It’s more-or-less exactly a year since I read an Alastair Reynolds novel for the first time, and now here I am, looking at his latest book. Once again, I had a great time reading him – though I can’t shake the feeling I like the idea of Terminal World (and here I’m referring to the underlying structure of the story, rather than the novel’s setting, which is a fine creation) more than I like how that idea plays out in actuality.
At some point in the future, after even the word ‘science’ has been forgotten by many, there is Spearpoint, a giant vertical city divided into ‘zones’, each of which, by some quirk of reality, has a limit to the technology that will function within its boundaries; the further up you go, the more advanced is the technology that becomes feasible. Passing through a zone boundary places great strain on a human body, and ‘antizonal’ drugs are needed for survival (though they’re not a panacea; they just mean you don’t die as quickly).
In the zone of Neon Heights (whose level of technology is equivalent to that of a couple of decades or so before our time), an angel (highly advanced human, that is) falls from the levels above, and is taken to the district pathologist, Quillon. This apparent accident has been engineered just to get a message to Quillon; the pathologist is himself an angel, who was modified to see if the human zones could be infiltrated – and now the angels are coming after him.
In short order, Quillon is given a female bodyguard/courier, Meroka; covertly escorted from Spearpoint; and sets off across the lawless face of Earth to the safety of another human settlement. Capture, intrigue, rescue and discovery all ensue.
The thing that struck me first of all about Terminal World was that Reynolds is a great writer of pace; especially at the beginning, he keeps the plot moving with merciless efficiency. Unfortunately, the pace flags a bit towards the middle, though it does crank up again towards the end. I also found the characterisation rather sketchy (Meroka, for example, never seemed to me to become much more than a ‘tough female bodyguard’, and Quillon felt too much like someone the story happens to, rather than a fully rounded character).
But… Reynolds does something particularly interesting in this novel, which is to take a world with a puzzle at its centre (i.e. what happened to create the zones?) and make that puzzle a tangent to the main story. In other words, this isn’t a straightforward tale of Uncovering the Secret of the World – but, you know, that’s not to say it doesn’t happen… As I said at the beginning, I like the idea of this technique, but I’m not sure how well the mix actually works; in a way, it seems to work against the forward momentum of the story. Still, despite these reservations, I enjoyed Terminal World; it’s a good read.