In the distant future, mankind has the ability to explore the stars, thanks to the discovery hundreds of years before of Angel technology. These Angel gates were left behind by an alien race long since vanished from the known universe. They allow ships to move from one to another across enormous expanses of space, leading to the establishment of stations around the gates, inhabited by traders, explorers and entrepreneurs. But despite the opportunities opened up to humankind, it has yet to find another world to replace the one it has damaged perhaps irreparably. Except for Kaspar.
Kaspar is a very distant planet, only just released from the grip of an Ice Age, but it is inhabited by the only known sentient aliens, a doglike race living an almost medieval existence, fighting wars, obeying religious laws, caring for their families, in complete ignorance of what else might share their planet. For on it is the Citadel, a mysterious and extremely strange Angel structure, which is studied by the humans who live on the Angel Station above, sending down secret missions into the Citadel. It is decreed, for now, that this planet must be left to the Kaspians but that doesn’t stop it, and the powerful Alien technology that can be found there, from being an irresistible temptation to the men and women who watch from its orbit or plot from an overcrowded, dying Earth.
Angel Stations, the first novel by Gary Gibson, is a wonder. It is packed full to the brim with ideas and these ideas vary from being completely captivating to tantalisingly elusive. Above all else, they build a universe that I was eager to explore even though, in 400 pages, there was never going to be enough time for every question to be answered. For a start, three of our main protagonists are almost unknowable, having been altered at a very basic level by alien technology. They may appear to be men, or brothers, but there is nothing natural about Sam, Vaughn and Trencher beyond their capacity to feel pain or to scheme. Much is revealed about them as the novel continues but their similarity to gods is clear from the very beginning when we watch San, tortured, repeatedly pushing an enormous rock out of a canyon, Sisyphus reborn.
Even our more recognisably human characters aren’t quite what they seem. Elias, an ex-soldier, and Kim, a pilot, are tainted by Angel technology and are driven by their own demons, all of which are shown to us in horrifying detail, but both come together in a common purpose that drives forward much of the novel. In parallel with this is the story of two native inhabitants of Kaspar, one of whom is in possession of an idol of a god that somehow speaks to him and tells him to return it to a special place – the Citadel. If he doesn’t manage it, the cost could be catastrophic for his planet.
The narrative moves around at quite a pace, shifting from character to character, from world to world, dropping clues, following threads and repeatedly throwing new wonders into the mix. As a result, I could not put Angel Stations down. There are so many memorable moments – I have to mention the plague of little metal bugs. My only issue – and it seems a ridiculous issue – is that there is just so much to take in. I would have welcomed a novel twice the size.
Gary Gibson is such a fine writer and it’s not surprising reading Angel Stations, his first novel, that Gibson is now one of my very favourite authors. With strong characters (male, female and alien), an inventive and fascinating plot, and a compulsively pageturning narrative, I cannot praise Angel Stations enough.