Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-575-08189-5
(Review first published on the ASIM website, August 2008)
Greg Bear’s fiction tends towards the Big Idea. In City at the End of Time, the Big Idea is the end of the Universe. City is a sprawling tale of science-fictional apocalypse, one in which the Universe threatens to end not with a bang but a muffled and sinister whimper. It’s a difficult book to categorise: there’s clearly much to its premise that draws on the world of science, but there are also strong overtones of mythology, various religions, and some shades of fantasy and horror as well. I’ll confess that I found the mix too incongruous in some places, but this is as much a comment on my tastes in reading as it is on Bear’s writing.
Ginny, Jack, and Daniel are three strangers whose wanderings have drawn them to Seattle, from origins that aren’t strictly contained within any existing map. Each of the three is a ‘shifter’, someone capable of sensing the lines of fate which run through them, and of jumping tracks from an ill-fated existence into an ostensibly more agreeable life. For Ginny and Jack, this shifting has repeatedly occurred with the retention of their own identities; but Daniel has a nasty habit of switching bodies when he shifts. As the book opens, Daniel finds himself incorporated in the body of a mendicant, raddled by alcoholism and general ill-health. But Ginny and Jack also have problems of their own, in the form of recurrent dreams of a far-future existence, in a city at the end of a besieged, dying universe. This city, the Kalpa, is ostensibly all that remains of order and of life, a hundred trillion years into the future. Within the Kalpa, two young people, Tialba and Jebrassy, are experiencing strange dreams which connect them to a pair of individuals from the unimaginably distant past: Ginny and Jack. Their fates are entangled with a set of mysterious artefacts, stones called ‘sum-runners’, which act as talismans to protect their custodians from chaos.
City at the End of Time is slow in pace, at times almost glacial, and with a glacier’s ponderous inexorability. It’s a book in which meaning and purpose are accreted over time, and across pages, and it takes a while before the story’s various threads start to draw in towards each other. But anyone who’s a devotee of Bear’s sprawling classics, such as Forge of God, will likely be familiar already with this attribute of Bear’s fiction. In keeping, too, is the use of many different viewpoint characters: I believe there are around a dozen employed throughout the book, with the greatest emphasis placed on the three Seattle-based ‘shifters’ and on Tialba and Jebrassy. With such a broad spread of characters, there is comparatively little fine detail of character nuance (although it’s likely that many SF readers wouldn’t actively go looking for this anyway); this has the effect — to my mind, at least — of blunting the pathos as the plot edges towards climax. (Of the characters, probably the standout is the deliciously-named Max Glaucous, who is early set up as one of the villains of the piece, and who comes across as a sort of Charles Dickens / Ray Bradbury hybrid.)
There are a couple of other aspects to the book which also dampen the tension. One is the audacious sweep of the far-future setting, which brings up a common difficulty with SF’s extremes: by invoking an environment which is dramatically far removed from everyday experience (or even the more well-ploughed furrows of imagination), the author is either required to expend great effort on description or else to leave much of the action taking place against a clouded, apparently nebulous backdrop. Bear has opted here for the latter strategy, which may well be the appropriate course of action for the book’s purposes, but I would have appreciated a greater crispness of phrasing. The second difficulty is that the book’s mythological freight, though undeniably impressive in many ways, gives much of the action a kind of pre-ordained quality, as though there’s an inevitability, a sense of external direction, to the events as they unfold. (Bear takes pains to point out repeatedly that the course taken may as equally lead to disaster as to triumph, but still I found it difficult to believe in the plot’s more dangerous prospects.) This results in a conclusion which, as resolution, is highly effective though in cathartic terms seeming to offer less than might have been.
But still: if it’s bigness of idea that you’re after, City at the End of Time will likely not disappoint. There’s an undeniable grandiosity to the total synthesis of cosmology and myth that Bear presents, and I’m impressed by his ability to encapsulate a universal future history in just the one book. That being the case, it would seem churlish to cavil at the book’s length — after all, one could hardly expect to satisfactorily wrap up the fate of the Universe with a more slender volume.
(Review by Simon Petrie, 2008)