Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Alastair Reynolds: Ternminal World (2010)

Edition: Gollancz, 2010
Review number: 1400

Many science fiction novels are in a way more about their setting than anything else: it is something that non-fans tend to dislike about the genre. The best of them, of course, make the setting the core of a wider, rounded, story. Where this core is an artefact, it is referred to in science fiction fandom as a "Big Dumb Object" or BDO, for which the prototype is Larry Niven's Ringworld (see the article in the TV Tropes WIKI for other famous examples). BDOs are usually alien artefacts being investigated by human explorers, and Reynolds has already written some stories of this type, such as Absolution Gap and his debut Revelation Space.

Terminal World is a slightly different kind of BDO story. Spearpoint is a huge, decaying city, towering over its surroundings. Both the city and its environs are divided into shifting Zones, where different levels of technology can work, including one known as the Bane which is so inimical that not even basic forms of life can survive. Both Spearpoint and the Zones are human artefacts, but not ones which the current inhabitants, not even the nano-technology using "angels" of the upper levels of the city, can now understand.

Doctor Quillon, the main character of Terminal World, is a renegade angel, product of an experiment by these people - already drastically changed from their human ancestry - to modify themselves so that they could live in the lower levels of Spearpoint. When it seems that his past is about to catch up with him, Quillon escapes from the city and begins a journey across the strange fractured landscape outside the city. While the doctor is quite a well realised character, this journey, the main part of Terminal World, is more about making it possible for the reader to see more of the Zones and the different cultures which have grown up with each level of permissible technology.

This is a pity, as it means that the plot is pretty rudimentary, just a framework to illustrate the Zones in a way that is less interesting than it could be: I think that the way they affect life in Spearpoint is more interesting than what it is like outside the city. The image of a sophisticated cyborg effectively chaining himself to a boiler room in order to use steam power, while unlikely, is intriguing; while that of the Swarm, a loose federation of airship fliers, is much less so. Some of the plot doesn't quite hold together: for example, the leader of the Swarm has recently developed a means of producing large quantities of medicine which helps humans deal with the physiological effects of the passage from one Zone to another just at the time when a major humanitarian crisis caused by shifting Zones in Spearpoint means that it is urgently needed. A journey of discovery like this is typical of BDO stories, but I would have preferred a plot which remained in the fascinating city; this would perhaps have made Terminal City seem rather like one of China MiƩville's novels, but that would not necessarily be a bad thing.

The ideas behind Terminal World are connected with quantum dynamics. In each of the Zones, it appears that the basic structure of matter is slightly different, which means that technologies which rely on, say, electricity may not work in some of them. I don't think the rules are applied quite consistently: how different are the electrical currents in the wire connecting a slight switch and a bulb from the signals in animal nervous systems at a fundamental physical level? So perhaps quantum mechanics - which is suggested by one of the characters in the novel as a possible explanation for the Zones - is not actually behind Reynolds' concept at all, but a red herring.

However, it does fit in with something else: the role of the tectomancers. These are characters with some kind of mental connection to the Zones. They can move the Zone boundaries, and are persecuted and feared as witches or dismissed as legends. One of the more mysterious aspects of quantum mechanics is the role of an observer, whose intervention is required to collaps a statistical description of a phenomenon (the probability that a particle is in a volume of space) to a physical one (the knowledge whether or not the particle is in that volume). Tectomancers seem to be a kind of super-observer, able not just to affect the collapse of the quantum state vector but the rules which define it.

In the end, the combination of one or two good characters, an interesting BDO, and some ideas about quantum mechanics are not enough for Terminal World to be a great science fiction novel. Part of the problem is that none of the characters really understand the Zones, so the reader is not left with much information to work out what they really are, and part is the abandonment of the city for the middle section of the novel. Other questions - such as whether Spearpoint is built on the Earth of the far future, or elsewhere - are left undiscussed, perhaps to provide material for a sequel. Terminal World does make an interesting change from the space opera for which Reynolds is most well known, and is well worth reading by fans of the author. My rating: 6/10.

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