Hard-sf author Alastair Reynolds makes an interesting departure to a more steampunk-ish story. But his clean-cut, clear writing style, being very appropriate for hard science fiction, feels like a weird match with the more whimsical ideas of Terminal World.
Reynolds is always interesting and always worth checking out, but he isn’t famous for his writing style. His characters mostly sound alike, probably because he almost never describes facial expressions or body language or other clues to people’s emotional state, making all the conversations in his books businesslike. And while he can write well, it is like his writing is always merely adequate, as if the lines try to say “don’t look at me, look at the story”.
The content of Terminal World reminds me of the books of China Mieville, particularly The Scar and Perdido Street Station. Mieville’s style is the opposite of Reynolds’s. Very wordy, flowery and flamboyant, and it fits the New Weird subgenre in which Mieville takes the most outrageous ideas and treats them seriously. But when Alastair Reynolds describes a similar kind or world, it feels like a colorful painting has been given a stainless-steel frame.
The story itself is interesting though, but I wouldn’t rate it on the same level as his other stand-alone books such as Pushing Ice and House of Suns. One thing that is missing in Terminal World is a certain tension that keeps the plot going. Looking at both Pushing Ice and House of Suns, at the start of the books something dramatic happens that dictates an end goal for the characters, and the rest of the book sees the characters trying to reach something. Terminal World also starts with a large scale dramatic event, and it sort of pushes the main characters towards adventure, but then the story starts meandering without a clear goal in sight.
Once the main tension of the opening chapters leaves the story, the book starts relying on only the indulging interest of the reader, hoping that we think that the world is interesting enough to keep reading in absence of dramatic tension to drive the plot forward. Only after two-thirds of the book is past, a clear end goal is invented in the story, and finally the book picks up pace again. A string of new discoveries blows new life into it all. In the final third of the book we even move away from the steampunk frame and briefly enter hard science fiction once more, still what Reynolds does best.
Terminal World isn’t a bad book at all. No, this is the work of a confident writer who knows how to write a book and who is ready to take a bit of risk. It is still worth reading for the interesting ideas alone. It is just not as gripping as his other books.