Terminal Café

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Terminal Cafe by Ian McDonald.

Ian McDonald Terminal Cafe

I think I prefer the American title Terminal Café for McDonald’s Necroville. It shares and supports the misdirection of the jacket copy and the opening chapter, to make the psychopharm/VR auteur Santiago Columbar the central character of this story. Like nearly all of McDonald’s novels that I’ve read, there is no sole central character. Instead, there is a dispersed ensemble, not united until the book’s ending. This one is unusual in that there is a clear prior relationship among the members of the ensemble from the outset: they are a former school cohort, now 27-year-olds (a “funny age”) who have been holding a reunion annually on the Day of the Dead at the Terminal Café in the necroville connected to Los Angeles.

This book was written prior to McDonald’s “New World Order” cycle of novels (River of Gods, Brasyl, The Dervish House, etc.), and it does not seem to share any narrative continuity with them. It is, however, much closer to them in its sensibility and narrative style than it is to Desolation Road. Necroville is set in the (former?) United States, but it seems that the dominant language is Spanish. Former civil governments seem to have been reduced to suppliers of law on the open market, where corporadas are the dominating players.

The future setting might be in the twenty-second century. It doesn’t have a date other than November 1-2—the whole story transpires over a single twenty-four-hour period. Transformative nanotechnology hasn’t supplied “deathless immortality,” but the dead can be durably reanimated through “Jesus Tanks” that analyze them and then reconstruct them out of “tectors.” The supposedly foggy life-memories of the dead are, however, no guarantee of a subjective continuity of consciousness, so people are really no more inclined to die. What’s more, the dead are not recognized as having full human entity or legal rights to property; they are relegated to necrovilles when not performing services for the living.

The revolutionary struggle of the dead against their subordination by the living is the largest backdrop (and often foreground) of the novel. McDonald does not balk at references implying comparison of the situation of the dead to that of Africans introduced by slavery to the Western hemisphere. The “Freedead” have spaceships with names like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, and the member of Santiago Columbar’s set who is most critical to the political events of the novel is named Toussaint.

In Desolation Road, McDonald had already established his ability to artfully advert to the prior canon of science fiction. In this book, the allusions seem predominantly Phildickian. The theme of epistemologically obscure resurrection connects Necroville with Dick’s UBIK. McDonald quietly name-drops at least two PKD novels, Man in the High Castle (177) and Galactic Pot Healer (214). And one of the major plot threads borrows more than a little from Blade Runner, the film based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In fact, the dead of Necroville are in many respects not much different than the replicants of Blade Runner. Even the tyrannical demiurge’s name Tesler is not so far from Tyrell.

After more than twenty years, this novel doesn’t feel dated at all. I wouldn’t quite class it among McDonald’s few best, but those are a terrifically high standard. It’s very worth reading. [via]