Terminal Cafe, Ian McDonald

Bantam Spectra, 1994, 277 pages, US$12.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37416-8

It takes more than great ideas to write great SF; you have to know how to string them together. Countless pro writers have tried to instil this notion in the heads of even more numerous aspiring authors, but it doesn’t always stick. The shocking thing is that some professional authors themselves do actually forget about it. Results vary, ranging from excellent if nearly unreadable hard-SF to mishmashes of amateurish slush pile bricks.

Terminal Cafe‘s problems are slightly different. No one will be able to say that Ian McDonald isn’t a phenomenally talented writer. No one will ever accuse him of writing bad prose. Better yet; he’s got great ideas, stuff that most frequent SF readers will gobble up with glee.

No, McDonald’s problems lie in a different direction. In a certain sense, one could say he writes too well. Or that he writes with ambitions that exceed what should be put in a novel. To put it simply; Terminal Cafe doesn’t cohere and approaches unreadability because McDonald can’t string up his great ideas with an interesting plot that’s written in such a way that’s accessible to most readers.

On the cover blurb, it reads like a classic-in-the-making: “revolutionary technology has given humans the ability to resurrect the dead. But the even-increasing population of the rise dead is segregated. They have created a wild culture untouched by restrictions of the law. Dead cannot stray in the realm of the living, nor the living into the teeming necrovilles after nightfall.” Now, one artist wants to do exactly that—cross in Necroville after nightfall. Great premise. Horror crossed with SF, a few mind-boggling sights, a thriller structure and -boom- instant SF bestseller. Insert great ideas, stir as necessary. And don’t forget to explain exactly how the dead are so different from the living.

First mistake: We never learn what/why/how the dead are -including the differences- until nearly the end of the book. And no, it’s not a shocking surprise that twists things around. As a result, a large part of the book isn’t very compelling, because or first reaction is to ask why everyone can’t get along rather than understand the dynamics at play.

What makes Terminal Cafe so damnably difficult to read is that McDonald aims for the literary crowd and never sustains the interest. the quasi-experimental writing allows for pages of exasperating soul-searching by the characters, but not a lot of plot development. Many of the dynamics between the central characters are never made too clear.

And yet… once in a while, a fragment of clearly-written, utterly fascinating passage is to be found. The description of a new multinational justice system driven by rented computer time. Original speculations on nanotechnology. Space battles. Future arts. Political shenanigans. These gems of clear diamond in the murk both enhance the book’s overall impression, and darken it—because if McDonald could write these passages, then why the heck could he have made the whole book more interesting?

It might have been the British origins of the book. It might have been a busy few days where your reviewer didn’t have the patience to try out a complex piece of writing. It might be drugs, extraterrestrials or phases of the moon. But the result is the same; Terminal Cafe is a very mixed bag of fascinating vignettes drowned in oodles of boring passages.

Proceed at your risks and perils. And if ever you’re writing a SF novel of your own, please please remember that great ideas aren’t all that’s required for a great novel; you have to be able to string them together.

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