Sunday, March 7, 2010

science-fiction with the human touch in alastair reynolds' terminal world

Alastair Reynolds is by far one of my favourite science-fiction authors writing today. There's a lot of great sci-fi out there, but unfortunately the bulk of it tends to make my head ache. Ben Bova comes to mind – all that technical science stuff is just too much.

What Reynolds does is make the technology understandable to those of us without a degree in physics, and at the same time create characters that we can still relate to. I want my heros of space to have at least some connection to humanity so that I can identify with them – I can't, no matter how hard I try, identify with a green blog of a sillicon-based alien.
So, that's why I was actually excited to get my hands on Reynold's latest – Terminal World. Set on what is possibly still Earth, or an Earth like planet, populated by generally human humanoids – with a few minor exceptions – this novel follows the story of Doctor Quillon. It is, in many ways, a road movie; complete with odd travelling companions, crazy petrol heads, an urgent reason to keep moving and vignettes of human warmth. There are also man-eating robots, mysterious civilisations, genetic wizards and an 'end of the world apocalypse'.
In Quillon's world, practically everyone is living on a space-scraping needle of a mountain named Spearpoint. It's clearly man-made but everyone has forgotten the reason why, if they ever knew it in the first place. There's a quasi-religion that believes in a sort of God in the centre of the thing, but generally people just ignore the complexity of their world and work hard on surviving.
Which is oddly hard considering people have been on the thing for around 5,000 years or so, one would have thought they could have solved most of their daily living problems by now. The thing is, only certain technologies work in certain 'zones' on Spearpoint.
So, you've got the 'Angels' who live at the very top in Circuit City, have the highest level technology and are genetically modified to have wings that enable them to fly. A bit further down you've got Neon Heights with electronics and electricity but no genetic, nano tech, followed by Steam Town – everything powered by steam, of course – and at the very bottom of Spearpoint, Horse Town – yep, animals only.
The reason for these differences in technological levels is to do with the 'zones' which are generally stable but can flux a bit around the edges. In order to travel from zone to zone you need to take 'anti-zonals' but not many people bother to move anyway.
Into Quillon's well-ordered world – he's a coroner – comes a special package; an Angel's body which had landed on Neon City's edge. However the Angel is not completely dead and imparts some unwelcome knowledge to Quillon, leaving him panicked and desperate to flee.
Which starts the whole road journey as the doctor leaves Spearpoint in fear of his life and in search of something that may help fix the problem of the zones; only he doesn't realise that this is a problem for him to fix until later in the story.
Like all Reynolds' books, Terminal World is a substantial read but unlike books in the fantasy genre that generally come in trilogies, the novel is complete in itself. Sure, there's an opportunity for a sequel build into the end, but readers won't be left wanting too much.
The prose is tight, friendly and not tech-speak dense. Explanations for the zones, the planet and Spearpoint gentle inserted into the dialogue and interactions between the characters. Quillon isn't a particularly loveable hero, nor is he swashbuckling in any real way; but he is warmly human.
The action, as with much of Reynolds' work, is fantastically written. It's well-paced, believable and makes you breathless just reading it. There are additional supporting characters that are well fleshed-out; a really great sidekick in the hard-arsed, foul-mouth, soft-hearted Meroka and a touching portrait of a young girl handed an unwelcome genetic heritage.
All in all, Terminal World is a great book. It's right up there with the work of classic sci-fi legends like Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov and well-worth reading.
As with all quality sci-fi, Reynolds' work asks us to ask questions of ourselves about where our society is heading. Will we find ourselves stuck on an anachronistic pillar to forgotten technology surrounded by a hostile and dying world in 5,000 years time? One would hope not; which is why we should all be reading more sci-fi in general and Terminal World in particular.

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds is published by Gollancz and is available at good book stores and online.


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