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 winged posthuman from Spearpoint’s Celestial Levels – and with the dying body comes bad news.
If 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 imagine. 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 . . .
Quillion is our main character, although Meroka joins him at an early stage as his guide to escaping Spearpoint in one piece after the news bought to him by a dying Angel. Quillion, a modified Angel himself using drugs and surgery to stay relatively incognito, turns to Fray, a long time associate who not only has the connections to get him out of Spearpoint, but is the only one that know of his true identity in Neon Heights. As the journey starts we see the lower state zones of Spearpoint as well as the expanse beyond it and how people live and cope in these lands across the world. While the threats from Skullboys and Vorgs a very real possibility in the lands beyond the city, it is an immense zone shift that causes the most problems for the world, and especially Spearpoint.
What Alastair Reynolds has done with Terminal World is created a rich and multi-layered story, often giving vivid descriptions of the surroundings, both in Spearpoint and beyond. The whole idea of Spearpoint gives so much to use, while the zones on Earth set each section apart very well. The use of drugs to treat sickness when crossing between higher and lower states of reality is a good plot device that allows for both excitement and danger, but more than anything it shows that humanity has to adapt to its surroundings and is limited because of them. Apart from Spearpoint, the Swarm was a particular favourite of mine. The Swarm is a gathering of hundreds of airships that move from place to place, surviving and scavenging whatever resources they can. The first glimpse of it is particularly amazing and shows that just because this isn’t space-based SF it can still portray that sensawunda that I love so much in the genre.
The character dynamics are also good, with Quillion and Meroka having a strange relationship with many bumps along the road. Quillion himself is able to interact well with the characters and despite being an Angel he is more forthcoming than I would have imagined, thinking of others before himself. Because he is the main focus of the narrative it is his actions that usually dictate the way other characters act and react, but this does not feel forced or wrong, just a natural progression from interactions during the course of the story.
Many questions are raised in Terminal World, but not all are answered and this is where I find things lacking. The focus on Quillion and Meroka mean that it is their priorities that we follow, and as such we miss out on the deeper questions that are raised. It’s not completely ignored – one particular side character is very interested in this and I found myself thoroughly enjoying those sections. However, too many loose ends are left. I’m not aware if a series will spawn out of Terminal World, but there is certainly scope for another book that could answer many of the underlying and fundamental questions about the setting that were left hanging. I also felt that the pacing was a little slow at times and I thought that some sections could have been shortened to give a more focused and consistent read. The story is interesting, but it just doesn’t deliver it in such a way that I could thoroughly enjoy.
All in all I thought Terminal World was a great novel and would heartily recommend it to any SF fan – the points I felt disappointed with are more to do with my personal tastes rather than a badly written story. Alastair Reynolds shows once again why he’s one of Britain’s top science fiction writers and is well deserved.