Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, April 29, 2013

1997: Vacuum Diagrams (Baxter, Stephen)

Poor variety and characterization results in ennui (3/5)

My first exposure to Stephen Baxter was when I read Ring (1994) in 2007. Being new to science fiction, initially I may have been over-awed by the plethora of heavy science and fanciful hypothetical scenarios of Baxter. When I later thumbed my way through his Traces (1998), I found the twenty-two plots to have too much in common so that the successive stories were getting more and more boring. The Ancient Astronaut theory is a curiosity but the repetition of the theme was tiresome. Then there was Manifold: Time (1999) which also bored me. Thence, I put off reading Baxter for a long while.

A new collection, a new chance to revive my interest in Baxter. Sadly, the same ennui seemed to settle when similar themes kept cropping up in the short stories: life in the solar system, the artifacts of the Xeelee, and the four-dimensional human habitation. Baxter centers his writing around some scientific focal point, which is interesting at first but really doesn’t make a short story all that exciting, literary, or even good… most stories just feel aseptic, lifeless. The Xeelee always remain at a distance, the mysteries of the grand scheme always aloof yet shrouded, and humanity always once step behind the rest of the galactic civilizations.

Rear cover synopsis:
“This dazzling future history, winner of the 2000 Philip K. Dick Award, is the most ambitious and exciting since Asimov’s classic Foundation saga. It tells the story of Humankind—all the way to the end of the Universe itself.

Here, in luminous and vivid narratives spanning five million years, are the first Poole wormholes spanning the solar system; the conquest of Human planets by Squeem; GUTships that outrace light; the back-time invasion of the Qax; the mystery and legacy of the Xeelee, and their artifacts as large as small galaxies, where Ghost, Human, and Zeelee contemplate the awesome end of Time”


5664 AD: Prologue/Epilogue: Eve (1997) – 3/5 – Jack Raoul has been transformed from a bipedal human body to that of a reflective Ghost sphere. For humanity, Jack has concerns about the Ghosts’ use of quagma in their experiments in and on a lunar body. During his review of the experiment, he is visited by the vision of this deceased wife who then takes Jack through the future history of humanity. The cause for the vision is as concerning as the conclusion of the vision.

3674 AD: The Sun-People (1993) – 4/5 – On a distant Kuiper ice-object in a wide orbit of the sun there exists a species of liquid helium-blooded wheels. The object, coined Baked Alaska and deemed to be part of the expansion of wormholes in the system, was initially trampled on by the careless humans, but Michael Poole has been brought to the object to pass sentence on the world—will it be fostered by human intelligence or burnt to a cinder by human greed? 16 pages

3698 AD: The Logic Pool (1994) – 3/5 – The Neptunian moon of Nereid has long been home to a reclusive scientists, but recent colonization expansion has reached his precious moon. To warn him, a team investigates his home but finds him dead atop his experiment. The experiment in quantum non-linearity uses sentience, a branching logic-deducing which is occasionally culled, a death which Earth laws forbid. However, the implications, both profitable and destructive, are poised to expand. 20 pages

3825 AD: Gossamer (1995) – 3/5 – Exiting a wormhole unexpectedly, a crew of two crash land on the planet of Pluto with a months-long stash of rations and only themselves to occupy their boredom. While Cobh tinkers with the ship and wormhole mechanism, Lvov wanders the planet and discovers a nest of eggs under a lid crafted by some alien mind. The moon of Charon being frequently harvested for its volatiles, the region of Pluto may harbor life and endanger its economic benefits. 22 pages

3948 AD: Cilia-ofGold (1994) – 3/5 – Rather than import and mine the volatiles of an asteroid, the science team in orbit around Mercury decided to use the northern polar ice crater. However, during a deep drill sample, a corpse of a long cilia-covered organism is discovered. Also on Mercury, a dense resilient material of exotic nature is unearthed, a finding which points to an alien source to the billion-year life within the planet. 31 pages

