The novel “Terminal World” by Alastair Reynolds was published for the first time in 2010.
Quillon is an angel modified to survive at the lower levels of the building called Spearpoint, where energy states don’t allow his people to live. His life is now among common human beings but after years of working as a pathologist a dying angel is brought to him who tells him that a faction of their people wants to find him.
Confident that the angels don’t want anything good for him, Quillon turns to Fray, the only human who knows his secret and who helped for his cover thanks to the number of contacts and services not exactly legal he manages. Fray explains to him that his only hope is to get away and gets him the services of Meroka, a specialist in that type of missions. During the escape, they come across Kalis, a woman with a strange daughter, Nimcha, shortly after a violent change of zones with different energy states.
Alastair Reynolds is best known as a space opera writer but with “Terminal World” he created a fictional universe that mixes other science fiction sub-genres. The beginning is full of mysteries because Quillon’s story begins in a gigantic building in which a whole population of humans lives and, at its highest levels, there are posthumans called angels.
Through a number of references and details placed here and there, the readers discover the various zones, where different energy states allow different levels of technology and in some ways of biological life as well. Nobody understands the nature of the zones nor the reasons why sometimes there can be “storms” that modify them and the one at the beginning of the novel is particularly violent.
Slowly, more details are revealed about Quillon, the angels and the world outside Spearpoint, a sort of post-apocalyptic land where various factions fight to control the scarce resources. The setting in zones where the working technology is medium-low level gives “Terminal World” a steampunk flavor that includes cyborgs of various types not quite conventional.
There are the underlying mysteries about that world and what happened to bring out that kind of civilization and especially the zones with different energy states that are not fixed and whose movements can be very dangerous. In the course of the novel references to the past are given, but they’re often legends dating back to millennia in which it’s difficult to separate facts from distortions. The ancient knowledge has been forgotten so nothing about that world is certain.
The violent zone storm that occurs shortly after the start of Quillon’s escape starts a time of crisis, also because it occurs during a period of climate change outside Spearpoint. Again, no one understands what’s happening and it’s not clear what the angels know because to carry out his mission Quillon was implanted false memories over his own.
In this situation, Quillon is mostly a catalyst, meaning that in the course of the novel he meets a numbero of people who are crucial to offer a hope for a better future. In his life as a common human, Quillon has been a doctor and always tries to save people in need but he’s not a hero and often finds himself in the right place at the right time by pure coincidence.
In my opinion, the most interesting character of “Terminal World” is Ricasso, the leader of a group of airship captains called the Swarm who represents an important force to maintain order in a large area outside Spearpoint. He’s in some ways similar to some Renaissance monarchs who were interested in the culture of the past and at the same time financed artists, philosophers and inventors of their time.
The presence of Ricasso is crucial also to develop various themes related to politics and society in that post-apocalyptic environment. There’s not only a contrast between order and chaos but also a discussion about the possible forms of order. It’s not the novel’s main theme but it allows a development of the story beyond the simple adventure.
It’s important to know that at the end of “Terminal World” not everything is explained about the world in which it’s set, on the contrary there are only some partial revelations and many things remain without explanation. Various details about that world seem contradictory and this may be due to the very limited and confused knowledge of their past those future humans have with the consequence of creating further doubts.
This choice may be a problem for some readers and Alastair Reynolds stated that he does’t plan to write a sequel to “Terminal World” to offer further clarification. On his blog he published three fragments cut during the novel’s editing concerning Quillon’s life.
Personally I prefer Alastair Reynolds’ space operas but “Terminal World”, after a start that was a little difficult, seemed to me a good novel with a lot of action in a plot that’s more than an adventure. For this reason, if you’re intrigued by its premises, I recommend reading it.