Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

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 . . .
Alastair Reynolds is an author whose books I always want to read when they come out and he writes some of the best short fiction I’ve read. But when it comes to his full length novels I seem to find that they’re very hit and miss with me – I loved Pushing Ice, but I was very disappointed with House of Suns. So when his new novel was announced last year and it promised to be something a little different from his usual hard sf approach, I was very interested. What I found in Terminal World was a very rewarding read, but not without some problems. Read on for more…

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.

15 thoughts on “Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds”

  1. Sounds good.

    Dark fantasy is my genre of choice, but I'm not averse to a little hard sci-fi from time to time, and Alastair Reynolds is a name that I keep hearing. From the sounds of it, this book could very well be the perfect introduction to him.

  2. I think this could work better than his other work as an introduction, mainly because it is isn't his usual hard sci-fi, but more of a steampunk/fantasy/sci-fi hybrid – it works well. I would suggest either this, Pushing Ice, Century Rain or any of his short story collections (which are great)!

  3. Excellent review Mark! I found the whole notion of the zones, where different levels of technology worked in different zones, quite Vingean at first but Reynolds added his own twist by making the changes and reasons seem more like magic than technology.

    I agree about the pacing: after an initial burst, the next 100 pages or so seemed a bit slow. But just as I thought we were settling into some kind of version of The Road, along came the airships and (quite literally) picked things up.

    I also think there seemed to be a few too many loose ends, but ultimately I didn't have a problem with that. Seasoned SF readers could probably fill in the blanks: in fact, I liked how there wasn't too much exposition or info-dumping to wrap things up, and that several alternative explanations were posited by the characters. For once this made the reader think about what had happened.

    I've read all Al Reynold's books and loved every one. Terminal World had me a bit worried at first: Al excels at hard SF and this one at first seemed like some attempt at a fantasy (and I'd hated Richard Morgan's switch into that genre). I needn't have worried though: the "magical" explanations for the tech were appropriate from the character's viewpoints.

  4. How could you say House Of Suns was disappointing?? OMG!! I've been reading Sci Fi/Fantasy for years…and years…and years.. Most of it sucks…some of it's good…and every now and then, you come across a book that makes you remember WHY you started reading Sci Fi in the first place..
    For me….that book was House Of Suns. It had that certain level of wonder in it…and because there are no Star Wars laser beam fights…and he used physics as we believe it will evolve within the next few hundred years as a stopgap…what came out was absolutely brilliant!!
    Yes, I liked Pushing Ice.. More than I expected, to be sure…but it wasn't a House Of Suns..
    Another book I enjoyed and a lot of reviewers panned….was Century Rain. Another book that was entertaining.
    As a matter of fact, Alastair Reynolds hasn't really written ANY novels that have been bad….except the last Revelation Space novel… That book,well,kinda blew… I still finished it..but was left wondering..well..just wondering.
    I'd like to see him write more books in the vein of Chasm City…but that's more along the Takeshi Kovacs by Richard Morgan's sphere of influence…
    The Prefect…was weak…and I still haven't finished it. But House of Suns I thought was his best work to date…
    To each their own…but I am surprised that you felt let down or something to that effect. Weird, huh?
    To me, House Of Suns was like our generations I, Robot…or just name a Golden Age title…and that's what I mean…and I think that's what he was going for.. that sense of wonder you felt as a kid when you picked up your first Asimov book…or reading the Rama books…but better, because the science is better.
    Let's face it…those other books were written in the 1970s when science wasn't very far off from what they were studying 50 years prior… Now, with the leaps and bounds in the last 20 years…House of Suns just made my day!! I would almost wish for a series…but that would ruin, imho, a perfect, or almost perfect, book! (there's ALWAYS room for improvement)


  5. Just finished House of Suns, and it lingers wonderfully in my imagination. Enjoyed it as much as Revelation Space. Perhaps I don't know great from good, but I do know I couldn't stop turning pages.

  6. Dear friends of Alastair

    I'm a huge fan too – read all his stuff and found Terminal World a great book as well, however – with too many loose ends, as many of you concur. I actually wrote to him to praise him for all his books, but also to say that he appears to write quite a few books which "demand" a sequel which he won't write. As regards Terminal World, I explained to him that the book leaves you with too many unanswered questions, to which he responded (1) many people don't see the big picture (2) a clue: IT ISN'T EARTH ! he then said I should read it a second time. So, apparently, although the characters in the book think they are on Earth, it is not actually Earth which they are on …. there are clues in the book , some obvious, some subtle, which, apparently, I all failed to pick up.
    So, as I don't necessarily want to read the book again – does anybody here have an answer to this ?

    Anyway, he is brilliant, he writes fantastic books and I can't wait for the day that some of his stuff is turned into film.

  7. Did you people read the same book I did?

    I am a huge fan of Reynolds but I found this book to be utter dross.

    "The character dynamics are also good.." really? I felt they were written by 9-year old who was bored.

    I hope his next book is better!

  8. Well, regarding the place where it all happens, there's a nice explanation here, which fits with the existence of "the Moon’s two halves" and with one character's hypothesis, regarding the atmosphere, that "It’s like a bucket with a leak in it. Someone filled it to the brim a long time ago, and now it’s draining out. Earth’s gravity simply isn’t strong enough to retain a warm, breathable atmosphere over thousands of years.". Although I think Mr. Reynolds doesn't play entirely fair, as – besides everybody referring to their planet as "Earth" – at one point, a character notices that "Venus was already bright in the western sky, and the cold eye of Mars shone balefully in the east."

  9. Enjoyable read. The novel is asking for some kind of a sequel. I decided by the end that the mysterious symbol was the Chinese flag and Earth as in fact Mars in the far future after terraforming.

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