3951 AD: Lieserl (1993) – 4/5 – Lieserl surfs convection fountains in the sun’s immediate surface. Though her form is non-corporeal, she was born as a human baby yet mothered by nanobots at the rate of one human year per day. Her accelerated growth to the age of nineteen has witnessed an intellectual blossoming at the cost of her childhood. Nostalgic in the surface of the sun, Lieserl recaps her short life, her mission, and her immortality. 22 pages

4874 AD: Pilot (1993) – 4/5 – With the Squeem occupying Earth and humanity being put to work on Squeem projects, one isolated planetoid between Jupiter and Saturn is home to a hundred people, among them a pilot named Anna Gage. To flee the system, they nudge their world into escape velocity, yet are followed by a Squeem missile. To evade death, the pocket of humanity ramps up their speed, only to view the missile revving up its own speed. Anna, the incorporeal pilot, eyes a black home solution. 19 pages

4922 AD: The Xeelee Flower (1987) – 2/5 – The Squeem use Jones as a high-risk scavenger and nothing more. His latest assignment is to comb the derelict houses of a Xeelee planet prior to its destruction by the impending nova. Jones discovers a blossom-like device which converts energy to mass—the Squeem are excited. However, the nova comes early and the Squeem whisk themselves off to safety, leaving Jones with his own wits on how to survive a nova with one fist-sized piece of technology. 13 pages

5024 AD: More Than Time or Distance (1988) – 4/5 – On a derelict moon in the aura of a passing supernova, where nothing should have stand let alone function, lays a simple structure housing two hoops; these hoops prove to be Xeelee artifacts, a finding which could be more lucrative than the GUTdrive. At the hands of a human speculator yet tracked and held at gunpoint by an alien foe, the human disables the apparatus and plays a three-day waiting game where speculation is only outmatched wits and conviction. 10 pages

5066 AD: The Switch (1990) – 2/5 – The law requires all trading vessels to carry a trained xenotechnologist aboard so that they are able to investigate any important artifact discoveries. The macho crew hound Mr. Ballantine, the ship’s xenotechnologist, until the man deduces the two-way switch of a Xeelee gravity nullifier, an efficient technology which trumps the human technological equivalent. With petty revenge on his mind, Ballantine tests the second function of the switch. 7 pages

5406 AD: Blue Shift (1989) – 5/5 – The last of a dying breed of star pilots, Jim Bolder mourns the loss of his ships and Earth’s fleet at the merciless hands of the Qax. There does, however, happen to be one job for the best pilot—aboard a functioning Xeelee nightfighter, courtesy of the Qax. After weeks of jumping millions of light-years, Jim discovers a massive rotating ring millions of light-years across; however, the news must be kept mum, something Jim loathes. 23 pages

5611 AD: The Quagma Datum (1989) – 3/5 – An isolated, curious beacon of lithium-7 sits fifteen billion light-years away, and human entrepreneur Wyman has developed the supersymmetry drive just for the trip; the trip, however, will be flown by scientist Dr. Luce and he’ll be in a race with the Silver Ghosts. The prize on the line is the understanding of proto-material for advancement in drive technology, but it seems as if Wyman is taking a personal stake in the matter rather than for the greater good for the greatest good of humankind. 21 pages

5653 AD: Planck Zero (1992) – 4/5 – The Ghosts are up to something with prohibited quagma material and Earth’s ambassador is eager to discover their secret, with the help of the Ghosts and corporeal transformation into Ghost-form. The Ghosts are probing the universal constants through the expanding quagma; more specifically, they are trying to limit Planck’s Constant to zero, thereby providing them with a perfectly reflective material and infinite computation, at a dangerous price. 18 pages

10,515 AD: The Gödel Flowers (1992) – 2/5 – An ancient iron construction surrounds a black dwarf star—in its very composition rests a staggering amount of alien data, more than all of humanity’s collective data combined. The fractal information layered by the ancient civilization is unresponsive, simply absorbing all information but un willing to submit to inquiry or connection. When human policeman Kapur tells the tale of Xeelee’s galactic domination, an odd response is evoked and their ride out nearly destroyed. 17 pages

