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4 August 2015

Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

Crashing Heaven
Al Roberstons
Gollancz, 2015
HB, 359 pp

I'm grateful to Gollancz for sending me a copy of the book to review.

At first sight, grimy, jaded detective noir and far future, virtual-this, AI-that, seemed to me unlikely as common elements in a novel. However Robertson pulls off the combination with great aplomb, building a fascinating and rich world along the way (a world I want to read more about, too).

Jack Forster is home from the war, with his "puppet". Hugo Fist is a weapon, a militarised piece of software designed to unravel and kill the rogue AIs of the Totality. He is hosted on hardware fused to Jack's nervous system - but Jack's licence to Hugo is running out and when it does, Hugo will be entitled to seize control of Jack's body, killing him for ever. There won't even be anything of Jack stored on the Coffin Servers...

This a world of fantastic imagination, a truly chilling society. There are sentient corporations, which call themselves gods as they "guide" and "protect" a dependent humanity. There is the all pervasive virtual reality of the Weave, masking the plastic reality of Station, an orbital habitat where the remnants of humanity live. It's a world where everything is bought and sold: kids in a school have to stop playing their game because it can't afford the licence fees for more than a few minutes a day. Food loses its savour when the terms of the contract say it will. The dead - or AI simulacra of them - are brought back for the comfort of the living, before being despatched again to the Coffin Servers.

Amidst all this, Jack, who just wants a bit of peace before he dies, and Hugo, who just wants Jack's body left intact, are drawn back into an investigation he dropped seven years before, when his god fell and he, a cyber accountant and unlikely soldier, was shipped out to fight the Totality.

Robertson has fun with the usual tropes of the hard boiled PI: rain lashed streets, deadly dames, sleazy nightspots - and it's a mark of how utterly convincing his writing is that all of this makes sense and works, despite being set on a space station orbiting a ravaged and war stricken Earth (We never hear what happened on Earth - I hope Robertson follows this up with more books that tell us about that war, about the "gods", about the original of the Totality). The characters are perhaps less arresting, with Jack as the man-who-is-not-himself-mean, walking those streets, and the others either helpers or foes (though it's hard to tell which is which for most of the book).

An exception though is Hugo Fist, who is a magnificent creation, visually a wooden mannequin, ontologically a raging, foul mouthed swine whose mission is to destroy, programmed for hatred and revenge. His relationship with Jack is at the heart of the story: the two of them bicker and rage their way along, bound together, marching towards Jack's final doom, with Hugo gradually coming to realise how much he depends on his host.

I think that besides having more to tell us about this world, there must be more to learn about Hugo. In "Crashing heaven" we see him step in and control Jack when the latter is unconscious - Hugo's baby steps, literally learning to steer Jack's body and "be" him, are both funny and touching and I'd like to see him grow more.

Excellent SF, highly recommended.

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