A lot of the hype around this SF debut has focused on how it updates cyberpunk for the 21st century. The use of a noir plot in a high tech setting certainly echoes Neuromancer (and Crashing Heaven also shares more than a few structural similarities with that classic), but there’s more than just that old genre at play here. For all the Chandleresque men crashing through doors with guns and running down mean streets, there is also a real sense of the bleak emptiness of space and the beauty of glittering fragile spaceships that Alastair Reynolds would be proud of, and maybe even a nod to Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. That’s not to say Robertson is a plagiarist. The core SF concept at the heart of this novel is AI, and Robertson runs with this as well as anyone has in recent years, with a treatment I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Lead character Jack is an accountant with a military AI residing in his brain, almost the last of its kind. This AI has a name, Hugo Fist, and manifests as a wooden ventriloquist’s doll. Oh, and it’s going to be taking over Jack’s body in the near future. Fist is an amazing creation, initially a gibbering psychopathic howl of rage hellbent on destruction that goes through genuine character development over the course of the book, to the point where he becomes almost sympathetic. The other key AIs in the book are the Pantheon, a group of sentient corporations that essentially manage the remnants of humanity, who worship them as gods, and the Totality, rogue AIs with a hostile relationship to the Pantheon. It’s the conflict between these two groups that ultimately drives the plot, as Jack and Fist attempt to discover exactly what in his past Jack had got close enough to to force the Pantheon to introduce him to Fist and send him to war.
There’s a lot here to chew on besides the plot. There’s plenty of thought about what it means to be human. The boundaries of death are far from inviolate in this world, and the idea that our consciousness means more than our bodies is never far from the surface. It’s not too much of a stretch to read the book as an allegory of modern tech-driven capitalism either – remember the vision of a disengaged populace living almost entirely in a virtual world and hoping for favours from their corporate gods next time you’re on a train full of people looking at their iPhones. Robertson can handle a decent set piece as well. An encounter with one of the Pantheon in a virtual cathedral is a one of the more memorable parts of the book, and there are many action scenes that manage the trick of being both fast moving and perfectly clear.
This is a strong debut that is not only recommended, but probably essential if you want to keep up with modern SF.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Neuromancer, Revelation Space, Snow Crash
One thing you’ve learned
Death is not the end