Friday, 5 May 2017

Book Review | Waking Hell by Al Robertson

Leila Fenech is dead. And so is her brother Dieter. But what's really pissing her off is how he sold his afterlife as part of an insurance scam and left her to pick up the pieces. She wants him back so she can kick his backside from here to the Kuiper Belt.

Station is humanity's last outpost. But this battle-scarred asteroid isn't just for the living. It's also where the dead live on as fetches: digital memories and scraps of personality gathered together and given life. Of a sort.

Leila won't stop searching Station until she's found her brother's fetch—but the sinister Pressure Men are stalking her every move. Clearly Dieter's got himself mixed up in something a whole lot darker than just some scam.

Digging deeper, Leila discovers there's far more than her brother's afterlife at stake. Could it be that humanity's last outpost is on the brink of disaster? Is it too late for even the dead to save it?


On the back of one of the best debuts in recent memory, Al Robertson rounds up a brand new cast of characters for his second successive stop at Station. Absent "the dynamic duo" (p.173) that was Jack and Hugo—respectively "an accountant of the future [and] a psychotic virtual ventriloquist's dummy," in the words of the award-nominated author—Waking Hell isn't as compelling as Crashing Heaven, but between its excellently embellished setting and a narrative that boasts more momentum than most, there are moments when it comes close.

As of the outset, much has changed on Station, the battle-scarred asteroid where what's left of humanity lives under the purview of a pantheon of corporate gods:
Two and a half years before [...] Jack Forster, Hugo Fist and Andrea Hui had worked with the Totality to release the dead from semi-sentient slavery. But the Rebirth was just the start of a longer coming of age. It was one thing for ten thousand weaveselves to be reborn as fully self-aware continuations of ended lives—quite another for them to come to terms with that new start, both as individuals and as a group, and understand what to do with it. When Leila stepped out of the sea and into her new, post-mortal life, she became part of that conversation. (p.23)
The hero at the heart of Waking Hell has had to hoe a hard road in the years since her resurrection as a fetch. Initially, those like Leila Fenech were seen as sub-human, to be used and routinely abused by the living before being disposed of, like so much deleted data. The events of Crashing Heaven changed that; now, fetches finally have rights.

Still, there's resistance, including an organisation of individuals who damn near decimated the dead in an act of technological terrorism that'll stay with Leila to her last day. Luckily for her, she had her brother Dieter—a hacker with a particular fascination for the past—to lean on when the fanatics attacked:
When the Blood and Flesh plague shattered the deep structures of her memory, completely disordering her sense of herself, Dieter had helped her rebuild. He'd taken her out of the Coffin Drives' convalescence unit and back to his weavespace. Then he'd opened up his own memories of her life to her. They became a template, guiding her as she remade the structures of her past. He'd helped her heal when even the Fetch Counsellor had given up on her. 
Now he needed her just as much as she'd needed him. And she could only watch. (p.14)
She could only watch as he dies, infected from the inside out by an infernal artefact that feels like it fell straight out of Hellraiser—and by design, I dare say. Early on, at least, Waking Hell has a lot in common with a horror novel: it's all unsettling silences and gruesome goings-on, monsters and murders, and beyond these, thar be bees! Bees and some bloody ugly bugs. But for better or for worse, Robertson reverses gears too soon for these potentially interesting elements to have a dramatic impact on the narrative. What Waking Hell is is a solid science fiction sequel, despite the departure of its first act.

And its second, in a sense. This section is concerned with revenge, because while death is no longer the end in this milieu, Leila learns that for Dieter it will be. Essentially, he's been swindled into signing away the rights to his resurrection, ostensibly so that his sister will be looked after. And financially speaking, she is. Whoever the devil Dieter dealt with is, he's as good as his word. But rather than using the huge sum of money she inherits to live a right nice afterlife, Leila spends it in search of said devil's identity.

Then, with the help of a few friends—first and foremost a fraud investigator and an amnesiac janitor who aren't nearly as dreary as they seem—she sets out to bring the fight to the being that bastardised her beloved brother. Little does Leila realise that the being already has an army... an army it's planning to aim straight at Station. And as one of her new comrades says, "Of course you've got to look out for the people you love. [...] But if the whole of the rest of the world is in danger, you might have to start thinking a bit bigger." (p.147)

A bit bigger is actually a decent way of describing Waking Hell as a whole. It doesn't have the personality of Crashing Heaven—although its characters are a relatively rambunctious bunch, only the Caretaker entertains in the way Hugo Fist did, and I'm afraid he's far from front and centre—but it has scope and scale to spare. Nothing less than the fate of our race is at stake, and happily, there's more to humanity than the blasted asteroid Robertson's first novel focused on.

Leila's race to recover her brother—and, in so doing, save the day—gives us a window into this well-widened world, from the repellent reality underlying the weird and wonderful weavespaces people have created on Station to the scorched surface of the Earth humanity abandoned. And at the same time as casting the core conflict as increasingly crucial, the explosive expansion of Waking Hell's setting gives its narrative a frisson of the frenetic.

When I reviewed Crashing Heaven two years or so ago, I remarked that I hadn't a clue what the second of the Station books would look like. Given the devastating denouement of Robertson's dizzying debut, I knew it was destined to be different—but what those differences would be, I could only wait and see. That was enough to excite me. From here, however, it's much easier to conceive of an act three... and that's oddly disappointing.

An exploration of identity filtered through a revenge fantasy with a humble helping of horror, Waking Hell is fearsome, fast moving and fun—but it's also fairly straightforward, flat where the last book was full, and frankly much less memorable without Hugo Fist, who I really, really missed.


Waking Hell
by Al Robertson

UK Publication: October 2016, Gollancz
US Publication: April 2017, Gollancz

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