21,124 AD: Vacuum Diagrams (1990) – 3/5 – A Xeelee construction, cube-shaped and six thousand miles to a side is impervious to all attempts at peering or breaking inside. Only Paul, a human being with no history and no memory, is able to penetrate the cube; he finds a plethora of Xeelee artifacts and even embryonic Xeelee, yet there is also a presence of anti-Xeelee, who cradle Paul in his waveform and show Paul the Xeelee’s anti-chronological legacy, which he shares. 19 pages

104,858 AD: Stowaway (1991) – 2/5 – Mining a star kernel for thirty thousand shifts of your life isn’t the greatest feat for any man, especially a man whose eyes have been opened to the collapsing universe around him. Anxious to chase the mystery and better his life, Rees the miner hitches a ride on a spoked wheel of a tree to find freedom on the Raft, only his initial presence and value matter very little to the tree pilot. 15 pages

171,257 AD: The Tyranny of Heaven (1990) – 3/5 – The Exaltation of the Integrality has a massive fleet of arks in hyperspace heading towards Bolder’s Ring, the source of cosmic destruction by the Xeelee. The Integrality preaches peace and aims to convert lost human colonies to its cause. Rodi and Thet encounter a colony on the misplaced moon of Earth and one additional line to a poem, which had been scattered through all colonies… and spells bloodlust and doom for the fleet. 24 pages

193,474 AD: Hero (1995) – 4/5 – In the depths of the blue electron gas above the Quantum Sea rests an arboreal human outpost. The exotic landscape isn’t without danger, as Thea finds out when a Ray sets its eyes upon her as prey. Her clan’s myth of the Hero comes true when he strikes the Ray with deadly result, but his reward for the village’s safety irks Thea, who steals the Hero’s suit made of Corestuff. The freedom and strength she finds in the pilfered suit also leads to another of the world’s perils. 17 pages

Circa 4,000,000 AD: Secret History (1991) – 3/5 – Paul, the Xeelee experiment, reviews the Xeelee’s cyclic rise and fall and continuity in a universe where dark matter outnumbers normal matter, where the Photino Birds decay the stability of the stars thus wreaking Baryonic civilizations. Where once the humans ignorantly fought the advancements of the Xeelee, they later realized that the Xeelee were trying to save them and every Baryonic civilization from premature destruction. 14 pages

4,101,214 AD: Shell (1987) – 3/5 – Allel stares in awe at the inverted bowl of the Shell which surrounds their world. Ignorant of the past and the structure in which her species lives, her mother, fed up with her idleness, takes her to the city where humankind’s history is pictorially displayed. Her conviction of being able to reach the surface of the inhabited Shell inspires her mother to assist in creating a balloon to touch its face. 16 pages

4,101,266 AD: The Eighth Room (1989) – 3/5 – Their world grows colder with the dying sun streaking the sky. Teal is unconsciously driven to save the orange sun, the cooling body of the human’s world which used to be yellow, according to the wise yet unheeded words of the mummy-cows. Teal and his grandmother Allel understand the importance of the mummy-cow’s words through song, so sending Teal on a quest to find the eighth door—a mystery in a mysterious hovering cube of extra dimensions. 27 pages

4,101,284 AD: The Baryonic Lords (1991) – 3/5 – In the contorted higher-dimensional habitat of the humans, the growing cold of the seasons is killing off the population. Erwal is inspired by the memory of her strong-willed grandmother, Allel, to reach the Eight Room and save the tribe from the cold and the coming death. Little did she know , Erwal would also be saving all of humanity from the quantum-state Qax and the menacing photino birds—with Paul’s help. 72 pages


There’s nothing else in Baxter’s bibliography which interests me: no novels nor collections. I haven’t given up on very many authors as yet, but Baxter is now among the few. Ho-hum.

