A £1 million, 10-book deal is pretty rare in recent times. Alastair Reynolds nailed one, though, and this is the first cream of that crop.
…was a towering, teetering pile of animate junk, tall and wide as a four-storey tenement and about as long as a city block…
So, a subject I’ve touched upon in a couple of previous reviews and have been thinking about and discussing quite a lot with the Head Games book project is one of prior knowledge, expertise in a field and emulation of the ‘totality of life’ for any given setting when an author sits down and begins to construct an imaginary world. For example, I mentioned how Ishiguro, despite having never been an aging English butler, achieved this emulation fantastically in The Remains of the Day, whilst in The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway’s natural passions and intimacy with the subject material shone through. In the case of Terminal World and nearly all other sci-fi writing the challenge is quite different; it is not a case of realism through experience (however simulated) as there is by definition no such experience possible at the time of writing – it is a case of finding the balance between the believable and the fantastic, the reality and possibility (the science and the fiction, ha). Reynolds has a PhD in astronomy and worked as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency before devoting himself to writing full time, and it is this background that steers his writing into the ‘just-about-believable-in-the-not-too-distant-future-but-far-enough-to-still-be-thrilling’ category (which I may or may not have jus made up). I believe Reynolds himself has said that he likes to write, instead of about things that are currently impossible per se, simply about things that will one day be possible. Potential science straddles this realism/fantasy divide quite nicely, I find.
The plot concerns a world with some striking similarities to Earth (I won’t spoil something I’m not even sure is there) and more specifically, the last human city – Spearpoint. The city takes the form of an atmosphere-piercing spire, the sides of which have been colonised by a number of human settlements, which get more technologically advanced the higher they climb. Indeed, there are anumber of ‘zones’ each of which acts as sort of semi-autonomous city states, with very little transfer between them due to crippling ‘zone-sickness’, and in which the specific level of technology permitted appears to be dictated by reality itself. When an ‘angel,’ one of the post-humans from the uppermost zone falls down to the level, and onto the cutting table, of Quillon, a pathologist with a secret, a series of events is set into motion that requires him to venture out from the safety of Spearpoint. This quest brings him into contact with a kind of ‘city’ of airships, cannibalistic cyborgs, drug-addled Mad Max-style raiders, a girl who can change the course of history, dark conspiracies, and any number of escapades in search of the truth. It’s pretty fantastic. I particularly like the description of the book included on the sleeve, ‘Terminal World is a snarling, drooling, crazy-eyed mongrel of a book, equal parts steampunk, Western, planetary romance and far-future SF.’ I love whoever writes these things.
As far as the book as a whole is concerned, Reynolds creates a very enjoyable space opera, a good old sci-fi adventure yarn that neatly avoids most of the more obvious tropes, clichés and deadly pitfalls of the genre, whilst adding something quite distinct on top. The steampunk influences are very nicely underplayed, and grant an overall layer of grittiness that nicely offsets some of the more imagination-stretching occurences that are central to the plot. The unique nature of the world we find ourselves on, the very interesting concept of the zones and the kind of society that humanity has become in such situations are all moments of absolute genius in this book that is otherwise fairly light on mental taxation. Overall, it’s basically an honest-to-goodness adventure. It’s something that could make film with very few changes and very few omissions due to its compelling, fun and enjoyable style coupled with a believable science and technology to ground it in. A very promising start for this new series of books (whether they will be linked to Terminal World in any way, or to Reynolds’ previous Revelation Space setting, remains to be seen).
As a final aside, there’s an interesting little note on his official website about the general approach he takes to writing a book and it came accompanied by this picture of his plot whiteboard:
Maybe it’s a decent investment?