Thursday 25 June 2015

Book Review | Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

With Earth abandoned, humanity resides on Station, an industrialised asteroid run by the sentient corporations of the Pantheon. Under their leadership a war has been raging against the Totality—ex-Pantheon AIs gone rogue.

With the war over, Jack Forster and his sidekick Hugo Fist, a virtual ventriloquist's dummy tied to Jack's mind and created to destroy the Totality, have returned home.

Labelled a traitor for surrendering to the Totality, all Jack wants is to clear his name but when he discovers two old friends have died under suspicious circumstances he also wants answers. Soon he and Fist are embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens not only their future but all of humanity's. But with Fist's software licence about to expire, taking Jack's life with it, can they bring down the real traitors before their time runs out?


Seriously satisfying cyberpunk action meets thoughtful moral philosophy with a dash of detective noir and a supersized side of striking science in Crashing Heaven—the year's best debut to date, and make no mistake.

A pivotal part of its deceptively accessible premise is that the tale occurs in a world where gods (of a sort) walk among men. As the well-read will be aware, this is not a new notion; on the contrary, there have been any number of tremendous takes on the topic, even if we restrict our recollection to iterations of late—highlights like Robert Jackson Bennett's brilliantly built City of Stairs and N. K. Jemisin's hot-under-the-collar Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. So what makes this one worth writing home about? Why, the presence of a puppet, if you please!

Folks, meet Hugo Fist: a virtual ventriloquist's dummy designed by the pawns of the Pantheon—an assortment of incarnate corporate gods who represent the culmination of capitalism—to lay waste to the Totality: the rogue AIs that have taken over most of the solar system. Most of the solar system... but not all—not Station, the industrialised asteroid humanity has called home since poor planet Earth gasped its last.

It's been something like seven years since Hugo's host last set foot on Station, but truth to tell, Jack Forster hadn't expected to ever again. Imprisoned for switching sides during the Soft War after he learned there was markedly more to the Totality than his omnipresent Pantheon masters had made apparent, Jack's release—and Hugo's, too—only came about as a condition of the recent peace treaty between the Powers That Be.

Judging by the homecoming that Crashing Heaven kicks off with, no-one on Station is happy to have Jack back. His father basically hates him for turning traitor, as do his former colleagues, who restrict our hero's newfound freedom by keeping him off-weave. Absent access to that pervasive overlay, Jack is shunned by all and sundry, not least complete strangers whose augmented reality apps render him essentially invisible, like the drug-addicted sweatheads shuffling unseen through the asteroid's dodgier districts.

Even Andrea, the illicit love of Jack's life, is initially displeased to see him. That said, she's not really Andrea anymore: sadly, the sultry singer Jack so adored passed away while he was coming to terms with his own impending death as he served his sentence. Now that he's finally free, all that's left of her is a Fetch—an artificial intelligence made of memories—and it wants nothing to do with him, either.

The suspicious circumstances surrounding Andrea's supposed suicide do, however, serve to set Jack of a path that'll bring him within spitting distance of Station's deities. In the course of investigating her last days, he uncovers certain connections to the unsolved murder of a programmer called Penderville—a murder that Jack becomes convinced the Pantheon played a part in.

Hugo Fist isn't exactly happy about this. Fist, with "his red-painted cheeks and lips, dead glass eyes, perfect little hairpiece and perpetual grin."
His body floated beneath his carved face like an afterthought dressed in a blue-grey suit, a starched white shirt and a little red bow-tie. He clacked his mouth open and shut twice, the snap of wood on wood echoing down the alleyway. Then he roared in fury: 
This to a pair of preteens tormenting a Totality biped.

And as above, so below, because the Pantheon puppet is a real piece of work. He wasn't best pleased by Jack's desperate attempts to connect with his loved ones once more, but now that his host is risking life and limb—the very limbs Fist is set to inherit in a little less than a year, bound together as he and Jack are by the contractual law underpinning the Pantheon's power over Station—Fist is properly pissed. And when Fist is pissed... well. Know that he's not above teasing people with the death-screams of the dearly departed. Know, furthermore, that this kind of cruelty gives him a certain pleasure; a "ferocious, deeply fulfilled glee" (p.37) that adequately describes the darkness he has instead of a heart.

Yet, as crude and crazed as Fist is, as malevolent as his mania may be, he's equally "a creature that found it so hard to feel anything more sophisticated than the spite and aggression that its maker had built into it" (p.125) that there are moments when we almost pity him.

Not for a bit, admittedly. Fist's interactions in the first half of the fiction are largely with Jack, and their relationship, such as it is, runs the risk of becoming repetitious. Fortunately, the dynamic between them is far from static:
So much had changed since they'd returned to Station. Each had become a mediator for the other, Jack helping Fist engage with the subtle workings of humanity, Fist helping Jack control the digital environment that the little puppet understood so well. (p.260)
This assertion, made in the aftermath of Crashing Heaven's exhilarating centrepiece, in which Fist is completely unleashed, signals the first in a series of distinct shifts in the way the puppeteer and his problem prop relate to one another, and as that dynamic develops, so too, insidiously, do our sympathies. It's terrifying, at times... but that doesn't make it much less touching when real feeling passes between them.

In terms of its central characters, then, Crashing Heaven is a hell of a novel, so complete that I was somewhat surprised to see that it's the first volume of a proposed duology. To be sure, I'll be reading book two—as will you, assuming you take a chance on this dizzying debut—but I haven't a clue what it could look like, because Robertson's habit of holding nothing back extends to the story and the setting as well.

There's such a vast amount to unpack, in fact, that it's a real relief he doesn't rush it. That isn't to say there aren't plot threads aplenty in the first half of the fiction, nor that Station is not laid naked as a babe before us; without context, of course, what it stands for, and where the story could conceivably go, is a guessing game at best. Happily, as opposed to brute-forcing the worldbuilding, or holding back the bulk of it, Robertson drip-feeds us what we need to put the pieces of the puzzle together ourselves, until we're able to open our own eyes to the significance of Station, and to the endless possibilities of the plot.

It's exactly as satisfying as it sounds. Pretty much everything in Crashing Heaven is. I suppose some of the philosophy—about what it really means to be meat in Robertson's manifestly augmented milieu—feels... let's say a bit basic. And the author's extended metaphor about manipulation (like one might literally manipulate a puppet such as Fist, for instance) is a touch too much. But if that's all even I, a notorious nitpicker, can come up with to complain about, be sure that we're looking at a hell of a book.


Crashing Heaven
by Al Robertson

UK Publication: June 2015, Gollancz
US Publication: June 2015, Harper

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