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Few books can have been written around such extraordinary circumstances as a near-fatal knife assault on its author. But Levy's experience no doubt informed his third novel in a way that few people could, or would ever wish, to emulate. Icarus retains Roger Levy's previous thematic interests—faith, belief, and the nature of reality—as well as a background of environmental collapse and planetary colonization, as seen in Reckless Sleep (2001) and Dark Heavens (2004). It's reassuring that there are still one or two science fiction authors around who can justifiably attract the tagline "heir to Philip K. Dick": the thematic influences are there for all to see, but there are few authors who explore the pitfalls and danger zones of human psychology as deeply or with such intensity as Levy.

Humanity has reached two habitable sister planets in deep space, and all connections with Earth and memories of the homeworld have been excised from record. Icarus is a tri-polar story: first, on the planet Haven, a strictly-run underground society is based on a necessary and enforced belief in the doctrine of "Fact"—at least, until the discovery of certain information buried in the planet's bedrock calls into question the received truths behind the colony's origins, and history as they know it is in danger of being rewritten. Second, on the neighbouring jungle planet of Haze, we meet Petey, who has already lost one child to the powerful Lords of Angwat and is about to lose another, her son Marten. Echoes of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge are clear, but Haze's spiritual leaders have added a religious dimension to the regime, seeing enemies within rather than without. The cruelty of the life they impose on Haze contrasts with the rugged stability of Haven. And third, on 21st century Earth, Cap, an American Christian fundamentalist preacher who develops the mother of all Messiah complexes, slowly accumulates a disastrous amount of political power and influence and pushes an already-fragile world closer to collapse. But Cap also has the solution: humanity must colonise the two recently discovered extra-solar worlds.

What is common to all three threads of Icarus is the defining importance each society accords to the different versions of reality in which they choose to place their collective belief, none of which are accurate reflections of the truth and are at the very least distortions of it, and for which reality will eventually force their re-evaluation. This is a distinctly Dickian premise, one that falls short of gnostic conviction as a personal driving force but retains, in each society, the no less reality-defining potency of a hand-me-down religious belief. There are a few threads of sanity on which readers must hang their hopes of reason prevailing, in the form of several heroic people necessarily limited by the circumstances of their perception. For instance, on Haven, Mexi is born into a repressive society and shackled by her underground existence while figuratively being kept in the dark about the truth of her origins. On Haze, Petey lives in a world of ignorance but must struggle to see the bigger picture, beyond the cruelties she encounters. And on Earth, Cap's partner Mary, trapped in a crippled and frail body, must use her long-term influences wisely, in an attempt to counterbalance the worst of Cap's excesses.

It's straightforward enough to see how the three worlds will eventually connect, but what underpins the journey into this nightmare future is the warped psychology of Cap. There are today any number of far-right fundamentalists on whom Cap could be based, and his self-justification for his psychopathic behaviour is disturbingly realistic. Icarus is in that respect a novel of concealment: sometimes we are privy only to certain details, at other points we get unexpected access to the inside track and can see how some characters are being kept from the truth. Throughout the novel, we are asked to look at how beliefs, both controlled and unchecked, can destroy societies.

Of the two colony worlds, the more sophisticated is Haven, which maintains a technological edge over Haze. In addition, its leaders' control of their people's thought is crucial to their power, and to the stability of their way of life. Whole areas of language are ring-fenced off, marked "here be dragons." Haze, on the other hand, is seen very much through the naive eyes of the besieged characters, only able to give us glimpses of what is beyond their experience, but forcing us to piece together a more complete picture of the world on which they live. Levy has delved into recent Cambodian history as a basis for the high degree of cruelty inflicted on Haze's population; it's an extreme that is probably necessary to illustrate how societies can and will, if access to truth is denied or restricted, tolerate any cruelty if it serves as a means to an end. I struggled a little to understand why a zealot fundamentalist Christian leader would adopt a Khmer model as the political basis for a society, until I remembered there is already a 20th century precedent in the Third Reich's adoption of some particularly resonant Eastern symbolism.

Levy's writing throughout Icarus is well-measured and thoughtful, multi-faceted and often totally gripping—the opening chapter, in particular, is notable for a sustained density of prose, as solid as the bedrock of Haven itself, leaving the reader trapped for forty pages of story with only one way out. The subtle mutation of words is also worth watching out for, and Levy pays attention to all the right details, bringing out the full texture and colour of some very imaginative sequences, such as Mexi's adventure hunting a storm eagle on Haven's inhospitable surface. What readers will take away from Icarus will depend on how much they see beyond the dense narrative into the subtexts and the thematic links to today's world, but it is certainly one of the weightier SF reads of 2006, a book that will leave a lasting impression, and that impressively holds to everything it promises.

Pete Young is editor of the Nova Award-winning fanzine Zoo Nation. He has also reviewed for Foundation and Vector.

Pete Young is editor of the Nova Award-winning fanzine Zoo Nation. He has also reviewed for Foundation and Vector.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
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By: RiverFlow
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