I’ve read all of Alastair Reynolds’ books, from Revelation Space (2000) to Blue Remembered Earth (2012). The only novel I hadn’t read was Terminal World (and the Deep Navigation  collection), which I had bought in 2010 but was leery of reading it because I don’t fancy the steampunk tread in modern sci-fi. As soon as I started it, however, I was sucked in.
In a bold move, Alastair Reynolds abandons his deep-space roots for a more terrestrial novel based around dirigibles and vertical cities. Unsurprisingly, Reynolds is a keen enough writer to entertain and enthrall the reader enough to have them forget about any deep-space, galaxy-faring sojourns. The down-to-“Earth” plot is mysterious and intriguing—a pretty sweet synergy which differs from anything else Reynolds has written.
Rear cover synopsis:
“Spearpoint, the last human city, is an atmosphere-piercing spire of vast size. Clinging to its skin are the zones, a series of semi-autonomous city-states, each of which enjoys a different—and rigidly enforced—level of technology. Horsetown is pre-industrial; in Neon Heights they have television and electric trains…
Following an infiltration mission that went tragically wrong, Quillon has been living incognito, working as a pathologist in the district morgue. But when a near-dead angel drops onto his dissecting table, Quillon’s world is wrenched apart one more time, for the angel is a winger posthuman from Spearpoint’s Celestial Levels—and with the dying body comes bad news.
In Quillon is to save his life, he must leave his home and journey into the cold and hostile lands beyond Spearpoint’s base, starting an exile that will take him further than he could ever have imagined. But there is far more at stake than just Quillon’s own survival, for the limiting technologies of the zones are determined not by governments or police, but by the very nature of reality—and reality itself is showing worrying signs of instability…”
The Godscraper of Spearpoint tapers into the sky, its base broad and bucolic with a level of technology naturally limited to the horse and carriage rig; this level of technology is governed by the forces of “zones” which crisscross the Spire and the land beyond. Rising from the manure of Horsetown, the Zones gradually become more technology-friendly allowing for steam engines, electricity, and circuit boards. Above these modest levels of technological sophistication are the Celestial Levels, a zone which is implied to have nanotechnology, yet entry into this exclusive level is forbidden by ordinary humans; this level is inhabited by exotically modified humans who glide around the Spire’s pinnacle on the thermals from below—angels, only in the sense of flight and grace because it’s the moral indifference which stymies the love from below.
Beyond the Spire lays a barren landscape inhabited by hoards of thieves, semaphore stations, and infrequent outposts. Some of these outposts are fueling stations for the Swarm, an enclave of humans kept aloft by scores of dirigibles. The Swarm used to be affiliated with the Spire, but an event caused a rift between the two, so the Swarm now hold a grudge against the dirt-rats of the Spire and ply the winds for trade and exploration.
Quillon (hereby known as Q) has a secret. Sure, he’s the morgue’s physician with a special interest in dissecting fallen angels, but while is outer form is a lanky human, his true form ahs origins in the Celestial Levels above. This secret is only known to a local gang boss who has a mutually beneficial relationship with the fallen angel. Once an agent sent to study the ordinary humans, the mission parameters unexpectedly changed and Q found himself against his own people in a city where his kind are hated; he was alone. After nine years among the humans and six years of being a pathologist, his social circle is still small and the angels are still after his knowledge—knowledge which must be extracted without care to his corporeality. When another of these fallen angels offers an open threat to Q, he must elude his tails and seek solace in the unforgiving lands beyond the Spire.
Once having descended from the spiraling cities of the Spire, Q and his abettor Meroka set out to one of the two cities which share the renownedness for having a human population above a handful. Once out of the Spire, they witness a catastrophic zone storm which sweeps through the hinterlands and the Spire; a storm which shifts nearly all technological levels down to horse-and-buggy. The passing from zones causes severe illness in those who experience the transition, where passages between dissimilar zones wreaking havoc on the human nervous system. Lucky for Meroka, Q is a doctor with a handy supply of drugs to temper the body against the worst of the effects. Yet, the entire population of the Spire are experienced unparalleled pain through their transition to a pre-industrial zone. Q mourns.
As the marauders, known as the Skullboys, pass by their secreted lookout, the outcast duo view a caged mother and child trailing the gang. Later, their advancement is interrupted when they see the same rampaging retinue burning at the side of the road. Q and Meroka rescue the mother and child, only to be recaptured by the Skullboys and given as bounty to the Vorgs—biomechanical monstrosities which devour nerve tissue through stripping flesh or trepanning. Q’s imminent death is staved off by the descent of one ship from the Swarm, who execute the Skullboys, deal death to a few of the Vorgs, and capture one Vorg for the Swarm’s leader—Ricasso.
