Monday, 22 March 2010

Alastair Reynolds, Terminal World (2010)

I enjoyed this. Reynolds has a first-class imagination -- both inventive and vasty -- and he really knows how to structure a story so that the reader wants to keep reading. The 'I enjoyed this' scale goes: not at all; barely; marginally; so-bad-its-good; some; intermittently; mostly; largely; thoroughly; perfectly; joy-to-the-n. And, measured by the scale I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Perhaps best of all, it's evidently the product of a talented writer venturing outside his comfort zone. That's a good thing.

We start in the 'godscraper' Spearpoint, a very-far-future Babel tower that reaches out of the atmosphere. Or we think it does; one quirk of this place, for the people who live on the ramps and ledges along its in-tapering sides, are real-world technological discontinuities: in one zone futuristic technology works; in another zone lower down, future-tech simply won't work, but late-twentieth-century machines (cars, guns) will; lower down again and only steam technology will work; lower again and you're in 'horseworld'. People can pass from zone to zone, but they need 'anti-zonal' drugs to overcome the debilitating and sometimes fatal effects of the passage. Very neat concept. We start in Neon Heights, a late-20th-century Noir-ish city; and we start with Quillon, a beanpole Mortuary Pathologist and Doctor and, most of all, virtuous man. Above are the celestial levels, where posthuman 'angels' live. The novel starts when one of these angels falls from his proper level and crashes into Neon City, coming thereby to Quillon's attention. From there, and without ado, it all kicks off.

I started thinking that Reynolds was riffing off Jeter's neglected Dickian masterpiece Farewell Horizontal (1989); but where another SF writer would have moved her characters and story up-zone, into the futuristic possibilities of the higher terraces of Spearpoint, Reynolds takes us in exactly the opposite direction: down to the ground. If we employed chess-notation in reviews, this would merit an '!'. Quillon, it turns out, is a surgically altered angel; other angels are now trying to kill him, and he flees down into the broader world -- also afflicted by different zones (including one, the Blight, in which even the 'mechanisms' of biological life cannot work). He avoids Mad-Max feral Skullboys and brain-eating Cyborgs, hooking up with a massive fleet of airborn dirigibles called 'the Swarm.' Reynolds explains enough of his world (the origin and nature of the zones, Spearpoint's purpose and the like) for the reader not to feel cheated; but not so much that it all feels pat.

My one main criticism is that the narrative momentum sags, quite badly, for about a hundred pages somewhere in amongst pp.200-350 (indeed; I'd say the book is about 100 pages too long). But just as I was become narkled, Reynolds threw this superb Chris-Foss-ness in my mind's direction:
Between the Swarm and the mountain lay a tremendous wall ... two or three hundred spans high and taller again where the towers and battlements rose. It spanned the horizon to the limits of visibility ... But the wall was not the most awesome thing, nor even the second. The second most awesome thing was a wreck. It had crashed down into the wall five or six leagues to port, sagging broken spined withone half on the nearside and the other half on the far side, like a colossal maggot trying to wriggle over an obstacle. It was not an airship. It had never been an airship. The wreck's shape echoed an airship's envelope, but there the similarity ended. It was much too large, to begin with: easily a league from one end to the other, and perhaps a tenth of a league in height. It had ruptured as it crashed onto the wall, its upper surface zipping open like an overcooked sausage. The skin was weathered white, offset by the faded remnants of orange or red markings: oblique slashes and hyphens, chains of angular heiroglyphics. The vessel's interior was definitely not hollow. It was full of tight-packed machinery, broken and bent.[343]
Nobody does this sort of Fossossity like Reynolds. And if this isn't splendid enough, he really nails it when he adds: 'It glinted with absurd, festering detail, like a cliff seen through binoculars.' Excellent!

17 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

One more thing. A passing point, but there's a scene that reminded me of that bit in Gene Wolfe's New Sun, where (I don't have the book to hand) Severian sees an image, fantastically ancient from his point of view, of a 20th-century NASA astronaut standing on the moon, which he discusses in terms of the knight and his strange armour. There's a moment like that here. ('A kind of house raised up on splayed stilts. The house was angular and mechanical, with something of the machine about it ... [Figures around it] were clad in white armour, with curving black visors covering their faces' 365). I wonder how easy it would be to multiply examples: to make the case, indeed, that Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon constitute a kind of primal scene for post-60s SF writers. They did walk on the fucking moon, after all.

Martin said...

Jeter's neglected Dickian masterpiece Farewell Horizontal

I heard someone else (Graham Sleight?) recently describe that novel in similar terms. However, I read it not to long ago and found it - and there is no subtle way of putting this - a bag of shite with no redeeming features. What have I missed?

Your review makes me look forward to Terminal World when I had not previously, particularly your suggestion Reynolds is venturing outside his comfort zone. Although the fact that the book is once again 100 pages too long is disheartening.

Adam Roberts Project said...

"no redeeming features"

'Masterpiece' does overstate it a little, I concede; but ... no redeeming features at all? You didn't like the weird vertical cyberpunk world even a little bit?

Martin said...

Shifting the world from horizontal to vertical is a good idea but that then raises the expectation that you actually do something interesting with the idea. For me, Jetter singularly failed on that; I didn't find it weird, I found it bogstandard period cyberpunk tipped on its side.

-Tim said...

Shifting the world from horizontal to vertical seems to be a fairly common way for sf authors to reach outside their comfort zones.

I am looking forward even more now, thanks to your (surprisingly?) glowing review, to reading Reynolds iteration on this theme.

Adam Roberts said...

Tim: well, yes.

Why 'surprising', by the way?

-Tim said...

I think I meant surprising in a somewhat jocular manner, but also in reference to your acknowledgment (on the Gorillaz review, if I remember correctly) that PUNKADIDDLE tends somewhat to be a somewhat negative/critical blog. But hey, that's good for me too. You've saved hours of my scant reading time from being wasted on drivel.

Adam Roberts said...

You're quite right. I'm sullying the purity of my rebarbative blog with praising notices like this. I'll try and do better in future, and, with Robert Jordan's help, I may succeed.

-Tim said...

Ha! Yeah, quit being so "rainbows-and-unicorns" all the time, Adam.

Can't wait to read the next 20-odd Jordan/Sanderson reviews. Should be good times.

Mark_W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark_W said...

Had second thoughts about my off-topic ramblings just above, there...

Mark_W

Al R said...

Adam - sent an email to your aol account - did you see it? I know we had some problems with stuff getting lost in spam in the past.

Adam Roberts said...

Al: found it. Ach but aol are rubbish, though. I don't know why I stick with them.

Al R said...

Someone else has made the Jeter connection over in an amazon review, Adam - although in rather less generous terms than your own observation. Odd as I've never read any Jeter and could not have told you what Farewell Horizontal is about (although I have a vague recollection of the cover - dude hanging off a skyscraper or something).

Adam Roberts said...

Al: I could have made it clearer in the review that I thought the book was going to riff on Jeter for about the first forty pages; but that it soon moved in very un-Jeter directions and actually isn't in the least derivative of that text.

Al R said...

Adam: I don't think you needed to be any clearer.

Erik said...

Having just bought the book and not read it yet, reading the back side of it made me think of Chalker and his Well World series.
And I liked 'Farewell Horizontal'. I wonder where my copy is? One Jeter book I really liked was 'Infernal Devices'.
And, btw, I've just started reading 'Yellow Blue Tibia'. Love it, I've haven't laughed so much in a long while. Back in the day I spent some time in the USSR. The surreal feeling really comes back.