Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space sequence is among my favourite SF ever. Few, if any, works of SF can match them in sheer scope. Wonderful universe, populated by intriguing peoples and aliens, with a terrifyingly immense back story. Now, for some reason, Reynolds has chosen to leave space opera to one side and move on, rather unsuccesfully, to China Mieville territory.
The story takes place on a planet where shifting zones affect the function of technology, ranging from completely forbidding to hi tech. Quillon, an escapee from the higher levels of Spearpoint, a city spirally built around a massive spire that pierces the clouds, aided by a woman called Meroka, has to go into exile in the lo tech zones outside Spearpoint, hunted by his people for the secrets he knows.
In terms of world-building, Reynolds does a pretty good job, as usual, casually revealing aspects of life on the planet and giving glimpses of its history. However, that’s pretty much all we get. Unlike his former novels, Reynolds does not fully explore his world. He gives us tantalising hints (i.e. the Bane sequence) but never follows up on them. As a result, the narrative is not really fleshed out. It is a very linear construct, uneven and ultimately disappointing. At the same time, Reynolds’ world feels very derivative. Heavily influenced by Mieville, Terminal World is also reminiscent of Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World, Vernon Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, Iain Banks’ Matter and Bob Shaw’s Ragged Astronauts trilogy in both concepts and overall mood.
Quillon is a very uninteresting character, definitely not strong enough to carry this story forward. The impetus is provided by secondary characters who remain underdeveloped, as does the story to which they hold clues. Reynolds has never been praised for either his characterisation or his dialogue, both of which remain formulaic and stilted, even more so in a novel that lacks the drive and scope of his previous ones.
There are some great grotesques and a host of bizarre creations like the Mad Machines, the Skullboys or Tulwar but they are too derivative of Mieville to give the novel enough life.
Terminal World reads more like an unfinished exercise than a fully fledged, complete novel. Meandering and without focus, it ends up being nothing more than a catalogue of half-interesting scenes in a half-constructed world.