by any number of these proper nouns for which the reader has very little to relate to what their actually reading and trying to understand... does that sound right? Putting a name with a developed character (which Bear did a decent job of) is one way to associate with that character, but why did Bear name the three young "fate-shifters" after alcohol? There's Jack, Daniel and Ginny; mere oversight, maybe.

Along with the endless stream of random proper nouns, there seems to be a theme of repetition which only goes to annoy me rather than plant any firm idea into my skull. Throughout the novel the characters "shiver" about ten times (something which I've noted in other novels as well- too much shivering) and the bleak descriptions of the Chaos are the same for hundreds of pages- black or gray, crusty or brittle, hilly or flat. I'm not sure location in the novel is more bleak- that of Seattle or that of the Chaos. Either way, this novel isn't one to lift your spirits nor would it make a good beach read.

A glossary or appendix would have assisted in understanding the finer points of the novel, but polish it all you like it won't become a better novel. I may just reread some of the older Bear novels to renew my faith in him as one of the great science fiction writers of the 80s and 90s... but no later (besides Bear's latest novel Hull Zero Three, which was fantastic).

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