the Little Red Reviewer

Terminal World, by Alastair Reynolds

Posted on: October 17, 2011

Terminal World, by Alastair Reynolds

Published in May 2011

Where I got it: purchased new

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I read Alastair Reynold’s debut novel Revelation Space last year, and while it was pretty good, I wasn’t as thrilled as I’d hoped to be by this award winning author.   I gave him another chance with Terminal World, and boy am I happy I did.  In Terminal World, Reynolds offers what Space Opera fans love to find: a glimpse into a possible future of humanity, technology gone  wrong, futuristic cities, and wildernesses full of danger and carnivorous cyborgs chasing steampunk airships. Wait, what?  Ahh yes, the carnivorous cyborgs. Just the first of many wonderful surprises that awaits you in Terminal World.  And who said you can’t have Steampunk space opera?

Spearpoint, the tallest structure on Earth, is the last human city.  Doctor Quillon has been hiding in it’s depths for nine years. He was always a doctor, he just wasn’t always what you or I would consider human.  Once he dwelled  in the Celestial Levels, looking down at the pathetic pre-humans below him. Now he cuts his wings off and wears glasses to hide his post-human angelic eyes.  The few people who know his true identity are corrupt themselves, or dead.  When a dying angel tells Quillon that he’s wanted back in the Celestial Levels, Quillon decides if he wants to live, he has to run.


Spearpoint is separated into “zones”.  Due to naturally occurring severe differences in air pressure and technological allowances, people have no choice but to respect the boundaries. Some areas have electricity and nano-machines, some barely have working simple machines.  No one really understands how the zones work, but everyone knows if the zone boundaries unexpectedly  change and you’re not prepared with the proper anti-zonal medications, the changes will either kill you fast, or kill you slow.

These zones are one of the more interesting scifi props I’ve come across in a long time. A post apocalyptic Earth where something gone terribly, horribly wrong, has enforced technological levels, and entire deadzones where not even biological systems work? How cool is that?  An entire civilization has grown up thinking this is normal, mapping and remapping the borders, and finding ingenious ways of moving needed food and supplies from a high tech area to a low tech, and vice versa.   But the zone storms are getting worse, and anti-zonal medicines are getting hard to come by. What’s a doctor to do?

Quillon escapes Spearpoint with his guide, Meroka.  The air is breathable outside Spearpoint, but guns barely work, and there is no guarantee food or water will be found. Much of the world building and character development is done through dialog between Meroka and Quillon, and we learn bits and peices of his tragic history, Meroka’s undying hatred for the angels, and some of the history of Spearpoint.  Having lived his life in Spearpoint and experiencing some amnesia, Quillon depends on Meroka’s knowledge of the outside world.  Much of their conversations end with her saying “oh that? you won’t have to worry about that”. And of course they run into exactly that, and have to worry about it, or negotiate with it, or survive it.  A clunky mechanism for foreshadowing, but I suppose it worked.

Away from Spearpoint, Meroka and Quillon run into the Skullboys, a gang of drugged out savages. The Skullboys are transporting slaves, and Quillon manages to save two of the slaves, a mother and a daughter. The mother couldn’t possibly be what she claims, but who in their right mind would ever claim to be a tectomancer? Throughout known history, suspected tectomancers, believed to have the power to change the zones by sheer will, were burned at the stake as witches.  Rescue from the Skullboys comes from above, but will Quillon, Meroka, the supposed tectomancer, and a little girl, be any better off as a captives of Swarm, the sky dwelling community of airships?

Reynold’s talent as an author shines when it comes to Swarm. Once upon a time they were the military arm of Spearpoint. Betrayed and left to die, Swarm broke off and created it’s own rule of law, it’s own community, it’s own airborne civilization. Once Quillon and Meroka get involved with Swarm, this post apocalyptic SF story goes all Steampunk. Like I said, who says you can’t have Steampunk space opera?  I really didn’t expect all these SF styles to work well together, but Reynolds seamlessly pulls it off.

Some blatant foreshadowing and predictability aside, Terminal World is an incredibly satisfying and fun read.  The characters are fascinating and subtly developed, the technology is all over the board and just plain fun, and Reynolds has planted some unbelievable surprises in his post apocalyptic wilderness.   The abrupt ending leaves a number loose ends, which I do expect will turn some readers off.  Terminal World is more about the characters than the plot, and the design of the end leads me to believe that Reynolds will be writing more in this world, or if not, that he expects his readers to be smart enough to come to their own conclusions.

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13 Responses to "Terminal World, by Alastair Reynolds"

I was excited up until the mention about the abrupt end, but given that I enjoy Reynold’s work and plan to read more of it this is certainly on my list. It does sound like unique and exciting space opera. I had that same experience with his book Chasm City which is a book I try to recommend often as I thought it was a fantastic read. Two very interesting storylines run through the book and there is so much action and interesting science fiction and memorable characterization. Good stuff. So glad you didn’t give up on Reynolds. We are going to be reading his book Pushing Ice during one of the first 6 months of the year for the SF Book Club, you should join us when we read it.

