27 October 2016

Waking Hell

Image from http://www.gollancz.co.uk/
Waking Hell
Al Robertson
Gollancz, 27 October 2016
PB, 336pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via Netgalley

This is a return to the universe of Station, which Robertson introduced in Crashing Heaven last year.

Hundreds or thousands of years in the future, the Earth has been ruined by conflict and what's left of humanity shelters in Station, a giant habitat in orbit, ruled over the "gods" - AI entities which operate on strictly corporate lines.

Crashing Heaven described how the Totality - a collective of rogue AIs which had freed themselves from the gods and defeated them in war - came to an accord with Station, saving it from internal tyranny.

Waking Hell takes up the story soon after. We don't see much of the previous viewpoint characters (I was disappointed not to get more of Hugo Fist - though apparently he now has a popular chatshow) - instead this story is about Leila. Leila is already dead and has been resurrected as a "fetch", an AI given substance by Station's ubiquitous "weave" of processors and projectors, which modifies the reality of the place (depending on one's ability to pay). She suffered in the Blood and Flesh plague and has no desire to return to the Coffin Drives, but lives instead with her brother, geeky Dieter.

The story really gets moving after Dieter receives a very nasty artifact from the past and disappears from Station. he turns out to have been well insured - but Leila knows he wasn't and sets out to find him, against all good advice. Something is off. Who are the repellent "pressure men" who are hanging around? What is Deodatus? Why is the Totality interested?

I really liked Leila, she's a clever and determined character who would do anything to save her brother and she very much drives events, giving this book a very different feel than the noirish Crashing Heaven - although she has some support from the mysterious Caretaker (more Caretaker please!) and a Totality fraud investigator. She is also self confident and as resentful of attempts by friends to "look after" her as she is of Deodatus's trying to swat her away like a fly.

The book also has a somewhat simpler, more quest based plot than Crashing Heaven: save Dieter, stop Deodatus. (despite some red herrings).

When it comes to the setting you need, I think, to go with the flow to a degree. The idea of a fetch depends on there being processing power, comms and hardware to host the entity. Similarly the reality of Station (and of some of the other locations in this book) has to be created. As Roberston leads us on a frenzied dance though the forgotten corners of Station and beyond, it becomes difficult at times to remember what is "real" - whether we are in a physical "place" or a virtual construct - and therefore to know what may reasonably happen next.

As I said, you have to go with the flow. But what a flow it is. It's a conspiracy thriller. There is a true "war in Heaven". There are walking cities, and the ruins of human civilization, sketched poignantly as Leila pursues her brother. Most of all, the book transcends the setting of the previous story, revealing the original purpose and perhaps the ultimate origin of Station.

I don't know if Robertson has any plans for further Station books but if he has, I'll be reading them.

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