Fiction Reviews

War in Heaven

(2011) Gavin Smith, Gollancz, 14.99, trdpbk, 513pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09471-0


This is the follow-up to Veteran. While both Veteran and War in Heaven are more a diptych that a duology of which the sequel can be read as a standalone, doing so will leave out much back-story of SFnal interest: namely the war with the alien 'Them'.   War in Heaven carries on more or less from where Veteran left off. So without reading Veteran some readers may find themselves a little lost. If you are one such person then perhaps it would be better for you to stop reading after this paragraph and seek out the prequel.   As who might be the sort of person interested in these two books then the answer is those who are into military SF: this is science fiction pumped up with testosterone fully kitted out with war technology. As to the type of military SF, this is more of the hard SF persuasion: there is interstellar travel, a high gravity world, cyberspace shenanigans, alien technology and loads of boys' toys weaponry.

Earth thought it had seen the last of the now deposed industrial-military dictators called the Cabal, who had deliberately embroiled Earth into a war with the alien 'Them' in the first book, Veteran. However it seems that deposed Rolliston and his escaping force had taken over one of the colony worlds. Those back on Earth realise that Rolliston will use the colony's resources to rebuild and return to take over Earth. He had to be stopped. And so the authorities, including a former multibillionaire who switched sides towards the end of the last book, recruited our band of heroes: Jakob, Mudge, and Rannu. They are picked up from a rolling herd city of cars, Crawling Town, and other vehicles in a part of the future Earth that was what had been the USA, and straightaway we were into the action including a rather humorous scene where the small platoon sent to pick our folks up act all butch and fall flat on their faces: you do not mess with Jakob, Mudge, and Rannu.

After some shenanigans on Earth in, which Jakob is re-united with Morag from Veteran, and to pick up Merle from a prison in space, it was off out of the Solar system to Lalande 2.

Hard SF buffs will (superficially) get off on the imaginative SFnal detail of Lalande 2 (which is one of Gavin Smith's strengths). Lalande 2 is tidally locked with its star and so one side is hot and the other cool, leaving only a thin habitable twilight zone. It is a high gravity planet, with an oxygen atmosphere laced with hydrogen sulphide. Beneath the surface are giant caverns formed by subterranean glaciers that wax and wane due to the vagaries of Lalande 2's geothermal energy. All this means some spectacular scenery through which our band must go to do their thing.

While the imagery SFnally adds to the story, sadly such bio-geosphere ('biosphere' from now on) detail is not at all based on science: tidally locked planets have a cold hemisphere ice trap that sucks away water; high gravity planets mean small caves not large ones; hydrogen sulphide does not last in an oxygen atmosphere, etc. Now, science fiction has progressed since the first half of the 20th century when science imagery ruled over science when it came to things like the hero being outside a space rocket, without a space suit, wielding a plutonium chain. Today, such pulp scenes would be laughable. However when it comes to biosphere science, sadly as Gavin Smith demonstrates, you can still get away from ignoring science as if it does not matter. Well, it is sad that some authors think that it is irrelevant: perhaps they think that the proportion of their scientifically literate readers is so small that such can be ignored. However, if authors go the extra mile and research their science they will find that not only do they have an interesting science back-story to tell about their invented world, their work would garner more interest from those of their readers who are science-literate (surely a higher proportion for readers of SF than non-SF books).

Thanks to Merle who used to be on Lalande 2, and who had in the past stashed away caches of supplies and equipment, our band are fully equipped: high-spec military kit is a key part of Gavin's Smith's stories attraction and probably be a wet dream for Top Gear viewers. So off they go to overthrow Rolliston before he can invade Earth and free the colony.

As with Veteran, War in Heaven is a breathless romp. In fact it was so unrelenting in its high octane action that I had to take a week off reading it two-thirds the way through, just to reacclimatise myself before assaulting the final chapters. Fans of military SF will cream themselves as War in Heaven delivers in all aspects of this sub-genre. As for the end, well just when you thought that matters could not be ramped up any further our protagonists simply cannot get any more butch than they have been before there is a storyline twist which I am sure many will enjoy.

War in Heaven is a solid follow-up to Veteran. Having said that, I preferred the first book which had more SF to it with its discussion of the alien 'Them' and flashbacks to Them battles. The SF riff in War in Heaven is certainly less, and where we do get it (such as the Lalande 3 biosphere) it is clear the author's winged it without doing any research (or even consulting his friendly neighbourhood Earth system scientist). A shame, because it shows, and doubly a shame because we know that the author can write SF, can do the fiction, and so why not doesn't he do the science too? Having said that, this last is such a common genre fault, and the novel itself is of sufficient quality, that any lacking in science basics should not put readers off. What we have here is a relentless, high action, explosive-ridden, high-tech, military romp that would probably give even Andy McNabb a work out. It is only Gavin Smith's second book, so hopefully he will develop. If he does he could certainly be a force with whom to reckon, with or without Jakob, Mudge, Morag and Rannu at his side.

Jonathan Cowie

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