Terminal World is another one of these Alastair Reynolds books that reminds me why I read him sporadically. There are neat science fictiony adventurous ideas in his books but the writing makes me clench my teeth. No one behaves in a neurotypical fashion: everyone’s dialogue is clichés or exposition-speak. It feels more like the transcription of a bunch of socially-awkward 14-year-olds role-playing. Which is a shame because the plot and setting would be pretty spiffy if it was described by someone with a bit of flair for language.
It’s thousands of years in the future, on what appears to be Mars, even though everyone calls it Earth (I think that’s supposed to be clever, to show that they’ve forgotten they were once colonists). In the giant spire city of Spearpoint there are different zones of technology, from the Celestial levels where the angels who can fly and are filled with nanotech live, down to Neon Heights and Horse Town. These zones aren’t just stylistic; the rules of physics are different in each zone, making the technology from a higher zone cease to function in lower ones. It’s a pretty clever idea that gets developed as the story goes on, and is a good excuse for energy weapons and dirigibles to coexist.
Quillon is on the run from the angels so he’s heading out of Spearpoint for a while. He has a guide and they rescue a woman and child who will “change the world forever” (of course). There’s nothing really surprising that happens in the book. And the prose is boring. But it would make a pretty good RPG setting to play in.
The thing about not growing up as a comic book geek is not being hugely invested in the various continuities of the Marvel & DC universes. I didn’t grow up with a certain Green Lantern so it wasn’t traumatic when he went crazy and destroyed the universe (or whatever). I also knew most of my Marvel history from the cartoons, but I knew somehow those weren’t the “real” versions (even if Kevin Conroy is the voice I hear when I read Batman). They’re all just characters with stories being told about them.
So I kind of really like the Ultimate line of Marvel comics. The idea is to strip these long running stories down to a more manageable and modern history, so Peter Parker hasn’t been 16 for 50 years. This Saturday I settled into reading volumes 4-8 of Ultimate X-Men, the more recent Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk and Ultimate Human. I got them all from the library but there’s at least one of them I would buy.
I like the young X-men you’ve got in the Ultimate ‘verse, and the classic storylines (Cyclops and Wolverine really don’t like each other and Jean Grey is in the middle of it) mesh interestingly with stuff like Beast and Storm (Hank and Ororo) having broken up after a teen romance. Magneto was much more villainous than my preferred interpretation (Magneto as a slightly more radical version of Xavier): at one point he’s threatening to reverse the entire planet’s magnetic fields. And I suppose Beast, my favourite X-Man, is better in Astonishing X-Men than this young Ultimate version, but whatever. This Nightcrawler (my second-favourite X-Man) is pretty awesome.
But I really like the Ultimate Tony Stark who appears in a couple of these books (most notably Ultimate Human, which is written by Uncle Warren and has some good batshit science fictional stuff in between Hulk smashing the shit out of things). He’s funny in the way that 1970s Tony Stark wasn’t allowed to be. I also like the idea that he’s been infused with nanomachines and thinks of the Iron Man suits as a product, a product humanity will use to go out into space and elsewhere.
The best of these books though, was Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk. Wolverine starts the story off by getting ripped in half by Hulk. There’s a meeting between Logan and his spirit animal (not a wolverine), an answer to how the man with an adamantium skeleton makes it through airport security, loads of angst from Bruce Banner over the hundreds of people he’s killed as Hulk, and Nick Fury (the other thing I love about the Ultimate ‘verse is that it’s the Samuel L. Jackson Nick Fury) being enough steps ahead you’d think he was the goddamned Batman.
So yes. Superhero comics can be pretty fucking awesome. Even when they’re silly and basically just excuses for things to explode and get punched. In the middle of one of the Ultimate X-Men volumes there’s a great story about a young mutant who accidentally destroys a town and Logan has a talk with him, offers him beer and murders him in a cave because a mutant like that is terrible PR and Logan is the mutant who does what needs to be done.
Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House is near-future science fiction set in Istanbul. There are tightly regulated nanobots and tweaked kids toy nanobots and interesting financial scams and terrorist attacks and mythical mummies, a split in half Koran and boats. It’s very good.
One of the things I liked about this one was how it was tied into what I’d almost think of as contemporary times. One of the viewpoint characters (and this being an Ian McDonald book there are a bunch of them) is an old former academic who was a young radical in the 1980s when something bad happened that’s haunted him for the last fifty years. It was a good connection to have.
This book also joins the list of sf about economics that are in fashion these days (I blame Freakonomics). There’s a lot of talk about markets and selling and money in The Dervish House, paralleling all the rest of these books about goldfarming and electronic heists and the way people make money in a new economy. Maybe fiction’s been full of this forever but I feel like I’m reading a lot more about it recently.