In his brilliant debut novel, Crashing Heaven, Al Robertson weaves cyberpunk, space opera, and noir crime story into a fun, fast-moving PuppetPunk thriller. (A what? You’ll see.)
Crashing Heaven is set after humanity’s victory in a war against the Totality, an AI hivemind that can take form via clouds of nanobots resembling faceless human figures. At this point, Earth is uninhabitable, and what’s left of humanity has moved to Station, an industrialised asteroid just off-planet. Most of Station is not much more than a cheaply built, very basic grid of brutalist reality. The enhanced sensory perception overlay needed to turn it into a proper city with trees and ads and food that has taste is provided by the Weave, a virtual reality implant which by far transcends basic phone and browser functions. This place has everything you’d expect from space opera: Docklands, Homelands, Heaven. (Wait a second, Heaven?)
Heaven is inhabited by the Pantheon, a group of sentient corporations represented by their manifest anthropoid AIs with names like Sandal, Grey, or Kingdom (whose domain is architecture). Their interaction with humans is at times described in terms that recall rape, with Pantheon members in humanoid form literally having sex with “chosen” humans without asking their consent, or more figuratively penetrating them to share data. The humans, however, accept (and even welcome) these violations because, after all, the Pantheon are gods. Penetration/suffusion by one of these AI deities also invests humans with certain skills connected to their respective domain, so it’s probably done via infection with nanobots as well. So did AIs use humans to fight and kill other AIs? Why? The official explanation is clear enough: the Totality dropped a rock on the moon, killing a number of schoolchildren in the process. Obviously the Pantheon had to retaliate.
The book’s protagonist is Jack Forster, who is just returning home to Station from Totality prison camp after having surrendered to the enemy. He is stigmatised as a traitor, and as a sanction has been taken offweave. And this only suggests the first of a million questions that lead us, along with Jack and his unlikely sidekick Hugo Fist, into a spider web of secrets and mysteries and entangled metaphorical puppet strings.
Oh, right, about puppets: there are a couple of things you should know about Hugo Fist.
Hugo Fist is an AI designed to take out Totality battle formations. He is equipped with killer software, and he is bound to Jack Forster’s central nervous system (which means that they can interact without anybody else noticing). Hugo Fist’s appearance, whenever he does manifest, is that of a puppet with “black polished shoes, a scarlet cummerbund, bright red painted lips, a black bow tie, dangling, unarticulated hands and varnished shining eyes” (p. 10). Welcome to the uncanny valley.
There is much more to Hugo Fist than the obvious allusion to Pinocchio, who wants to be a real boy; although Robertson plays with that too, and on a quite sinister note to boot. You see, even after the end of the war, the killer puppet cannot be removed. When Jack dies, and his days seem to be numbered, Hugo Fist will inevitably take over his body, as per contract. In fact he often makes little comments implying he already perceives Jack’s body as his property, so Jack had better take care of it.
The war had taken Jack away from an as-yet unsolved murder case that he and his friend Harry Devlin were investigating—until Harry got killed and Jack was sent to war (and got Hugo Fist in the process). To add further complications, Jack was having an affair with Harry’s wife Andrea at the time; she kept writing to him during the war but recently her messages have stopped coming in. Now it’s up to Jack (and Hugo Fist) to find her again, pick up the casework where Harry and Jack left off, and incidentally uncover the major political intrigue behind a lot of at first seemingly unconnected storylines.
In the course of this fast-paced thriller, interwoven with lots of dark humour, we encounter some amazing technology: like the coffin drives, where the memories of the deceased are stored and can be downloaded into so-called fetches to interact with the living. They can even be rewound or fast-forwarded to any point in the deceased person’s life by whoever holds their remote control. What does the evidence of occasional fetches trying to liberate themselves from the coffin drives imply? Can AIs be human after all? Robertson always gives us several perspectives on anything. There is always an official version and a personal experience which complicates or contradicts it. Jack’s job in the war was auditing data flows. Hugo describes it as “breaking minds.”
In addition to a multi-faceted, shifting metaphor of puppets and puppet strings that recurs throughout the plot, Robertson also employs lots of subtle literary references, from Orpheus and Eurydice (with reversed roles) via Jack and the Beanstalk (an almost obvious one, considering the name of our protagonist and what his mission turns into) to the Lost Boys from Peter Pan (when Jack encounters a group of hidden children taken offweave for protection). Above all, as the title suggests, Crashing Heaven is a Promethean adventure. And Jack and Hugo are definitely returning fire to—or should that be at?—the gods. It is a lot of fun to read, and you can tell that it must have been fun to write too, especially the dialogues between Jack and Hugo Fist.
Jack enjoyed the silence as he ate. He was about halfway through his meal before Fist realised.
[YOU MUTED ME, YOU BASTARD. I’M GOING TO TAG EVERYTHING AS ESSENTIAL FROM NOW ON.]
Jack laughed. [You’re lucky I let you out at all, after last night.]
The tasteless food was at least filling him with calories, leaving him feeling generous. He unmuted Fist.
[That wasn’t me, Jack. That fucking patron of yours left a trigger in me. I had to take you to him.]
[You mean you aren’t normally an annoying, aggressive little wanker?]
[Shut up and eat, meatbag.] Jack used a piece of bread to mop up the last greasy remnants of an egg. [You don’t know how lucky you are,] Fist continued. [Nobody can reach into your head and rewrite you.]
[They put you in my head.]
[You’re still you, Jack, even when I’m here. That never stops.]
[It will soon.] (p. 133)
Even when they are discussing recent events and making new plans, the unlikely (and half-unwilling) duo of Jack and Hugo can’t stop bickering and insulting each other. But as they uncover more and more of the actual goings-on behind the scenes of Station, they also learn more about each other. And they are definitely at their best whenever they work together out of some shared grudge or antipathy.
At the end of the book many questions are left unanswered, nor has revolution been achieved, and by now the Pantheon must be pretty mad. Luckily for us readers, Al Robertson is already working on a sequel, entitled Waking Hell, which will hopefully come out next year.
Serving recommendation: pair with a nice, peaty single malt.
Christina Scholz writes from Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison’s fiction. She has published articles on science fiction, Weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and on Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, and Wyrd Daze. She blogs at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.