Details: (c) 1994 Ian McDonald; Pub Bantam Spectra 1994; ISBN 0-553-37416-8
Verdict: Terminal café feels like the reason cyberpunk was invented.
Reasons for reading it: I was struggling with Röde Orm and decided I needed a break from archaic Swedish. I have to say that the futurespeak of Terminal Café is not all that much more accessible.
How it came into my hands: Present from the ever-wonderful rysmiel
Terminal Café is not the sort of book I actively seek out; it's a near future thriller with a huge emphasis on technology and a lot of violence. As it is, I'm particularly glad this came with rysmiel's recommendation because otherwise I might have been put off by the packaging combined with the density of made up words for future tech in the first couple of pages. Actually, despite all the jargon, the prose is really beautiful. Anyone who thinks that SF is all mediocre writing should try a few paragraphs of TC. OK, it's not exactly an entry-level book, but it is also absolutely unashamed SF that couldn't possibly be anything else. It's so lovely that I wanted to read it slowly and savour the language, but it's also so exciting that I couldn't bear to slow down as much as that level of prose deserves.
TC is just about the best version of the End Times that I have ever read. It has just the right balance between the end of the world, portrayed on a truly global scale, with the individual characters who are developed even though the action takes place in a single day, and their very human scale reactions. It is alluding to the Christian mythos, but only alluding, it never gets heavy-handed about retelling the Christian story; it's mainly a geek eschaton, not a Christian one.
The setup is of five friends who are supposed to meet for an annual rendez-vous, but are prevented from convening, both by personal problems and the end of the world happening around them. The jumping between different storylines is a technique that very often annoys me; I generally say, well, Tolkien can do it, but it doesn't mean anyone else should. Apparently, McDonald can get away with it too. It helps that the characters are absolutely solid; I really cared about all of them, and there was no storyline I was impatient to get through so I could get back to the more interesting thread. I particularly liked YoYo Mok, but every character is well drawn, including the incidental ones. The other aspect where TC is really successful is in presenting the history of how we get from now to the imagined future (imagined in a pleasing amount of detail, too), and how that future comes to a crisis point, without ever interrupting the exciting story for infodump.
I don't like putting spurious comparisons in reviews, but McDonald could keep company with Charlie Stross in terms of effervescing with ideas and playing with tech and the ways it affects society, but at the same time has a control of language like the best literary writers, García Márquez comes to mind. I've appreciated his prose before but found some of his books a little difficult to get into, Desolation Road particularly. I wouldn't have expected to like Terminal Café so much better, but in spite of the subject matter I adored it almost without reservation.
The problems I have with it are almost too minor to be worth mentioning: the ending feels a little rushed and perhaps too neat. I suppose that's unavoidable when the book is structured around the beginning of what is effectively the Kingdom of Heaven, but still. Oh, and I got really fed up with the constant repetition of the phrase
the dawn's early light. It was funny the first time, it was groan-worthy the second time, but by the fifteenth time it was purely irritating.
Anyway. That was quite an experience!