Saturday 20 September 2008

The City at the End of Time by Greg Bear

The City at the End of Time, Greg Bear's latest novel, has a highly ambitious plot. Several different plot threads are kicked off at the start, mostly taking place in today's Earth (or alternate versions of it) but a couple in the unimaginably far future. The contemporary characters are human, but have some odd abilities, while those in the future are vaguely related to humanity, a long way down the track. The author firmly belongs to the "show don't tell" school and the lack of explanation makes the events initially baffling, especially those in the future. Now an element of "mystery to be revealed" is good for a story in my opinion, but this one is taken to extremes. It was only the quality of the writing and some intriguing premises which kept me reading through the early chapters, but it was hard work. I found it difficult to get absorbed in the parallel stories, and for the first few chapters was constantly flicking back to remind myself of who was who. It didn't help me that none of the characters is easy to identify with.

Despite this unpromising start the story slowly emerges like a vast beast rising from the sea, with the connections between the different parts gradually being revealed. The present-day threads follow four individuals: Jack and Ginny, young adults who possess mysterious stones called "sum-runners", have the ability to shift fate to suit themselves, and who dream of a city at the end of time; Daniel, who has similar abilities in a more drastic form; and Glaucous, a man employed by the Chalk Princess (a mysterious, god-like being) to hunt down dreamers like Jack and Ginny. The threads gradually combine in a vast library owned by Mr Bidewell, a man of apparently great age who is connected in some way to the peculiar abilities of the other characters.

The plot threads in the far future, and indeed the universe in which they are set, are much harder to comprehend. This is literally at the end of time: trillions of years hence, after humanity has expanded and contracted in various forms (physical and virtual) many times, gaining ascendancy over the entire Universe even to the point of creating new galaxies to stave off the ultimate decline. But then Typhon, an agent of Chaos, emerges and begins to destroy what remains of the Universe until civilisation retreats, first to the Earth and then to this one last remaining city, Kalpa, protected from the encroaching Chaos by a defensive shield of reality generators.

Kalpa bears no relationship to our concept of a city, being just as strange as its inhabitants. These are divided into different groups: the Breeds, who are a reconstruction of what the city rulers think original humanity was like (records having long been lost); the Tall Ones such as Ghentun, who are much more distantly related to humanity and are much more knowledgeable and powerful than the Breeds; and the Eidolons even higher up the scale. Right at the top is the Librarian, whose nature can be guessed by the fact that a request for a meeting with him is granted – for a thousand years hence.

Jebrassy and Tiadba are Breeds who also dream – of the world of Jack and Ginny, their present-day counterparts. They are recruited to join one of the occasional expeditions sent out into the Chaos to try to find the fabled city of Nataraja, which it is believed is also resisting destruction. The various plot threads gradually combine in a race to prevent Chaos from absorbing the last remnant of reality and bringing an end to time.

The story is packed with strange events, imperfectly understood, and beings whose nature is hard to determine. There is certainly no shortage of the "sense of strange" which pervades some of the most powerful SF. Does Bear manage to pull it off? Not quite; his reach exceeds his grasp, in my opinion, and I was left rather unsatisfied and still somewhat baffled. Still, the breadth of the imagination and the quality of the writing kept me reading to the end, and I wouldn't be surprised if this were proposed for some awards later in the year.

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