Alistair Reynolds redoes the dying earth trope

Alastair Reynolds. Terminal World (2010).

Alastair Reynolds has written some great high tech near & far future stories, including the galaxy-&-eons-spanning House of Suns. In Terminal World, he offers his unique take on the dying earth scenario first made highly popular by Jack Vance & perhaps carried to its high literary zenith by Gene Wolfe, & adds a dash of steampunk to the mix. The title is a sly pun that only becomes clear near the end of this complex partly picaresque journey across a world seemingly trapped in entropy, what’s left of its civilization unsure of what to do about this cultural & societal decline. Spearpoint is the last human city, towering up beyond the atmosphere, although inhabited, in different ‘zones’ with differing technologies, only within it. In the electrically superior Neon Heights, Quillon, a pathologist in the district morgue, is called upon to dissect an ‘angel,’ one of the posthumans living near the top in the Celestial Levels. Not quite dead, the angel tells him that he must flee Spearpoint as his enemies among the angels are after him. Quillon was an angel, but he was changed, made over so as to survive in lower levels. His history is fraught with betrayals, & now he must seek help from the one man who knows his secret & venture into even lower tech levels & eventually out into the hostile lands beyond Spearpoint’s base.

He begins with a hired extraction specialist, Meroka, but his extraction goes awry, & they end up together in the wild, trying to avoid the dementedly violent Skullboys. Eventually he, with Meroka’s reluctant help, rescues a mother & child from a wrecked Skullboy caravan. It’s a very raw world out beyond Spearpoint’s borders, but there is one remnant of civilization, the airborne blimp ‘city,’ Swarm, which rescues them from the Vorgs, half machine half organic monsters who would drain them of their brains. Swarm has its own problems, but the ship captain who saved them slowly learns to trust Quillon for his medical skills & aid. The leader of Swarm, who sees himself as something of a scientist (a practice long lost on this world), is also interested in him, & in the girl he rescued, who seems to be a ‘tectomancer,’ someone who can move the ‘zones.’ Since machines cannot cross zone boundaries safely, & people can only do so with the aid of drugs, the world has become ever more anarchic & divided. As Quillon & his companions, for this is also a kind of quest novel, journey across the blasted landscape of their world, they (& we) learn more & more about what it really is. Its inhabitants think it’s the Earth, but that may not be the case, & what does the wreck of another Spearpoint-like city mean?

After many adventures & near disasters, the core group return to Spearpoint & enter its hidden depths to find out. The novel ends before any of them learn everything but the hints are there of a larger galaxy spanning history from which this world has been cut off for millennia. Reynolds has found an interesting narrative tone for this novel, distant, a little aloof yet slowly warming to all the characters Quillon meets as he becomes more immersed in others people he must count upon & who count upon him. Reynolds is one of the new British SF stars, a scientist who can write, whose imagination strikes out much further than most. One of the new masters of what Brian Aldiss once called wide-screen baroque space opera, Reynolds uses a smaller (one world) canvas here but Terminal World still manifests great sense of wonder.

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