Friday, April 26, 2013

1970: Tau Zero (Anderson, Poul)

The Leonara Christine's near-luminal peril through space and time (4/5)

Emerging from the Golden Age of science fiction rose Poul Anderson, whose first novel, Vault of the Ages, was published in 1952. Through the next two decades, Anderson more than dabbled with historical elements in The High Crusade (1960) and The Corridors of Time (1965), future history in Three Worlds to Conquer (1964), and also with conventional spaceships in The Makeshift Rocket (1962) and The Star Fox (1965). He hadn’t written a “hard science fiction” until Tau Zero, but he stuck to his romantic roots even after the popularity of Tau Zero. Largely hitting the mark more often than not, Anderson’s novels tend to be loquacious—even poetic at times—and nostalgic; in Tau Zero, this romanticism is infused with science savvy and sexual swashbuckling. No doubt it had won the Hugo award for best novel in 1971!

I had read this in 2007 and held romantic notions of the ship’s near-luminal voyage through space and time. I wanted to reread this to dispel any fantastic notion I held… or to simply enjoy a great novel during my 5-day island holiday. Like the first time, I wasn’t disappointed.

Rear cover synopsis:
“During her epic voyage to a planet thirty light-years away, the deceleration system of the Leonara Christine is irreparable damaged. Unable to slow down, she attains light speed, tau zero itself, and the disparity between time for those on board and external time becomes impossibly great. Eons and galaxies hurtle by in the blink of an eye as the crew speeds helpless and alone in the unknown…”


In orbit around the Earth sits the Leonara Christine waiting for her crew of fifty souls. On Earth, those souls are spending their remaining days on Earth sightseeing and pairing off for the voyage to Beta Virginis, 32 light-years distant. The craft utilizes a tried-and-tested Bussard ramjet, which uses invisible magnetohydrodynamic fields to funnel hydrogen into the engine in order to create propulsion. The mission of the crew is to study the pre-selected planet for a matter of years and return to Earth… or colonize the planet, acting as a stepping-stone for humanity’s reach across the galaxy. The five-year subjective voyage by the crew will be witnessed by the universe as taking an objective thirty-three years.

Once aboard the Leonara Christine, the bonds of pairing off become loosened as the members are sensitive to the emotional needs of others. This empathetic attention causes first officer Charles Reymont to dissolve his own partnership with the bountiful beauty of Ingrid Lindgren. Some are reclusive by nature, involved in their own scientific observation while other are reveling in the atmosphere of free love; all, however, keep a regiment of assisting in experiments so as to ward off boredom and ennui for the five-year voyage.

A probe had earlier traversed their path towards Beta Virginis, but when the Leonara Christine crosses the near-vacuum of the voyage, it encounters an unusually dense concentration of nebular gas. This alarms the crew who consider two outcomes: (a) they pass through with ease, only gaining speed or (b) they meet a spectacular, cataclysmic end. Little regard to paid to the third option, a combination of the other two options: they will survive the collision, but their control severely limited. After passing through the cloud, their gratitude of immediate survival offers no relief to their hopes for long-term survival.

The passage through the nebular cloud disabled their decelerating field and repair on the equipment is impossible without being bombarded by radiation from either the ship’s exhaust or the colliding particles between the stars. Their only course of action is the primary mammalian motivation: survive. A circumnavigable course if plotted around the Milky Way so that they will forever remain in motion and consuming fuel before the ship either ceases to function or the universe ceases to exist.

Prior to their eventual death by cosmic radiation or by the collapse of the universe, the fifty-strong crew deal with the  self-exiled captain and the growing authoritarianism of First Officer Charles Reymont. Thankful that their wait for death is cut short, they are also witness to the passing of millions and billions of years in the universe. As matter becomes rarer, stars burn out—they become witness to yet another spectacular sight, a sight which makes them cringe in the face of the unknown.


