Advocates of Steampunk say that it is a trend you can not “do wrong”. The marriage of the Steam Age (also known as the Victorian Era in Europe) and Science Fiction is one where as long as a true love of any one of these spouses exists, any infidelities can be forgiven. A novel need only recognize the science behind steampunk, give it things to adapt, and recognize the impact that Victorian fashion has on the trend, in order to be a successful member of the movement. It is in this way that someone who has no interest in fashion, little interest in the social aspects of history, and no desire to turn away from electricity-inspired Science Fiction, can still be recognized as a steampunk fan, due to my fannish love of seeing characters and events adapted to other universes- Dungeons and Dragons versions of Star Wars characters, Star Wars RPG adaptations of slasher movie monsters, and in this case, Steampunk renditions of those self-same characters.
It is in this same manner that Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds has been deemed “a Steampunk novel”. I held off on reading this for a long time despite curiosity, concerned that it would be an extremely niche novel, written with a prose style matching the incredibly difficult to read Twelfth Enchantment, the last independent universe novel I reviewed.
For any with similar concerns about steampunk novels, let me address your concerns. Terminal World has angels, lasers, cyborgs, and sentient mechs. It also has a fleet of zeppelins, a place called “Steamville”, horse-drawn carriages and a nod to Steampunk fashion. I would call this novel an introduction to Steampunk, because that’s what it was to me: something to test the waters, to see it in action in a novel that doesn’t beat it over your head, sets up a universe in which Steampunk is a necessary alternative to traditional technology, and most importantly, tells a compelling story.
After traveling through the eyes of a one-chapter opening character, we follow the path of Quillon, your standard half-breed Space Elf character. Quillon is the reliable narrator because his physical modifications and profession of choice allow him to go places most characters couldn’t- at least, and remain coherent enough to narrate the story. Through his eyes, following the less specialized but more experienced Meroka, we’re introduced to this world and all of the ins and outs of it. Quillon is an intelligent enough character to ask the questions the audience does, but not intelligent enough to know all of the answers before the audience can get so much as a clue. This might make his story arc somewhat more thoughtful than some readers like- it’s not a “sit back and relax” type of story unless you don’t mind being somewhat ignorant of the details.
While Quillon is a meek, incidental supersurvivor, Meroka adds a bit of color by being a foul-mouthed, gun-loving mercenary woman with a history. It’s this history that draws the most attention from me- mainly, because we don’t learn much about it. Much like the true ending and results of the events in this story, the history of Meroka and similar characters is left entirely to the readers’ imagination. While in some ways this helps build the atmosphere of the novel, its status as a standalone novel really hurts some of these details. The story is incomplete, and there are no follow-ups to fall back on.
In those areas where the setting is complete, it is a masterful effort to introduce an individual to Steampunk writing. This is a world where technology such as our own exists- we’re told of a place known as “Circuit City”, and there are places where carnivorous cyborgs rule the roost. We don’t see these places, because observing them first hand would make the rest of the book too hard for most of us to maintain our suspension of disbelief.
The world of Terminal World is besieged by The Mire, a terrible natural phenomenon that separates regions of land, air and presumably water by how complex something inside it- most notably technology, but anything with molecules is effected- can be inside them. We first open up in Neon Heights, a zone where some electricity works, but it’s a lower technology zone different enough from the 21st century to avoid the problems I just mentioned.
Throughout the early chapters of the book we’re taught things about Steamville. We learn about zone sickness, the side effect of traveling between zones, and that electricity doesn’t work in Steamville. Before we ever make it to the zone, we see a wealthy family in Victorian era dress that made the trip because their zone doesn’t allow the usage of X-rays. It’s those details that tell us pretty much all we need to know about the differences between Neon Heights and Steamville, and once Quillon and Meroka make the trip, we’ve learned what we can expect about traveling for the rest of the novel.
Without learning about anyone’s history other than Quillon’s, not learning the true nature of the angels or their wars with regular, “prehumans”, and being left hanging as to whether or not the actions of the main characters actually did any good in the short-term future of the planet or the city of Spearpoint, finishing the book feels as though you’ve just dedicated hours of your life to filler. It’s very entertaining filler that makes you think and invest in the world it describes to you, but ultimately, without further novels in this universe that’s all it is. Still, if you’ve been looking for a first experience with Steampunk or just have a ton of time to kill and need a book to read, Terminal World will fit the bill, as long as you don’t mind Meroka’s mouth.