Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a sci-fi novel that I’ve been meaning to read for about a decade or so. I am, of course, talking about Joan D. Vinge’s 1984 novel “World’s End”.
If I remember rightly, I found a copy of this book in a charity shop in Aberystwyth during the late 2000s/early 2010s and bought it purely on the strength of the cool-looking cover art (seriously, I miss the days when painted cover art was standard for sci-fi, horror and fantasy novels) – and I’ve been vaguely meaning to read it since then, but never got round to it until now.
However, I should probably point out that this novel is the second in a series. Although I haven’t read the first one (“The Snow Queen”), this novel contains enough recaps to just about work as a stand-alone novel. Even so, be sure to read the blurb carefully and expect the earlier parts to be a bit more confusing (since the best and most useful recaps don’t appear until a little way into the novel) if you haven’t read the previous novel.
So, let’s take a look at “World’s End”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins on a planet called Number Four, with a scarred police commander called BZ Gundhalinu getting ready for a formal ceremony. He has become famous, but isn’t too happy about it. So, whilst he waits, he opens his audio recorder and goes over his diary of the past few weeks and months.
We then flash back to some time earlier. BZ, a member of a poor, dishonoured family and recently suspended from the police force, arrives in an inhospitable region of the planet called “World’s End”. This area is run by a single mega-corporations that also allows prospectors to look for valuable minerals in the more barren areas – for a cut of the profits.
After BZ brought his family into poverty and disrepute, his brothers travelled to World’s End to try and make the family fortune back. BZ hasn’t heard from them since then and, worried, wants to find them….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it takes a while to really get going (and may be mildly confusing at first if you haven’t read “The Snow Queen”), it is this really cool mixture of dystopian sci-fi, “grimdark” fantasy, old-school adventure stories, horror fiction and trippy/weird 1920s-1960s style sci-fi 🙂
Imagine a cross between something like Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, Harry Harrison’s “Deathworld”, the old “Star Wars” films, Jim Theis’ “The Eye Of Argon”, an old “Fighting Fantasy” gamebook, Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead“, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness” and S. K. Dunstall’s “Linesman” and this might give you a very vague idea of what to expect 🙂
In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, they’re very well-developed – although the story spends quite a while setting everything up. This novel is one of those fantasy-style sci-fi stories that is set on an almost feudalistic world, but one with technology instead of magic. The technology feels well-developed and includes things like FTL travel/communication, laser weapons, a virus that turns people into computer-like beings called “Sibyls” and numerous other things.
Although this novel contains some elements that appear to be fantastical, they always have a scientific explanation of some kind. Still, it feels like a really cool blend between olde worlde fantasy (with the politics, traditions, the grim lawlessness of the wasteland etc..) and old school sci-fi 🙂
Thematically, this novel is a lot closer to fantasy fiction though – with the main themes being stuff like guilt, redemption, honour, power, tradition, otherworldly forces, long-lost love, lost worlds, faded glory etc… It’s really interesting to see this stuff mixed in with the sci-fi genre and it helps to lend the story a fairly unique atmosphere 🙂 Plus, the “used future” elements of some parts of the story also help to add a wonderfully 1980s “Star Wars”/”Blade Runner”-style atmosphere to some moments too 🙂
This novel is also really atmospheric too 🙂 Although the writing borders on melodramatic and over-descriptive at times (hence my comparison to “The Eye Of Argon”), it just about stays on the right side of unintentional comedy, and actually adds a lot of atmosphere to the story. A lot of this story has a wonderfully dystopian atmosphere that also reminded me a bit of “grimdark” fantasy fiction too 🙂 Seriously, this is cynical 1980s-style fantasy at it’s best 🙂 If you enjoyed Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s “Fighting Fantasy” gamebooks and want a slightly grittier linear novel, you’ll be in your element here 🙂
World’s End is a hostile place and a lot of the novel’s drama comes from both Gundhalinu’s struggle to survive there but also from his various inner struggles with his past. And, as a thriller, this novel isn’t really that fast-paced by modern standards, but the constant suspense, dystopian stuff and struggles for survival really keep the story compelling. In addition to this, there’s also a lot of claustrophobic character-based suspense in the earlier parts of the story and some more typical adventure/fantasy-style stuff in the gripping later chapters too 🙂
Plus, although this isn’t a horror novel, there are some well-written horror elements (eg: bleak horror, psychological horror, dystopian horror, insect-based horror, macabre horror etc…) here that really help to add some extra darkness, grittiness and atmosphere to the story too 🙂 Not to mention that the disintegration of Gundhalinu’s mind in some parts of the novel and the generally bleak atmosphere also reminded me a little bit of H.P.Lovecraft’s horror fiction too 🙂
In terms of the characters, Gunhalinu gets a lot of characterisation and really comes across as a realistic, flawed person who is trying to find some kind of redemption for his past sins in the harsh wasteland. This level of characterisation also means that you’ll probably end up caring a lot about his struggle for survival too. Although the other characters don’t get quite as much characterisation as him, they all also feel like realistic flawed people who vary from sympathetic to downright scary.
As for the writing, I’ve already mentioned that it’s very descriptive and can border on melodramatic- yet, it works! It adds a lot of drama and atmosphere to the story, whilst also giving it a wonderfully “old school” kind of atmosphere too. The narration is also formal enough to lend weight to the story, whilst also “matter of fact” enough to add realism and immediacy. Most of the novel consists of first-person perspective diary entries, although there are a few third-person segments too (for the frame story). This focus on one perspective and the clear use of an in-story document (Gunhalinu’s diary) means that the few perspective changes never really get confusing.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At an efficient 230 pages, this novel might look short but – thanks to the pacing and formal narration- it’ll probably take you as long to read as a 400-500 page modern novel will. And, yes, whilst this novel is a bit slow-paced, the story speeds up a little bit and becomes more compelling as it goes along. Plus, it’s kind of cool how this novel starts out as a small-scale survival drama and gradually becomes slightly more of a large-scale adventure story too 🙂
As for how this thirty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged fairly well. Yes, it is written in a slightly old-fashioned way and there are a few “gritty”/rough moments that would probably be portrayed slightly differently in a modern story, but thanks to the fantastical setting, the novel has aged surprisingly well. It’s as atmospheric and compelling as ever and it feels very “80s” in a way that isn’t too stylised or “nostalgic” (think “Star Wars” or “Blade Runner” or something like that).
All in all, whilst this novel might take you a while to get into (especially if, like me, you haven’t read the previous book in the series), it is well worth sticking with 🙂 It’s a gritty, dramatic, dark, atmospheric and brilliantly compelling piece of retro sci-fi 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit melodramatic and cheesy at times, but this just adds to the charm. If you like Harry Harrison’s “Deathworld” or the old “Fighting Fantasy” gamebooks or you just want a gritty “grimdark” fantasy-inspired piece of dystopian sci-fi adventure fiction, then this book is worth taking a look at 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.