Though written in 1970 during the New Wave of science fiction, Anderson still exhibits some “classic” habits of the science fiction from yesteryears. Anderson has a tendency to ham-fistedly insert background material into the chapter, like Charles Reymond’s personal and professional information on page 10 which were put into brackets to section it off from the rest of the narrative (because this is the only example in the book, it’s awkward and unnecessary). Anderson is guilty of similar block data insertion in The People of the Wind (1973) where numerous blocks of data are framed and separated from the narrative.

However, Anderson also shows that he is up to the challenge of writing for the New Wave movement. More so than any other Anderson novel that I can recall, Tau Zero has a fair amount of sex, though much of it is directly indicated rather than explicitly written—Anderson ever so modest. Even the sexual relationships between the crew are a new facet to Anderson’s New Wave writing, where partners are shared and marriage shunned, perhaps for the mental welfare of the close-knit crew or because the possible need for DNA variation for colonization.

The crew on the Leonara Christine is diverse in namesake but their actions are stereotypical to their respective race. The Chinese Chi-Yuen is poetic and in naturalistic, the Swede Telander is strong and silent, the Indian cosmologist Chidambaran in nerdy and pragmatic, and the Russian Lenkei is heated and controversial. But there is one character that breaks the mold of conformity, one entity that stands out among the rest and makes a name for herself: the one and only Leonara Christine.

The colloquial use of she in regards to the Leonara Christine eventually defines the ship itself as a character in the book, worthy of sympathy. The humans within her hull are confined in their microcosm, subject to whims of personal glory or self-destruction, interpersonal agitation or intrapersonal angst; yet, the Leonara Christine maintain her plot amid the stars and between nebulae while protecting the precious fleshy cargo within. When dense gas clouds and even denser stars blockade the advancement of the crew’s passage, the Leonara Christine must persevere and succeed. When her successive mechanical failures demoralize her crew, she must endure the passing time and coddle her embryo-like humans.

Akin to the cordoned off block of personal data on page 10, Anderson begins each chapter with a snapshot of Leonara Christine’s passage through space at her terrific near-luminal velocity. This would normally detract from the characters’ narrative elements, but the result of the updates is a characterization of Leonara Christine. The voyage gains peril and the ship earns respect while the crew twiddle away their miniscule lives in a universe devoid of all humans other than the fifty within the Leonara Christine’s hull.


I can appreciate Anderson’s experimental work—trying to infuse his Golden Age charm with New Wave elements, but the result is a blocky mosaic of the two. His characterization may have been stereotypical and weak, aside from the pleasantly plump and accommodating Ingrid Lindgren, but his characterization of Leonara Christine won me over. This is a foray into coping with the end of lives, the end of humanity, and the end of the universe through the eyes of the Earthy carbon life forms and the metallic hull who transports them through space and time. One of my favorite Anderson novels!

Friday, April 12, 2013

2010: Terminal World (Reynolds, Alastair)

Future history with cliched dirigibles and a mini-mystery (4/5)

I’ve read all of Alastair Reynolds’ books, from Revelation Space (2000) to Blue Remembered Earth (2012). The only novel I hadn’t read was Terminal World (and the Deep Navigation [2010] collection), which I had bought in 2010 but was leery of reading it because I don’t fancy the steampunk tread in modern sci-fi. As soon as I started it, however, I was sucked in.

In a bold move, Alastair Reynolds abandons his deep-space roots for a more terrestrial novel based around dirigibles and vertical cities. Unsurprisingly, Reynolds is a keen enough writer to entertain and enthrall the reader enough to have them forget about any deep-space, galaxy-faring sojourns. The down-to-“Earth” plot is mysterious and intriguing—a pretty sweet synergy which differs from anything else Reynolds has written.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Spearpoint, the last human city, is an atmosphere-piercing spire of vast size. Clinging to its skin are the zones, a series of semi-autonomous city-states, each of which enjoys a different—and rigidly enforced—level of technology. Horsetown is pre-industrial; in Neon Heights they have television and electric trains…

Following an infiltration mission that went tragically wrong, Quillon has been living incognito, working as a pathologist in the district morgue. But when a near-dead angel drops onto his dissecting table, Quillon’s world is wrenched apart one more time, for the angel is a winger posthuman from Spearpoint’s Celestial Levels—and with the dying body comes bad news.

