Puppet vies with puppet-master in thrilling cyberpunk debut

A great novel I read over the summer but which I’m only getting around to blogging about now…

Crashing HeavenCrashing Heaven
Al Robertson
Gollancz
Review: Val Nolan

An accountant and a ventriloquist’s dummy walk into a bar. One is an ex-soldier branded a traitor; the other is “a military grade systems infiltration unit” capable of hacking into anything. Such are the heroes – and the term is used loosely in the case of the sociopathic dummy – of Al Robertson’s hugely satisfying cyberpunk debut, a noirish sci-fi detective story pounding its neon beat from grotty backstreets to the minds of gods to the edges of death itself.

Of course, labelling Jack Foster an accountant is selling him short. He was the best forensic auditor there was before being drafted into “the Soft War” against rebel AIs in the outer solar system, at which point he was feared as much by his own side as by the enemy. Thus nodding to the best traditions of crime writing, Robertson portrays Jack as a hard-nosed investigator traumatised by his time on the front and by memories of a botched love-affair back home, an underdog for whom the reader roots more with every beating. But, that said, the real draw here is Hugo Fist.

An offensive weapon “grown” in Jack’s mind itself, the foul-mouthed Fist manifests virtually, with a macabre touch, as a “half a metre of wooden viciousness, all dressed up for an elegant night out”, a pair of “little black polished shoes, a scarlet cummerbund, bright red painted lips, a black bow-tie, dangling unarticulated arms, and varnished shining eyes”. He is both an unqualified bastard and an utterly memorising character.

For now Fist is “caged”, reduced to taunting and chattering inside Jack’s head, but, like most software, he has a licence agreement. When it runs out – and it soon will – Fist will take over Jack’s body and erase the identity of his host. This literal ticking clock grants the novel a propulsive quality and leaves Jack just enough time to return from internment and find out who murdered the woman he loved.

Home, however, is a nauseating futurescape of neoliberalism run amok. With the Earth a toxic ruin ravaged by war machines, humanity shuffles forward aboard an industrialised asteroid known simply as Station. Here they are watched over by the “Pantheon”, sentient corporations who behave somewhere between gangsters and Greek gods. In fact the Pantheon are worshiped by the humans of Station and, in return, grant favours and status to those who please them or prove themselves of use.

Robertson too rewards the reader by way of the attention and detail through which he brings Crashing Heaven to life. His Station blends the decaying urban dystopia of Blade Runner with the overly connected, information saturated world of today. In turn he populates this with cackling mobsters, despised artificial beings, and with eerie “fetches”, those being digital ghosts who mostly exist on the novel’s immersive version of the internet, though some have escaped that restriction.

Discarded into this morass of criminality and corporate skulduggery, Jack and Fist discover that they are both puppets in the wider machinations of the Pantheon. Yes, their seeming powerlessness contrasts starkly with their war record but, when Fist is eventually unleashed, it is everything the reader has been hoping for and the gratifying throw-downs which ensue confirm that, as much as Crashing Heaven is packed with ideas, Robertson also possesses the descriptive muscle to back them up. Indeed, as a consistently arresting and carefully paced novel combining striking characterisation with a masterclass in worldbuilding, the clever, cynical Crashing Heaven might well be the science fiction debut of the year.

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