The prologue of Guy Haley's latest novel Crash starts thus:
At first Dariusz Szczecinski was dead, then he was not. (p. 11)
It's appropriately abrupt because Haley takes us straight to the scene of the titular crash. The habitation decks of the starship ESS Adam Wickiewicz have been ejected and Dariusz struggles out of his upturned hibernation pod, almost drowned in his pod's amniotic fluids. He has no idea what's gone wrong or if he has reached the intended destination. It's a gripping start and there’s a slow reveal that Dariusz, in his confused state, suspects he is somehow to blame for this crash.
The story jumps back in time to reveal the events on Earth that lead to the starship's departure for planet Heracles V with 14,000 men, women, and children aboard. Earth is dominated by a plutocracy of super-rich Pointer families. There's mass unemployment and abject poverty. Dariusz himself has lost his job and he, his wife, and his son face bleak times. A fractured picture emerges and we can start to imagine a chain of events that might lead to the crash. We also wonder whether Dariusz's suspicion could be correct—that he caused the catastrophic crash.
I found this first section of the novel riveting. The story has a fragmentary style as the author introduces key characters in turn. These characters are mostly well formed, particularly Karl Njalsson, who is convincing as a stock market analyst. He's the first character to realize that something odd—a stock market bubble—is happening in the world of starship construction. However, Haley is less successful in describing Ilya Petrovitch, the head of the Petrovitch Pointer family and a key funder of the Gateway Project. He's two-dimensional—simply, rich and overbearing.
Ilya is obsessed with securing his family's future and is therefore sending two of his sons, Leonid and Yuri, on the starship to Heracles V. In an attempt to exert his tight control over his sons he sends a minder to watch over them—an "Alt" called Anderson. He's a genetically engineered not-quite-human human, a faithful and unquestioning servant to Ilya, who will ensure his master's ambitions are achieved no matter who stands in the way.
Haley jumps forward to the events that immediately precede the crash. The starship's crew has awoken from their hibernation to find that the Adam Wickiewicz is orbiting an unknown, tidally locked planet; half the planet in permanent darkness, half in permanent daylight. The colonists evacuate to the planet surface and begin their struggle to sustain themselves while fending off aliens and dealing with a virus that attacks their technology.
One of the appealing aspects of Crash is the neat device Haley employs for divulging his novel's backstory. He avoids the expository dumps, to which science fiction is prone, by presenting diverse short texts, interspersed through the novel. They work well and include an excerpt from a banned lecture; the text of a propaganda film; the sermon of an evangelical minister; an interview with a synthetic intelligence expert; a briefing paper on the ideal cultural mix for a colony on a distant planet; and a quote from Kenneth Boulding—
Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad, or an economist. (p. 25)
This quote is well chosen for a novel in which planet Earth is "all used up" (p. 72) and Earth's citizens are desperate to find new homes on other planets.
This is a novel that asks big questions: In times of catastrophe are we better served by a democratic institution or an autocracy? When we experience fear, is it the result of propaganda? Is technology the cause of our undoing as a species? Haley explores these questions by throwing his characters into conflict over the alien threat. They argue over how to allocate precious resources as they inch closer to starvation. Anderson demands that all efforts should be channeled into military security and whips up fear among the settlers. However, Yuri champions an opposing view that the colony must focus on agriculture and genetic engineering so they can eat the vegetation that grows on this planet.
It is Yuri—the degenerate back on Earth—rather than his more intelligent, idealistic brother Leonid, who becomes a natural and respected leader and by the end of the novel he has rejected his Pointer status and privileges. Another character who thrives in these terrifying days is Pilot Cassandra de Mona. Her shuttle was destroyed in its own crash landing. She's strong-willed and foul-mouthed and leads the way in building simpler forms of aircraft and training younger members of the colony to become pilots.
I expect some readers might be frustrated that after such a powerful start to the novel, the story returns to Earth and unfolds at a slower pace for several chapters. But I felt Haley could have lingered on Earth much longer. It felt skipped over, as though Haley himself was eager to get back to the crash site. I certainly didn't feel a strong enough connection to Dariusz's family on Earth and that lessened the impact of the novel as events unfolded in the new colony.
In terms of style, the dialogue is not always convincing, and Haley's writing is tighter and better crafted in the first half of the novel than in the second. He's at his best when evoking the panic on board the Adam Wickiewicz and in his visceral descriptions of colonists waking from hibernation. Despite the uneven writing, Haley builds the tension, instils a sense of intrigue early on, and presents an alarming vision of a human colony on the brink of annihilation.
Anne Charnock's debut dystopian novel A Calculated Life is published by 47North. Her journalism has appeared in New Scientist. She writes about fiction for The Huffington Post and on her blog www.annecharnock.com. Find Anne on Twitter @annecharnock.