In Quillon is to save his life, he must leave his home and journey into the cold and hostile lands beyond Spearpoint’s base, starting an exile that will take him further than he could ever have imagined. But there is far more at stake than just Quillon’s own survival, for the limiting technologies of the zones are determined not by governments or police, but by the very nature of reality—and reality itself is showing worrying signs of instability…”


The Godscraper of Spearpoint tapers into the sky, its base broad and bucolic with a level of technology naturally limited to the horse and carriage rig; this level of technology is governed by the forces of “zones” which crisscross the Spire and the land beyond. Rising from the manure of Horsetown, the Zones gradually become more technology-friendly allowing for steam engines, electricity, and circuit boards. Above these modest levels of technological sophistication are the Celestial Levels, a zone which is implied to have nanotechnology, yet entry into this exclusive level is forbidden by ordinary humans; this level is inhabited by exotically modified humans who glide around the Spire’s pinnacle on the thermals from below—angels, only in the sense of flight and grace because it’s the moral indifference which stymies the love from below.

Beyond the Spire lays a barren landscape inhabited by hoards of thieves, semaphore stations, and infrequent outposts. Some of these outposts are fueling stations for the Swarm, an enclave of humans kept aloft by scores of dirigibles. The Swarm used to be affiliated with the Spire, but an event caused a rift between the two, so the Swarm now hold a grudge against the dirt-rats of the Spire and ply the winds for trade and exploration.

Quillon (hereby known as Q) has a secret. Sure, he’s the morgue’s physician with a special interest in dissecting fallen angels, but while is outer form is a lanky human, his true form ahs origins in the Celestial Levels above. This secret is only known to a local gang boss who has a mutually beneficial relationship with the fallen angel. Once an agent sent to study the ordinary humans, the mission parameters unexpectedly changed and Q found himself against his own people in a city where his kind are hated; he was alone. After nine years among the humans and six years of being a pathologist, his social circle is still small and the angels are still after his knowledge—knowledge which must be extracted without care to his corporeality. When another of these fallen angels offers an open threat to Q, he must elude his tails and seek solace in the unforgiving lands beyond the Spire.

Once having descended from the spiraling cities of the Spire, Q and his abettor Meroka set out to one of the two cities which share the renownedness for having a human population above a handful. Once out of the Spire, they witness a catastrophic zone storm which sweeps through the hinterlands and the Spire; a storm which shifts nearly all technological levels down to horse-and-buggy. The passing from zones causes severe illness in those who experience the transition, where passages between dissimilar zones wreaking havoc on the human nervous system. Lucky for Meroka, Q is a doctor with a handy supply of drugs to temper the body against the worst of the effects. Yet, the entire population of the Spire are experienced unparalleled pain through their transition to a pre-industrial zone. Q mourns.

As the marauders, known as the Skullboys, pass by their secreted lookout, the outcast duo view a caged mother and child trailing the gang. Later, their advancement is interrupted when they see the same rampaging retinue burning at the side of the road. Q and Meroka rescue the mother and child, only to be recaptured by the Skullboys and given as bounty to the Vorgs—biomechanical monstrosities which devour nerve tissue through stripping flesh or trepanning. Q’s imminent death is staved off by the descent of one ship from the Swarm, who execute the Skullboys, deal death to a few of the Vorgs, and capture one Vorg for the Swarm’s leader—Ricasso.

Initially, their arrival is suspect. Q, however, is able to charm his way into the pockets of the Swarm’s doctor and the Swarm’s leader; his motivation for involvement is two-fold: firstly, he must protect the identity of the girl, whose cranial birthmark holds superstitious suspicions and secondly, he must find a way to alleviate the suffering of all those still within the cities on the Spire. Q maintains the secret of the girl’s superstitious ability as a tectomancer, which allows her to control the flux of zones, and maintains his own secret of being a fallen angel, a secret he has kept from Meroka who has a passionate hatred for all angels.

