Crash | Al Robertson | 2015, Pb 2016 | Gollancz | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
What’s left of humanity lives aboard Station, an enormous asteroid transformed into a collection of habitats, including Docklands, the Homelands and Heaven, linked by the Spine. Station is controlled by the Pantheon, a group of sentient corporation divinities, each known for a certain type of business – or pleasure – who act as patrons for the human inhabitants, furthering their careers, directing their lives. War broke out between the Pantheon and rebel AIs – the Totality – but finally, after years of dirty fighting in the reaches of the solar system, the conflict is over, won by the Totality, and the defeated soldiers are finally returning to Station and disgrace. Among them is Jack Forster, a soldier viewed with great hostility by Station authorities. They suspect he is a traitor, guilty perhaps of some of the terrorist outrages that have plagued Station in recent years. He certainly would have the power. Forster is a Puppeteer, forced to commit horrendous acts of war by a combat AI installed inside him, Hugo Fist. One thing’s for sure, nobody has ever met the like of Hugo Fist before.
Fist spends much of his time as a voice inside Forster’s head, yelling insults, leering, cracking foul jokes, urging Forster on to evil deeds, but he can also embody himself as a ventriloquist dummy, deceptively innocent in appearance, who would as soon as kick you in the shin as look at you (before blowing your head off). But Fist has a vested interested in keeping Forster in one piece. In just a few weeks Fist’s software licence runs out and when it does he will take over Forster’s body and Jack’s mind will be wiped clean, dead. But Forster has business to do first. He has returned to Station to find the person closest to him murdered. He is driven to find out why and the case takes him on a perilous journey across Station, deep into its secrets, watched always by the Gods and abused always by Hugo Fist.
Crashing Heaven is a joy from start to finish – Al Robertson has an original voice and a vivid imagination and he uses them to create an astonishing vision of humanity’s last enclave, under attack from within and without, corrupted and yet resilient. Station is wonderfully visualised, from its slums and bars to its heavenly cathedrals. And just as memorable are the people and AIs who inhabit it, including the mysterious Gods who walk among men and women, picking their favourites. And then there’s Jack Forster who has so much to come to terms with while always accompanied by Hugo Fist, at times a monster, at times almost a child, but always a millstone around Jack’s neck. The bleakness of the novel’s setting is offset by the amount of times Hugo Fist made me laugh out loud. He is incorrigible and, when you can forget his mass-murderer personality, he becomes almost likeable. Just the thought would make Fist shiver and throw knives.
For me, though, the most memorable and extraordinary element of Crashing Heaven are the Fetches, especially the Fetch children. A Fetch is made up of the memories of a dead person. Inside their home they wear the face of their living self but outdoors their faces are white skulls, a chilling reminder of their true nature. And when Assistant Commissioner Lestak wraps her arms around the child Issie, she is embracing the skull-faced memory of her young dead daughter, killed by terrorists, like so many other children. The interaction between this child who isn’t a child anymore and Hugo Fist is fascinating.
The plot of Crashing Heaven has a momentum that builds throughout the novel and the final third of the book in particular becomes a breathless, feisty race with Forster caught in the middle of a storm of sweary violence, conspiracies and vividly changing landscapes. The relationship between Jack and Hugo becomes increasingly complex and emotional as it becomes clear how much there is to lose. Crashing Heaven is an incredible novel. It’s original, quirky, clever, witty and disturbing, packed full of ideas and extraordinary characters and personalities. Crashing Heaven is unbelievably Al Robertson’s debut novel – what a fantastic achievement it is and what a new voice we have to listen out for.