And by the way, if you haven’t read Robert Heinlein’s short story, Universe, you should give it a try. There is something about the levels of this that remind me of Heinlein’s story. They are wildly different, but still this popped into my head and it is a story worth reading.

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one of the reasons I was willing to read this is because of you Carl, so it’s your fault. ;) I’ll try to join you for Pushing Ice if the timing works out. Please don’t let my mention of an abrupt ending turn you off to Terminal world. It might have been somewhat abrupt, but it was very satisfying.

Heinlein? did someone mention my fave classic SF author? Universe. . . I’m not familiar with that one, do you know what collection it might be part of? and EVERYTHING he wrote is worth reading.

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That story can be found in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. 2A, which is a book well worth picking up. I’ve only read a few of the stories in it thus far, but they are great. Poul Anderson’s Call Me Joe is one that comes to mind.

And did I mention Chasm City? LOL! Just kidding. I do love to push that book off on people. I’ve given it away to three different friends now and not one of them has read it yet. Grrr…. :)

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I have found Alastair Reynolds’ work to be the most intellectually challenging science fiction currently being written. I’ve read everything he’s published, because it’s refreshing, it’s challenging, and it’s captivating. His ability to interweave hard science with character development has truly matured along the way from the Revelation Space series. Pushing Ice is an interesting story of the not-too-distance future of space travel, House of Suns is a truly captivating “who dunnit”, and Century Rain oozes of undercover cop…I place his work in the same arena as Asimov, Niven, and Clarke. His command of the English language is in a realm similar to Stephen R. Donaldson and J.R.R. Tolkien. This last story, Terminal World, lays out a future Earth in a manner similar to Stephen King’s Gunslinger series, epic, operatic, and authentic…Enjoy his work, as I do!

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I have never read Reynold’s before. I have been curious for a while.

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Steam punk space opera sounds fabulous. I’m going to take more of a look at this one.

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Tahlia, you and Kailana should definitely check it out. I was happily and continually surprised at all the crazy stuff he put in, and that it worked! Not ready to take the plunge? a local library or interlibrary loan could probably hook you up.

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Sounds amazing. Its going straight to the top of my ‘to purchase’ list.

On a personal note, I’m glad you gave Reynolds another shot. The Revelation Space series is heavy going. I found it a challenge but ultimately rewarding.

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I’m hoping to return to the Revelation Space series eventually. I really liked the concepts, and like many first novels, the book could have used some editing and polish. Here’s hoping the other books in that series are put together a little better?

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The reviews I’ve read on places like SF Signal are pretty consistent that the second and third book of the trilogy are better. Still, I am having a hard time motivating myself to read the first one so I can get to the second and third. Ha!

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Crashing another old post. I’m curious after reading if you’ve tried any other Reynolds. He’s one of my very favorites right now, though he definitely moves at his own pace. Chasm City is easier going than the other Inhibitor novels, while still showing his gothic imagination at work. (That series made a lot more sense after I read Schismatrix.) His newest, Blue Remembered Earth, is fantastic.
Anyway, speaking of this book in particular, I spent about half of my post trying to make sense of why it ended the way it did. My review ended up getting tweeted out by the author himself, owing to a favourable Steely Dan comparison, and he never said that my conclusions were wrong…. But he never said they were right either. At the risk of looking tacky, I’m going to add a link here, mostly because I’m interested in what you (and Carl, and anyone else) think.

http://twodudesff.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/terminal-world/

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I just read your review – you got a lot more out of this book than I did! but then again, you’ve read a lot more Reynolds than me. I did pick up a copy of Pushing Ice, but I haven’t gotten to it yet, and Terminal World and Revelation Space are the only two Reynolds I’ve read. I’ve heard Blue Remembered Earth is excellent.

For someone like me, who loved Terminal World but was lukewarm on Revelation Space, where do you recommend I go next with Reynolds? Chasm City? Blue Remembered Earth? a different one? I do love me some good space opera!

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%#$^^%# I just lost my whole response. Thanks WordPress.
Blue Remembered Earth is more like 2312 or Existence, in that it’s a look at the near future Solar System. It’s also more human than other books I’ve read, with very little of the grotesque weirdness of the Inhibitors books.
Chasm City is a stand alone, noir mystery set in the same universe as Revelation Space. It’s easier to read than the others, but still gives a clear view of that particular creation. I guess it depends how much Warhammer 40k-ish gothic horror you want with your hard SF.
His books all have a stately pace though, so it’s not much like other planet hopping shoot em ups.

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