In this future, computer intelligences are neither servants nor enemies of mankind. They have become gods. Seemingly benevolent, corporate, near omnipotent entities. And like the old gods of myth they are as indulgent and feckless and untrustworthy as any independent individual with its own agenda.
Humanity meanwhile lives in a multi-layered artificial habitat, submerged in the digital world of the weave. There’s a truce in place with the AIs of the outer solar system; mistrusted for their alternative philosophies and attitudes. Into a none-too-stable political situation, a prisoner of war is released back into society. A cyber-soldier with very particular gifts for hard hacks and tactical accountancy. And he carries a passenger, a software suite which in a matter of months will own the meatware, killing the human inhabitant in the process.
So Jack has, pretty much, come home to bid farewell to his loved ones before he dies and the petty, powerful, petulant and impulsive puppet Hugo Fist takes the reins. What follows is a brilliantly-written exploration of this bewildering and beguiling world, and a neatly nuanced development of their relationship as they’re sucked back into a criminal investigation in which all the gods have a personal interest.
It doesn’t have the stunning clarity of the Culture, nor the charismatic central character of Altered Carbon (Kovaks, come back, we miss you), nor the dazzling delight of the Glitterband. But Crashing Heaven does introduce a credible, coherent and entirely plausible future, one which plays with the possibilities of virtual lives experienced in intimate mesh with artificial intelligences. Author Robertson runs wild with the theme of what it is to be an individual, to be alive, to be sentient; dredging the possible depths of what accidental evil the living might do to the digital memories of the dead in their attempts to assuage their grief and loss. Bigotry, racism, narcissism, narcotic abuse and myriad other aspects of current culture are magnified in a future which is brilliantly realised and deftly described.
There’s also a pretty decent mystery to resolve; a supporting cast of characters you’d like to spend more time with, and some wonderful creations – the visualisation of digital attack dogs, in particular; baleful beasts set to rip code, shred firewalls and leave an opponent digitally bleeding and ultimately vulnerable in the real world. By the end of it, I’d even warmed somewhat to Fist, although Jack remained more of an unfulfilled character – odd, for the notional protagonist – who seemed largely incapable without the skills of his digital daemon. Jack relies massively on gifts from the gods and the goodwill of digital beings to be anything other than hopeless. He serves more as a vessel for the story than as its core component.
Even so, Crashing Heaven gripped me from its opening moments through to the final pages. It’s imaginative, accessible and rewarding on many levels. More, please…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson is available as an ebook or paperback