Alastair Reynolds, or simply just Al, is somehow a master in crafting sci-fi. Have to say, hard sci-fi. I know, I have heard of Paul McAuley or Iain M. Banks, but trust me, I haven't read either of them yet. I have bought one book from Iain M. Bank's collection, Excession. But anyway, I am not going to point on that book because I haven't started reading his book yet.
So, this time, the biased review will revolve around Al's Terminal World. OK, first thing to mention before I continue: I am reviewing against his works not across the global span of sci-fi literature and authors. So don't shoot me down just yet. I am telling and characterising the difference each book Al has written.
When Al announced that he is going to write a steampunk fiction that doesn't include interstellar travel, spaceships or planetary environment, I couldn't help revealing my disgust. I am sorry, OK? I am too addicted to those high-tech-but-not-too-high-till-tractor-beams-or-FTL-exists. I have already been flung into deep space and time by his Pushing Ice, travel through umbilical cords to Alternate Earth in Century Rain, to the crushing gravity of a neutron star in Revelation Space and to the frigid environment of a Kuiper Belt Object in Blue Remembered Earth and the list goes on and on. It's not easy to adapt his sci-fi in a whole new level.
Steampunk? Yes. The word 'steam' and 'punk' turned me away. I cannot imagine Jedis using sabre (instead of lightsabre) to duel or a pilot riding on a Wrights Brothers' plane. Or occasional trespass of a chugging steam locomotive. It's... wrong. I felt it was lacking of something. Something 'profound'.
So, I waited three years. Scouring every single review I can dig out from websites and blogs. So far the reviews were not bad at all. In fact, someone even rated a five-star on this book. RM72.90, hardcover, on local bookstores. Convert that to USD at that moment was around $17.80. Or more or less.
It is expensive for my budget. I can only afford RM35 to RM50 (do the maths of the conversion yourself) but in the end, I bought it. I ripped open the plastic and start to set in a thought "I hate you Al for Steampunking (if that's a word)".
I regretted for that thought.
The Big Object (no, not Big Dumb Object in the case of Spica structure in Pushing Ice or the shell wrapping Alternate Earth in Century Rain) is the towering Spearpoint, or Godscraper. It's so tall that I can't help visioning it next to me. It rises to the zenith, tapering from a flat base to a needle sharp tower (as seen on the bookcover)
Spearpoint has a strange property: it is divided into zones where one technology is different from the other and crossing a zone will have danger to physiology as well as other objects. The lowest zone is Horsetown, then Steamville, Circuit City, Neon Heights, Cyborg zone and lastly Celestial Levels. From the name we know how technology is more superior when one crosses from below to the summit (called the Ascension Day).
At first, I felt it's too much medieval magic here. No science could make this happen. It's not hard sci-fi anymore. Al screwed it! I screamed in my heart. It's the tractor-beam sign! No! But wait for it, more to come:
The action, which compared to other works of his, started right at the first 30 pages. Fast, quick and dark. Quillon, a doctor (or pathologist) was warned by an angel - nothing religious, it's a post-human with wings and strange midnight blue eyes - that other angels are coming after him from the Celestial Levels. He is forced to leave Spearpoint immediately and never to return. Exile. Poor prince. (No, he's not a prince)
Mix and match, mix but not match, whatever it takes, Quillon was paired with a very strong character Meroka. Mind you, this woman can give you laughs if you are in it, or make you curse if you are a very noble parent who never cuss (oops!). Quillon looks weak all the way, except when he deals with the things he know best. A professional. Meroka on the other hand, wow, talking about support here. She is one tough woman you can never touch.
When I read this book, I felt very unsafe. The world is dying upon me. Trees stop growing and air turns colder. I wonder will this happen to Earth. I took pity on the inhabitants. I wanted to help them. The desert world. The desperate need of needs. The desperate need of antizonals (things that make you wow when you want to cross zones)
There is other medieval magic too: the tectomancers. The people who can control zones. My goodness! Had Al finally loses his charm in hard sci-fi? Witches, the people called those tectomancers. And they burn them wheneer they see them. Medieval much huh? Wait, there are even caravans and gondolas.
But, I need to say this, all these medieval magic? It's not magic. There is speculative science and sociology on it. Nothing like abracadabra-ey here. Read properly about what zones are and who are the witches.
I am sad towards the ending. Many readers wanted a sequel. The cliffhanger was bad. In my humble biased opinion, there wasn't any cliffhanger. The loose ends are tied up properly if you read it slow. Read nice and slow, with some cappucino, I suggest. No, I don't wish for a sequel. Al has made his point too. The story arc is complete, but it's up to the readers to think the "right" ending when it's already given.
And one more thing I would want to praise Al for is the riddle of landmarks around the "Earth". Read properly about the Mother Goddess mountain and the Night Maze, Long Gash, Spirit Landing and two halves of the moon. Dying world, red soil.
Yeah, I have revealed much about the location of this planet.
Overall, when you read this book, you will know what is the true nature of Spearpoint and what happened to the zones. I cried (softly and invisibly) at the ending of the book because I don't want the tectomancers to be like this! (oops!)
Go buy one and read it. Trust me, it's a sister of Blue Remembered Earth on world building. These two books are better than the rest of his collections (not really) and please, read it SLOW!