If there is a constant motif that runs through the work of Alastair Reynolds, it is one of decay, of an age running out, as in the melding plague of the Revelation Space sequence, turning the asteroid colonies of the Glitter Belt into the uninhabitable ruin of the Rust Belt, or the decayed, infected Earth of Century Rain. Here, disaster has ravaged the planet at quantum level, splitting it into zones where different levels of technology can grudgingly operate or permanently fail according to local conditions, and violent, debilitating sickness befalls any person foolish – or desperate – enough to traverse the borders.
Into this is thrown Quillon, a refugee angel from the highest technology zone, the Celestial Levels. He is stranded in neighbouring CircuitCity and masquerading as a human doctor ever since his fellow undercover operatives turned on him while engaged on a mission.
Taking medication to conceal his identity and keep the zone sickness under control, he knows he is in danger from both his own people, to whom he is a liability, and the humans he hides himself amongst, should they discover his true nature. When an assassination team come for him, the angel must cash in the few favours he is owed and flee further down the levels of Spearpoint – last refuge of civilisation on the ravaged face of the planet – knowing his reluctant guide would likely kill him herself is she knew what he really was.
Each stage of the escape is a travelogue to more primitive times, bidding farewell to the trappings of more advanced levels, through talking hand blasters, to flywheel boosted slot cars and steam trains. And If Steamville seems primitive, wait until you reach Horsetown. No explanation is given for the splintering, nor why the zones are focused on the great spiral city Spearpoint. What becomes clear is that whether apparent or not, there is a reason the zones came into being.
This world has a history. A series of events, and catastrophes, and failed exoduses of earlier generations whose falling is recorded in the artefacts and derelicts strewn across the wilderness, hidden in the desolate zone where no life can survive. Somehow, nature was pushed past breaking point and this was the result, but now there is a possibility that nature may be pushing back, trying to heal itself by creating spontaneous mutations whose carriers can facilitate the reintegrate of the world – the tectomancers. Labelled as witches, they have a life expectancy about on a par with a renegade angel in the tattered ruins of a planet where anything different is feared and destroyed.
Both in the spire and beyond, life is fragile and trust a rarity. Rescued from the marauding Skullboys by Swarm, the only civilisation that exists outside Spearpoint, Quillon must not only protect his own identity and that of the young tectomancer who has come under his care, but somehow convince his dubious hosts to return and render aid to the dying city that betrayed and almost destroyed Swarm generations before. But even if Quillon can somehow harness the latent power of this traumatised girl, some would claim the risk of upsetting the balance of the zones and possibly risking more instability is too great, and still others would prefer the world stayed the way it is, with them holding power.
Despite carrying many of the trappings of a steampunk novel, this is not a homage to that genre, but a uniquely flavoured adventure decorated with strapped together retrograde technology. While his Revelation Space novels are marked by epic clashes of inconceivably powerful weaponry powered by exotic physics, or time dilated aeon long deep space pursuits scraping the speed of light, Terminal World settles for airships. In other hands this might be regarded as a more romantic mode of transport, if only they weren’t armed with heavy artillery and steam powered machine guns.
The most unique departure for a Reynolds novel is that a mere twenty pages in he indulges the reader with plot exposition, an unprecedented action for a writer who normally starts the first page at a brisk run and expects the reader to match his pace. While this concession would normally be a relief, here it is more cautionary: when Alastair Reynolds does plot exposition, we’re in for a heavy journey. This doesn’t mean the clockwork precision expected of a Reynolds novel is lacking: as the characters retrace their steps back across the wilderness to the spire, now awash in desperation as uncontrollable zone sickness takes its toll, an early throwaway exchange of dialogue between the fallen angel and his well armed guard is revealed as foreshadowing a key plot point, and almost forgotten peripheral characters resurface.
Add to this his soaring talent for imagination and description, and the glittering fragments that move in kaleidoscopic motion come into dramatic focus: car chases through rain soaked streets and airship shadows cast over cloud, power struggles in the sky and murder in train carriages, betrayals and steam powered gang bosses, a bizarre mix that only Reynolds could shape into a compelling, cohesive whole. Anyone can have an idea; to turn it into an exciting, readable novel is the challenge. Although best known for the success of the Revelation Space sequence, this is the third of Reynold’s standalone novels that could easily progress to a sequence itself, following Pushing Ice and House of Suns, although his next project is an entirely new trilogy of novels charting the colonisation of the solar system.
If there is any justifiable criticism of Terminal World, it is that even if any of these are followed up, it will not be for some time, and this novel of almost five hundred pages is unsatisfying as it stands. Although a complete narrative, certain scenes are rushed, and there are too many questions left tantalisingly open. Perhaps intended as a reflection of the imperfect knowledge of the characters caught in this complex world thought to be dying, it may hopefully have a little life, and plenty of surprises, yet to come.