Monday, March 5, 2012

Terminal World

I keep a list of books that I see reviewed or discussed or advertised that interest me enough to buy them. As you may know, given the cost of hardbacks and the lack of available storage space, I usually don't actually buy the book until it comes out in paperback, which sometimes can be a year or more after I initially discover it. And during that time, I often forget the rationale I have for putting it on the list, so that I just have to hope that I was in my right mind when I put a book on the list.

Such was the case this time around: I couldn't remember what caused me to put Alastair Reynolds's Terminal World on the list. But within the first thirty pages or so, I knew why I wanted to read it—the premise is mouth-droppingly cool. Spearpoint is a huge monolith rising for miles, and it is inhabited up to the point where the atmosphere is too thin to support life, even though it continues to rise up into space. It is also divided into zones from the bottom to the topmost inhabitable area, each zone representing a different technological level, from horse and carriage at the bottom, up through contemporary technology at about the middle, to far future technology at the top. The zones are rigidly enforced by some power called the Mire, such that moving high-end technology, say a laser, down the zones will cause it to ultimately cease to function, and even taking it back to its original zone does not fix it. And somehow, people have the same reaction—they seem to be specialized for certain zones, so that moving between the zones can cause zone sickness and require treatment. Left untreated for long enough, zone sickness can kill.

Fortunately, the novel does not explain itself in this fashion—it's slowly revealed to the reader over the course of the first hundred pages or so, as we follow Quillon, a physician in the "modern" zone (called Neon Heights), as he is delivered a corpse fallen from a higher level for autopsy. The corpse is an angel, an example of the topmost level's skill at bioengineering, and just as Quillon is about to begin the autopsy, the corpse sits up and tells him that he needs to run, to leave Spearpoint because his enemies are coming for him from the higher levels.

The premise is epic and filled with potential, and it would be difficult to craft a cover blurb or press release that did not make Terminal World sound appealing to even moderate fans of speculative fiction. The problem, as usual, lies in the fulfilling of that potential, and unfortunately the vast majority of the novel doesn't live up to the potential. It's a telling detail that, out of the 550 pages of the novel, Quillon and his guide are off of Spearpoint within the first 100 pages. This pattern continues through the course of the novel: big big ideas never fully realized.

As the novel progresses, Reynolds provides clues in a case of something like literary irony, where the readers know things that the characters do not, but even together, they don't know everything. It becomes clear that, even though the people of this world refer to it as "Earth", it isn't terrestrial, and so the reader has that as the primary mystery he is interested in. Which leads to the questions of how did these people get wherever "here" is, and what happened to them to create the Mire and the zones and Spearpoint? I apologize if this seems spoilerish, but it is essential to express my disappointment in the novel—we never truly find out. We have a great many clues that together form a framework for the answers to these questions to fill in, but we never learn details. On the one hand, I admire Reynolds for the writerly decision here—often when the mysteries are explained in similar circumstances in other novels, it feels clunky and contrived, but Reynolds sticks with the notion that his characters will not know enough by the end of the novel to figure it out. On the other hand, I have to wonder if Reynolds stayed too far on the other side of that demarcation—couldn't there have been a way for the reader to figure it out without the characters doing so as well? I imagine that there is, and it would take some fine plotting and writing to pull it off. And if Reynolds made that attempt, it failed.

Reynolds does pull off an interesting trick with his characters—they don't seem so much to grow through the course of the novel as they are slowly revealed to the reader. Quillon's personality is pretty fixed as we first encounter him, and nothing that happens through the narrative path of the novel changes him—but what does happen is that his setting and the people around him do change, allowing more and more of the secretive Quillon to show itself. The same thing happens with Meroka, his guide out of Spearpoint and out into the rest of the world. At first she seems gruff, even antagonistic but her character flaws are explained away, and as she comes to accept Quillon and the other people they encounter, her real personality is revealed—including indications that she generally appears closed off for self-protection.

Also an issue for me is the general clunkiness of the writing. From plot issues to language, the novel often exasperated me more than entertained me. Characters are developed and then conveniently shuffled offstage with little reason. Especially egregious is Commander Apatha, Quillon's nemesis in his newfound home off of Spearpoint. Apatha is stereotypically evil, stopping just short of twisting his moustaches a la Snidely Whiplash. He is also stupid and obvious, but those he opposes allow him to be maleficent without check. Perhaps they feel it is better to have an enemy that is easily recognized, but it would be great if they had a conversation describing that. Reynolds also proves less than adept with foreshadowing: at three separate occasions, one character says to another, "Let's hope we don't run into X." And in each case, they do.
All of this aside, my biggest issue with Terminal World may be entirely subjective. It's difficult to describe what pacing is, and I suspect that it changes from reader to reader. But throughout the time that I read this book, it was tedious and difficult, forcing me to want to put it down after four to six pages and go do something else. And it wasn't just the difficulties of the plot and characters I describe above, it was a flat declarative style in the language and the characters, more often than not Quillon, doing or saying things that seemed to be pointers for the reader rather than any sort of natural action that a real person might perform. (As a counterexample, it took me three weeks to read this 550 page paperback. I picked up the next book in my stack and read 150 pages in a single day….)

And so I applaud Reynolds for the scope and the ideas in Terminal World, but I find it to be extremely flawed and perhaps fatally so. It is possible that this book is intended to begin a series, in which case, a few of my issues may be alleviated. But other issues, such as the pacing and plot flaws, will remain. It's a shame, especially since I see Reynolds described so glowingly in other places. Part of me wants to read another book to see if it's a pattern or if Terminal World is an outlier. In fact, there was a fascinating description of another of Reynolds's books in the back pages of Terminal World, but my experience was so unsatisfying that I can't quite work up the will to add to my already long reading list.

1 comment:

  1. I loved terminal world but I can agree and understand with most of what you're saying here. You should definitely give another of his books a try, he is my favorite author! Try Revelation Space or Chasm City, both part of the same series, or House of Suns which is a standalone!