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Terminal World, by Alastair Reynolds

Spoiler warnings, I guess. Which should likely be the subtitle for this blog. Can’t really get at issues of construction without revealing anything. At least unless you’re willing to be coy to the point of affectation, I suppose.

I wish that I could say that I unreservedly loved this book. It’s one of Reynold’s better outings (since the very beginning). Some fascinating stuff going on, all well told, in an interesting world. Strong central themes, decent characterizations (the central character is pretty wooden, but he’s surrounded by a number of winning secondary characters). Tore right through it. In the moment, it’s a great book with some forgivable flaws. Adam Roberts says more or less how I felt about it here (especially the extra 100 [or maybe 150] pages in the middle), save for:

  • Some seriously abominable copy editing. Not Reynold’s fault, but c’mon, VG.
  • Overkill on the foreshadowing. If there’s an arsenal on the mantle, we don’t need to see each gun fired in the third act, really.
  • The end.

Oh god, the end. Which makes the title a stupid fucking pun. Which undermines the drama of the whole novel. Which leaves a bunch of bad questions yawning.

OK, so: The world is a terraformed colony world. It’s slowly dying because its citizens can no longer maintain the atmosphere because the world has been divided into zones where reality has a different resolution or grain size. The highest tech stuff doesn’t work at the lower levels because it’s too complicated, it dissolves into noise and seizure and plaque. To a certain extent these zones can be changed by people with the unsullied inheritance of the system’s maintainers, who were a genetic caste with modifications to allow them to operate the machinery of the world. They’re regarded as witches and hounded. So far so good.

Then you learn what machinery they’re meant to operate. A presumably superluminal gate-system that allowed people to travel between the stars. We’re on a world called Earthgate, maybe. A horrible accident has occurred some 10k years in the past, breaking the system. The entire system? Unclear. So the result is, if it’s happening everywhere, there are more interesting places to tell this story. It’s a sidelight, at best, to the main show. Worthy of a novella at best, not 500 pages. If it took out the whole damned system, where are the repairmen? The space dwellers? I suppose that I am being overly nit-picky about the world-building, here, but there was a lot of world-building. If I am going to sit through umpty-hundred little hints, your reveal better be both stunning and airtight.

This isn’t fair, to be honest. The book is not about the reveal. It’s about its characters and their interactions. Ultimately, it’s about the frailty of human societies, and how easily they fracture and degrade. These are new themes for Reynolds, mostly, and they’re well handled, if at too great a length. The whole novel is a solid effort, and if you can forget or forgive the ending (or don’t really care to think through its consequences), its one of the better books of the year so far. I couldn’t, though.

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