Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Terminal Cafe

Ian McDonald

Somewhat different from the McDonald I've read previously, and in some ways more conventional. Only to an extent, given this book focuseson an intense study of high tech death and resurrection that is itself fairly stylistically distinct. It also seems that he's an author that has honed his craft and improved his writing considerably--which means that since I started with his most recent in River of Gods and Brasyl that it's a little unsatisfying to move backward. Terminal Cafe (Necroville in the U.K edition) is still a compelling work, offering a type of high-momentum gothic post-cyberpunk exploration of a resurrected society. Immediately engaging characterization, high quality prose, grand scale vision and interesting story. This book makes an interesting one to follow from Precursor, because it’s also about a position of radical change, overturn of technological and social norms, movement and political revolution. In this case, however, the transition isn’t between powersharing by different species and the level of industrial development within each grouping, instead it’s about the basic competitive superiority of the living dead over the merely living, and the way that translates into a shift in strategic position and daily life. The other difference dervicves from the more conventional structure used in this book that was mentioned above. Unlike in the Foreigner series we don’t see the long-term aftermath of these societal changes. Instead the drama focuses more conventionally on intrigue, political unrest and a decisive military confrontation. The major turning pont is established, the lines of mass migration and increased resurrection made clear, and the book ends. The narrative doesn’t have the interest or structure for what happens next, exploring through the long term nuanced process in the way that is the Foreigner series’ bread and butter. Which is a shame, in some ways, as that could have made for a fascinating series, and the inherent issues raised in this novel don’t get all the depth they deserve.

Terminal Cafe also deals rather extensively with sexuality, and here it works a bit more strongly, feeling integrated into the larger course of the novel in a way similar to McDonald’s more daring recent works. What the novel does better than Precursos is showing sex and sexuality as a component of the market, as living within and defined by the societal forces that structure material resources. This motif emerges most directly--prostitution--and in more subtle fashion for various characters, as a way of at once defining and blurring the line between living and zombies that forms in this setting not a metaphysical distinction but a class barrier. The urge and fulfillment of sexual desire also ties into the different pieces of characterization in the novel, and while separate from the main plot for the most part fulfills an important component of how we come to understand these people, and to an extent they come to understand themselves.

I missed the non-Western society depicted in his other works and on occasional drifted out of focus with the various plots, but in the end it was still a compelling story that further confirms McDonald as one of the top tier of writers. I am at this point more interested with his pending 2010 book than further exploring his earlier creations, however.

Worse than: Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Better than: Turqoise Days by Alastair Reynolds, similar in both works’ atmosphere of gothic hard science fiction

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