Initially, their arrival is suspect. Q, however, is able to charm his way into the pockets of the Swarm’s doctor and the Swarm’s leader; his motivation for involvement is two-fold: firstly, he must protect the identity of the girl, whose cranial birthmark holds superstitious suspicions and secondly, he must find a way to alleviate the suffering of all those still within the cities on the Spire. Q maintains the secret of the girl’s superstitious ability as a tectomancer, which allows her to control the flux of zones, and maintains his own secret of being a fallen angel, a secret he has kept from Meroka who has a passionate hatred for all angels.
Eventually, all truths come to head and Q must face discrimination and distrust in his four-person clan and amid the Swarm’s ships. His track record of honesty and duty earns him privy with the Ricasso, so most doubts are subdued, yet factions still align against Ricasso and Q. When Ricasso decides to take the Swarm through an uncharted, desolate, once deadly portion of land known as the Bane—where no man, animal or tree grows—the factions split the Swarm when mutiny strikes. The course through the Bane, however, has been recently charted to be passable and shortcut will allow them to deliver drugs to the Spire sooner.
The trip through the Bane is without peril, yet is abound with mysteries of the past: mechanical wreckage, painted symbols, derelict edifices, and historical indicators. The real peril comes near, on, and in the Spire where the Skullboys have found a toehold, where a small-time cog in the underground gang machine has become the power plant for the entire operation, and where Mad Machines toil and trouble in the depths of the Spire. Q’s purpose: deliver medicine and allow the tectomancer her destiny.
The start of the novel is fast and viscous, a slippery slide of exploring the intriguing element of Spire and becoming immersed in Q’s dilemma. Many things are mentioned in passing by the more knowledgeable Meroka, items which foreshadow future events. I use “foreshadow” in the sense that it was entirely predictable that the curious elements mentioned by Meroka would eventually surface, play its hand at havoc once or twice, and ebb into a non-issue. In this regard, no punches are pulled, no rabbits are pulled from the hat; therefore, the twists in the plot feel flaccid, merely adding an element of excitement to the plot rather than turning it on its axis.
The one issue which the reader desires to understand—the origin and function of the zones—is, sadly, unfulfilling. The solution is a bow to technological supremacy, an admittance of the character’s failure to grasp history’s impact on the present. The Mad Machines are about as good at it gets when it comes to answers, but the resulting conclusion of the meeting leaves a vapid hole in my want for loving this book. Perhaps this is because I could never be satisfied with the tectomancer’s abilities of shifting zones at will, an ability which sounds all too psychic too be worthy of science fiction. This is what I refer to when I say Reynolds takes a “bow to technological supremacy”—taking a limited character perspective in order to avoid describing the science and reason behind a key technology in the plot.
Some elements of Steampunk do annoy me, however, in Terminal World. I’m getting really sick of reading about dirigibles in nearly every science fiction book which hails from the United Kingdom, Michael Cobley and Ken MacLeod among them. There seems to be a constant mention of valves, pressure, gas, pumps, lift, and ballast. I don’t even think it’s exactly established WHY the Swarm decided to remain aloft rather than settle down like a common landlubber. The amount of fuel to keep the Swarm up and about would be absurd, wouldn’t it?
Considering the sub-genre’s balancing act between industrial technology and most-modern technology, Alastair manages the feat well. While there are gas-burning blimps above, below there are brain-thirsty robots; there are steam-powered trolleys on the road, beneath hide multi-storey mechanical junkpiles of custodial merit; there are horses which trod paths radiating from the Spire, above flux and glide the thermal-hugging angels with their nanotechnological wonders. Yet, there’s a noticeable gap between the two, such as life in Neon Heights and Circuit City where city life would resemble that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Terminal World is a nice departure from Alastair’s normal deep-space focus; it carries over his talent of creating detailed and absorbing worlds through unique tangents of plot attack. I may have been predisposed to dislike this sub-genre, but I ended up liking the technological elements and future history elements more than the drop into industrialism in the Steampunk manner. Aside from the unsatisfying conclusion regarding the power of the girl’s tectomancer prowess, there’s one added twist (the only satisfying twist in the book actually) which requires some of the reader’s ability to delineate hints and nudges into a logical assumption. It’s a bit of a puzzle, but diligent reader’s ought to be able to figure it out.