A review of Terminals by Philip Challinor

Philip Challinor’s Terminals is the first e-novel I’ve read. This presents a difficulty for an amateur reviewer: I can hardly claim that it’s a “real page-turner”.

Terminals is a novel of repressed emotions. As we slip into its world it’s clear that the repression’s stronger…

The traffic roared and whined. Cars crawled resentfully by him, streamlined like jet fighters, the drivers hunched purple-faced behind their wheels. Scarcely slower, the Monday-morning tide of pedestrians rushed and broke around him as he walked. Not having windscreens to shield them from others, the faces were carefully bland, but violence seethed behind each of them. They might mask themselves as reasonable human beings, civilised, hard-working and law-abiding; but, Grayling thought, just try walking up to one and asking for the time.

Grayling, blinking in the sudden dimness of the world, has been going cold turkey from virtual reality. Along with Morningsyde – a paragon of puffed-up punctiliousness, investing his all in the efficient running of his unit – Crozier – the sort of man who’d avidly describe the botched containment, cellular make-up and likely virulence of a toxin as it killed his wife – and a host of other blinkered souls he greases cogs at the Chamber, a great labryinth of clinical departments that swallow its customers. It’s an odd establishment that promises to take the suffering from life and death. Outside, as people smother themselves in automated phantasms, the mushroom clouds are gathering. It’s a queer place to interrogate one’s self-concept.

I spent much of Terminals wondering how and why its characters were born. Many speculative wordsmiths depict bored, myopic figures  being dragged through scrapes that jolt their consciousness off-beam. Ballard’s subjects, for example, are emotionally stunted, skewed or traumatised but nonetheless curious. Their neuroses and desires lead them into all manner of fraught adventures: Ballard screeching through the London streets; Laing grappling between floors; Maitland prowling his concrete domain. While he showed humanity at its behavioral extremes, Challinor portrays it at its dullest. An absurd, amusing, sinister and yet somehow humanely conceived depiction of a cold, sad but not yet sterile apathy.

The concept of transhumanism always makes me think of a family pootling along in a really dingy car. One day the father has enough: he cleans the damn thing inside-out; patches up the air conditioning; cleans the windows; tunes the radio and hangs up fluffy dice. The old girl is chilled, comfortable and free of funk. On the other hand the family still has no idea of where they’re going, and without the irritations to distract themselves they’ve got even less to do. Don’t get me wrong: if acute suffering could be diminished I see no grounds to object but the idea of enhancing our lives seems to imply that there’s a model to strive for. There doesn’t seem to be.

This uneasy balance of the life as it’s immediately felt and as it’s contemplated – similar to Nagel’s “subjective” and “objective” standpoints in his bleak but hugely interesting The View from Nowhere – is shaken throughout the quiet events of Terminals. Its subjects can chart humanity but don’t seem too aware of what may enhance or diminish it. They have the power to escape their pain but only inasmuch as morphine cures a severed limb. The comedy, the horror and the quiet tragedy of this predicament are beautifully explored by Challinor and while my exposition of the book – and much of the book itself – may seem rather grim the touches of beleaguered but still fighting individuality sound a note of — well, hope sounds too sappy. Mild resolve, perhaps.

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