I have to admit an interest here: I’ve known Al Robertson for some time, both as a writer and as a friend. But whilst I’ve always known he was a good writer – a damn good writer even – I have to confess that not everything of his I’ve read (and in some cases critiqued) has worked for me. Which is down to me, not him. I’ve been waiting, selfishly, for him to apply his talent to my kind of story.
And now he has.
You could describe Crashing Heaven as post cyberpunk space-noire, but that sells the book short. It does start with an exile returning to his home town (actually a space station) to face unsolved murders and unresolved emotional entanglements – a fairly standard set-up. But then you start to realise the depth, wit and skill in the book, how it works on many levels: as adventure, as metaphysical exploration, as social satire.
Two things really made the story shine for me. One was something I suspect other reviews may pick up on, and that is the central relationship between Jack, the story’s human protagonist, and Hugo Fist, the sociopathic AI weapon living in his head that manifests as that gloriously ambiguous icon, a ventriloquist’s dummy. Jack is the only viewpoint character and – thinking like a writer rather than a reader – I found the choice to stick with a single rather distant third person viewpoint a little odd at first. But Jack knows a lot which needs to be revealed at the right time in the story, and that is one of Hugo’s functions, to draw out this taciturn man. Also at various times to goad him, to comfort him, and to scare him.
The other thing I love is the masterful handling of the relationship between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’. Cyberpunk may be passé, but it has left SF with some great new tropes to use and explore, such as virtual reality (there’s a phrase you don’t hear much these days), uploaded consciousnesses and AIs as characters. Al Robertson integrates and extrapolates this heritage seamlessly. There’s no fuss about how his world works; hacking a passerby for the price of a coffee, or meeting the dead (now living on virtually) are normal experiences in this future.
Interestingly, Jack spends most of the first half on the book unable to access the virtual overlays which make humanity’s space station home bearable. He sees reality as it really is. In some ways that is his biggest strength, to see truths others miss, and act on them; and his main weakness is that some truths, particularly the emotional ones, he appears unable to process.
Spending the first part of the book in un-garnished reality makes the increasing shift towards the virtual world of apparently limitless possibilities burn all the brighter. Some readers may find themselves mildly confused by the blurred lines between real and virtual, and I admit that there were times when I wasn’t sure how ‘real’ what was happening was. But perhaps that’s the point.
This is a storming debut and I suspect my one reading of this book – at a fair pace because I wanted to know what happened next – has only uncovered a fraction of what it has to offer. I look forward to re-reading it – and to the next one.