Review: City at the End of Time

Written by Greg Bear
Gollancz paperback
Release date Out now

Jack, Ginny and Daniel are three young ‘fate shifters’ who gradually discover their destinies are tied to the impending end of the multiverse. In the far future Tiadba and Jebrassy, who are linked to Ginny and Jack via dreams, attempt to stop a mysterious darkness called the Typhon from completely destroying the city of the Kalpa…

Greg Bear’s 1983 SF masterpiece Blood Music dealt with an organism that alters the physical and mental make-up of everyone it comes into contact with, a theme echoed by the destructive force of the Typhon in City at the End of Time.

As Tiadba and her companions cross the vast wasteland of the Chaos they find a world of spirit marchers, illusions and a breakdown of the real, though the Typhon (which also recalls the Nothing of The Neverending Story) is far more destructive than the noocytes of Blood Music, possessed with the singular intention of consigning existence to oblivion.

This is an even more complex and epic novel than both Blood Music and Bear’s asteroid saga Eon. It’s certainly longer, though the majority of the 128 chapters are just a couple of pages long, meaning it’s easy to read in bite-sized chunks.

The most engaging sequences of the novel centre on the three young protagonists (though there’s some question as to whether Daniel is hero or villain) in present day America as they find themselves pursued by sinister forces and helped by others. Though none of the trio are particularly original, they give the novel an emotional core and a direction for our sympathies.

They are surrounded by other intriguing characters, including a mysterious old bookseller by the name of Bidewell, a sycophantic but lethal breed of bounty hunter named Glaucous, and the fascinating but unfathomable entities The Moth and The Chalk Princess.

The scenes set in the far future are less fun. Bear creates a well-realised world which details the strange hierarchies of Kalpa city (which bears just a few signs of the world we know) and the mind-bending desert and ruined cities of beyond. Yet Jebrassy, Tiadba and the other explorers are humourless characters who speak in an annoyingly long-winded vernacular (“Closer to the primordial Earth, closer to the truth. Am I of the chaos?”). As their quest develops it becomes increasingly difficult to care whether they live or die.

There are plenty of bold, metaphysical ideas at work here, and some neat throwaway inventions (the ‘word bugs’ are a highlight), and Bear generates a scattering of thrilling sequences. But the author isn’t able to weave a multitude of characters and plot strands into a tight narrative to rival modern masters of sci-fi like Dan Simmons or Iain M. Banks. As reality breaks down, the story becomes rapidly less interesting, favouring garbled, cod-philosophical explanations and incomprehensible twists over a satisfying resolution. Despite the hype, this isn’t Bear’s masterwork. Matt McAllister

An ambitious novel with some fascinating ideas, but this isn’t quite the classic epic sci-fi we hoped for.

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