Eventually, all truths come to head and Q must face discrimination and distrust in his four-person clan and amid the Swarm’s ships. His track record of honesty and duty earns him privy with the Ricasso, so most doubts are subdued, yet factions still align against Ricasso and Q. When Ricasso decides to take the Swarm through an uncharted, desolate, once deadly portion of land known as the Bane—where no man, animal or tree grows—the factions split the Swarm when mutiny strikes. The course through the Bane, however, has been recently charted to be passable and shortcut will allow them to deliver drugs to the Spire sooner.

The trip through the Bane is without peril, yet is abound with mysteries of the past: mechanical wreckage, painted symbols, derelict edifices, and historical indicators. The real peril comes near, on, and in the Spire where the Skullboys have found a toehold, where a small-time cog in the underground gang machine has become the power plant for the entire operation, and where Mad Machines toil and trouble in the depths of the Spire. Q’s purpose: deliver medicine and allow the tectomancer her destiny.


The start of the novel is fast and viscous, a slippery slide of exploring the intriguing element of Spire and becoming immersed in Q’s dilemma. Many things are mentioned in passing by the more knowledgeable Meroka, items which foreshadow future events. I use “foreshadow” in the sense that it was entirely predictable that the curious elements mentioned by Meroka would eventually surface, play its hand at havoc once or twice, and ebb into a non-issue. In this regard, no punches are pulled, no rabbits are pulled from the hat; therefore, the twists in the plot feel flaccid, merely adding an element of excitement to the plot rather than turning it on its axis.

The one issue which the reader desires to understand—the origin and function of the zones—is, sadly, unfulfilling. The solution is a bow to technological supremacy, an admittance of the character’s failure to grasp history’s impact on the present. The Mad Machines are about as good at it gets when it comes to answers, but the resulting conclusion of the meeting leaves a vapid hole in my want for loving this book. Perhaps this is because I could never be satisfied with the tectomancer’s abilities of shifting zones at will, an ability which sounds all too psychic too be worthy of science fiction. This is what I refer to when I say Reynolds takes a “bow to technological supremacy”—taking a limited character perspective in order to avoid describing the science and reason behind a key technology in the plot.

Some elements of Steampunk do annoy me, however, in Terminal World. I’m getting really sick of reading about dirigibles in nearly every science fiction book which hails from the United Kingdom, Michael Cobley and Ken MacLeod among them. There seems to be a constant mention of valves, pressure, gas, pumps, lift, and ballast. I don’t even think it’s exactly established WHY the Swarm decided to remain aloft rather than settle down like a common landlubber. The amount of fuel to keep the Swarm up and about would be absurd, wouldn’t it?

Considering the sub-genre’s balancing act between industrial technology and most-modern technology, Alastair manages the feat well. While there are gas-burning blimps above, below there are brain-thirsty robots; there are steam-powered trolleys on the road, beneath hide multi-storey mechanical junkpiles of custodial merit; there are horses which trod paths radiating from the Spire, above flux and glide the thermal-hugging angels with their nanotechnological wonders. Yet, there’s a noticeable gap between the two, such as life in Neon Heights and Circuit City where city life would resemble that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Terminal World is a nice departure from Alastair’s normal deep-space focus; it carries over his talent of creating detailed and absorbing worlds through unique tangents of plot attack. I may have been predisposed to dislike this sub-genre, but I ended up liking the technological elements and future history elements more than the drop into industrialism in the Steampunk manner. Aside from the unsatisfying conclusion regarding the power of the girl’s tectomancer prowess, there’s one added twist (the only satisfying twist in the book actually) which requires some of the reader’s ability to delineate hints and nudges into a logical assumption. It’s a bit of a puzzle, but diligent reader’s ought to be able to figure it out.