(2012) David S. Goyer & Michael Cassutt, Tor, pbk, £8.99, 431pp, ISBN 978-1-350-54139-8
The approach of an unusual, 100 km diameter, near Earth asteroid, 'Keanu', is an opportunity for a space mission, indeed, two space missions: one by NASA and one mounted by India. The NEO is confirmed out to be artificial and is hollow. However the NASA craft contains a mini-nuclear bomb and this 'accidentally' goes off but fortunately only on Keanu's surface. Equally fortunately nearly all of both the mission teams are inside.
Meanwhile on Earth scores of individuals have been caught by large bubbles and transported to Keanu.
This then is the set up to Heaven's War which is part II of a trilogy and the sequel to Heaven's Shadow. Heaven's War came out as a hardback in 2012, but this paperback edition was first published in the British Isles this year (2013).
For those who have not read the first in the trilogy, Heaven's Shadow, let me assure you that jumping straight in with Heaven's War is absolutely no problem. I myself had not read the first book but soon picked up the back story from the back cover blurb and the first couple of score of pages. So you do have a genuine choice of jumping straight into this trilogy here or holding off until you have read Heaven's Shadow first. However, should you opt for the latter then please note that the rest of this review will be a spoiler, so you may not want to carry on reading this review…
OK, you are still with me…
The two mission teams and those taken from Earth make themselves at home in what they come to call a large (many miles long and wide) habitat chamber within Keanu. The chamber at first provides barely adequate life support but, as if Keanu senses them, things gradually improve. Dealing with the shock of their predicament, and that Keanu has now left the Earth and is beginning to head out of the Solar system, our reluctant travellers begin to explore their habitat and beyond. An unsettling factor is that it appears that one of the dead has reappeared apparently alive and well. This 'revenant' also appears to have some 'connection' with Keanu and can help them explore beyond the habitat chamber. They also find that there are aliens also onboard and that some of these are hostile or, at least if it is because they are so alien, unwittingly capable of doing great harm. As it turns out, there appears to be conflict between some of the aliens. If all this was not enough, Keanu, which is very old, appears to be failing…
What we have with Heaven's War is a first contact story with strong elements reminiscent of works such as Rendezvous with Rama (1973) and Greg Bear's Eon (1985). It is jam-packed with sense-of-wonder and is a grand-scale tale that pushes many of the right SFnal buttons.
Having said all that what a huge pity that neither of the authors have developed their novel-writing skills. True, there is a great story. True there is much for SF (and perhaps dare I say 'sci fi') readers to enjoy. But boy, is this a badly honed novel. This is truly such a shame for, as indicated, there is a quite a good story here struggling to get out.
My principal complaint (sadly I have two) is that the authors feel compelled to give readers irrelevant background character information dumps. Worse, they often do this right in the middle of the action and these really break up the narrative flow as well as the plot's unfolding throughout much of the novel's first half. For an example let me open the book early on at random. Two of the characters (among a number) are in a huge membrane bubble having been unwittingly taken from the Earth that is in transit to Keanu. One comes across another trying to break into a car that was bound up in the membrane with them. And suddenly we go into the fact that one used to live in Louisiana but now is based in Houston as an unhappy resident, that he was into Chardonnay, a borderline alcoholic, that is family had lost everything in the 2005 floods, that his mother worked as a waitress, that his mother's brother was lost in the floods, that he had found help within a Texan church community, that his mother then worked at a barbecue place near some airport, that she had been diagnosed with cancer, that there were medical expenses, that he did illegal couriering to get extra money, that he had done time in prison, that he was never going to get rich, that his mother died, that he had re-trained in information technology… blah, blah, blah… Who cares? Alas there are many characters – two mission teams and a number from those kidnapped from Earth – that get this treatment.
Now, info dumps are often necessary in SF. I recently reviewed Iain Bank's excellent The Hydrogen Sonata which is awash with info dumps. But these directly relate to the exotic circumstances taking place at that point in the narrative: they are necessary and what's more they are packed with SFnal exotica and goodness and probably vitamin C too. Another book I recently reviewed, Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, also has numerous info-dumps but these are separate one-page or two-page short chapters in between the lengthier ones that develop the actual story. Again these info dumps are necessary background (not inconsequential personal trivia) and also packed with great concepts and interesting factual nuggets that no doubt are packed with vitamin B. With Heaven's War Goyer & Cassutt seem to want their novel's characters to have depth. This can be a good thing but not necessary for SF where readers come in no small part for the sense-of-wonder. However if an author does go for deep characterisation then this needs to become manifest through each character's actions and dialogue as the plot progresses, and not as potted biographies with much unrelated material inserted right in the middle of developments.
What all this means is that this 430 page novel is about 150 pages too long. A couple of hundred pages could easily be lost with just a few inserted towards the end as the 'Heaven's war's' conclusion is both rushed and unsatisfactorily explained. (I wont go into this as it would constitute a whopper of a spoiler.)
Now, all the above may seem like major flaws, and they are, but as said there is at the heart of this novel quite a good story struggling to get out. It is therefore a tremendous pity that the authors could not have better packaged their plot outline. So how did this come to pass? Well, a look at their inside cover potted biographies reveals that while both have worked as screenwriters (indeed examples are emblazoned on the front cover) neither appear to have any experience in novel writing!. The biographic info dumps are the sort of thing a team of screenwriters will have (and indeed actors will often get) on each character to ensure that everyone knows why a particular character says and does what they do in the script. But such character background sheets are separate (or are at most appended) to the actual scripts or screen stories. Likewise they should not be simply inserted into the middle of a novel. As for the lack of end-of-book exposition one presumes that this was simply poor writing and perhaps the Tor editors felt that matters would work themselves out with this book's sequel. What Tor seem to be doing is trading on the fact that Goyer and Cassutt are known for their film and television work and not on the quality of the final manuscript with which they were presented.
Trading on the fact that the authors are known for their film and television work is a shame for Tor do produce some fine SF and this novel itself, with a re-draft for pacing and a hard edit for bloat, could so easily have been a very fine offering. Clearly their experience with film, television and comics writing has given the authors some familiarity with SFnal tropes and plot arcs. But the question is do the authors now want to go the extra mile and develop their embryonic novel writing skills to the same level? I hope so because there is clearly talent here.
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