After a handful of well received novels that can be described as technothrillers, Greg Bear returns to the genre where he made his name, Science Fiction. Specifically, he returns to Science Fiction with a Big Idea as its central element. In the case of City at the End of Time, the Big Idea is somewhat multilayered, but essentially strives to answer one of the nagging questions of SF – what happens at the end of all things?
The narrative Bear lays out for the reader follows two paths, one set in the modern day (or very near future) and another narrative thousands of years in the future, where the Kalpa, City at the End of Time lies. As the storylines barely touch each other, Bear manages to contrast the modern characters with those who parallel them in the far future. Initially, the dual narratives combined with the characters (who seem a bit indistinguishable from each other) and the plot elements made for a jarring read. As I was getting a handle on the ‘present-day’ narratives, Bear would end the chapter and shift over to the far future plotline. The discrepancies didn’t fully resolve themselves until the closing of the novel.
In the midst of the chaotic narrative; Bear did throw in some interesting concepts, such as the “sum-runners,” talismans with strange connections to the god-like beings who are waiting in Kalpa, the City at the End of Time. In addition, strange metafictional devices such as newspaper ads that connect help to connect the present day characters (Jack, Ginny and Daniel) with the far future. Outside of the novel itself, Bear and his publishers have set up a blog, a book-specific Web site, as well as other viral marketing Web sites to add depth to the story.
On some levels, Bear’s novel works much in the way that Stephen King’s Dark Tower works – an ultimate destination that defies both space and time are at the heart, or are the plot device, of both stories. Where King focused much of his story on the fantastical elements, Bear attempts to bring a more scientific approach to the wide-reaching cosmos his canvas paints. Like King’s opus, Bear crafts a story with several genre elements. While the story is grounded very much as an Epic Science Fiction novel, Bear also sprinkles in elements of thriller and horror with some downright creepy characters.
Jack, Ginny and Daniel are at the center of the story because they are potential saviours of the dying universe. Bear puts forth a tricky connection between the future and past that isn’t quite clear. Other than entropy, it isn’t quite clear what the specific threat to the universe is. This is symptomatic of the novel; that is, Bear throws some good ideas out there, but I didn’t feel the narrative followed up on the promise of those ideas. I’ve enjoyed a good deal of what Greg Bear has written in the past (Eon, Eternity, Darwin’s Radio, Songs of Earth and Power) and I was looking forward to this novel. Unfortunately, despite some very cool ideas and flashes of an admirable depth of characterization, City at the End of Time just didn’t work for me in the way I hoped it would.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford