Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Crashing Heaven - Al Robertson

Crashing Heaven is, at heart, a fast-paced techno-thriller. It’s also a novel of ideas. Some of those are a bit more successful in their expression than others, but there’s a lot of good thoughts in here.

From a narrative point of view, our protagonist is Jack Forster. He’s returning to the rather starkly named ‘Station’  following the conclusion of a war between Station and a group AI consciousness called the Totality, which is spread across the rest of the system. During the war, Jack served as an AI killer; he had a military attack personality AI implanted into his skull, and the two of them brutally savaged several Totality minds. Then, for reasons which are at least initially unclear, Jack surrendered.

His return is not a happy one. The people of Station know that he surrendered, and regard him as a traitor. His friends and lover no longer answer his messages. And the AI in his head, the ‘puppet’, called Fist, is going to take over his body in the near future, once his licence to use it expires.

It’s a bleak introduction, and part of what makes it work is the setting. Station comes off as a semi-dystopian oligarchy. The last of humanity live under the notionally benevolent rule of a cabal of artificial intelligences, in varying levels of servitude and squalor. Each of the AI seems to represent one or more of the Station’s functional areas, and rewards its acolytes with greater privileges the more useful they become. Almost all humans have an AI ‘patron’, and almost all of those aspire to live in the area of the station labelled ‘Heaven’ – though in less salubrious areas in the meantime.

One of the more creepingly clever ideas here is that each individual is hooked into the ‘Weave’, a sort of pervasive augmented reality. When on the weave, a user can see virtual enhancements to architecture, suffer through virtual advertising  in a myriad of ways, and purchase licences to experience sensory enhancements – improvements to flavour, for example, make proto-mush seem like filet mignon. Robertson shows us the good and bad side of the Weave – that people can experience a better world, but may lose sight of what goes on around them – and takes a nice sideswipe at the ever increasing encroachment of licencing over ownership at the same time.

The other area where the text shines is the characters in this environment, especially the ongoing dialogue between the protagonist and the twisted, driven AI stuck in his head. The two distinct voices – one pained, worn down, worn away and aware of encroaching mortality – the other vicious, childlike, oddly affectionate, driven and amoral – intertwined together within the text is an excellent device, and the reader is left curiously sympathetic to both parties. I won’t go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but will say that both Forster and Fist have the opportunity to grow and evolve through the text, and this they do, very convincingly.

There’s some other themes in the text as well – the dangers of memory, the problem of living gods, the issue of being unable to move on, to let go, to change, as a few examples. These become clearer as the text proceeds, and they’re not strong arguments within it – rather, more subtle touches within the prose make points that gradually slide into the user’s consciousness, slotting together with the rest of the text to make slow but impactful suggestions.

Speaking of the prose – it’s very well done. Dense, closely packed, vivid, and occasionally quite witty. There’s a fair amount of running about in the text, and the pacing in this regard is pitch perfect ; once into an action sequence, I found myself turning pages almost involuntarily. The dialogue is solid, written in a way in which people actually speak, and very easy to read because of it. Each character has  a distinct voice, and some of them are genuinely funny or insightful.

If there’s an area for improvement, it’s in the back-end of the narrative. Some of the twists and turns are a bit telegraphed, and some of the conclusions had been rather clearly set up through the middle of the narrative – on the other hand, there were some genuine surprises, and the dénouement is both convincing and satisfying.

Overall then, this is a good sci-fi action-character piece, with some great broader ideas running through its core. Come for the running through corridors shooting things, or for the altering virtual realities to break into secured areas, and stay for the quiet conversations between a man and the AI which will eventually kill him. Very much worth the read.

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