“’Am I a ghost in a meat machine, am I God’s little seed stored in heaven for all eternity and glued one day on to a blastocyst in Mama Columbar’s womb; has this me been recycled through countless previous bodies, previous worlds, universes?’ He pressed his finger between Trinidad’s eyes… ‘This is the final frontier. Here. This curve of bone is the edge of the universe.’”
Existentialism is a main theme of Ian Mcdonald’s brilliant 1994 Terminal Café (published in the UK as Necroville). Pyrotechnic poetry blasting from the pages, the possibilities of nanotechnology have never been related in such vivid profundity. In southern California of 2063, the dead live again in this flames-and-leather cyberpunk exploration of the meaning of life and death in a world gone mad with possibility.
In line with McDonald’s penchant for multiple viewpoints, Terminal Café’s story is told through the eyes of five friends who meet every year at Terminal Café on the Mexican Day of Dead. Santiago (the man quoted above), a drug artist, has experienced life in every way possible and seeks something more, possibly death. Camaguey is terminally ill and must decide what to do with the hours remaining. Touissant is an aguilar, an eagle-man, trying to fly away from his family’s legacy. Trinidad is a dinosaur hunter who hammers bodies “to the crucifix of fear she drags across her life”. And Yoyo, an independent lawyer, must solve the mystery of why the massive nanotech corporation TeeTee wants her dead. But it’s the place they meet that comes most alive. The streets and alleyways of the barrios — the necrovilles — they wander to meet at the café are much more than the neon, whores, and black leather that glitter on the surface.
Readers who enjoy vibrant, dense prose are in for a treat; McDonald’s visuals are strong yet abstract. The characters’ stories are unraveled in a fashion that keeps Terminal Café’s pedal to the metal the length of the novel. Rather than being buoyed gently along by breathless treacle, McDonald’s prose burns like an ethanol engine, each sentence firing off a chain of pyrotechnic visuals. Motorcycle gangs, smog swallowed enclaves, drug trips, death hunts, and every other aspect of the characters’ futuristic lives is described in vivid, poetic detail that flies in the face of the paint-by-the-numbers sci-fi available today. (As in River of Gods, McDonald includes a fair number of words from the setting’s native tongue: Spanish. The book easily reads without any knowledge of the language, but some might be bothered by it, so be warned.)
Stephenson’s Diamond Age, Stross’s Glasshouse, and Ian Mcdonald’s Terminal Café present three very different views on the possibilities for nanotechnology. McDonald’s take is obvious from the beginning: “Tesler’s Corollary: The first thing we get with nanotechnology is the resurrection of the dead.” So while theme parks have gone bankrupt trying to contain the dinosaurs they accidentally unleashed and designer drugs are available on the market with narcotic qualities like never before, the main focus of nanotech in Terminal Café is the superhuman status humans achieve after death, mortality no longer a limitation. Skeletal alteration, skin changes, even life in space are choices for the dead. (They are a more realist take on Miéville’s “remade”). The possibilities are so appealing, in fact, that many people intentionally die to open the doors of opportunity. Like people today, McDonald posits those of the future will likewise yearn for more from life, want to push the limits, and in his context, envy the dead.
Potential problems with the novel are more a matter of taste than technique. Some reviewers have complained that McDonald does not thoroughly explain the technical background of his nanotech, which is true. However, worldbuilding was never the aim. McDonald focuses instead on the personal and ethical aspects of technical achievement and the book needs to be approached that way. Some readers have also complained about the “confusing style” and “lack of cohesion amongst the character viewpoints.” Suffice to say, McDonald’s narrative is indeed allusive, most often describing matters indirectly. Attentive readers who enjoy stories to cogitate upon will love the book (e.g., fans of William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon, etc.), while those who prefer linear narratives with overt info dumps and plot hand-holding may balk (e.g., Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, Arthur C. Clarke, etc.). Readers expecting an easily digested story will be disappointed.
Combining original genre ideas with moral exploration, Terminal Café is a science fiction tour de force. From the visceral beauty of the prose to the variety of ways in which life and death are examined over the backdrop of the resurrection of humanity, McDonald has staked a claim for himself in the existential examination of nanotech. Cyberpunk through and through, fans of Gibson, Brunner, Stephenson, and Sterling will want to check out this offering.