Review: CRASHING HEAVEN – of Puppets and of Punk

I first encountered CRASHING HEAVEN a couple of years ago while interning at Conville & Walsh. When I wasn’t breaking champagne glasses and accidentally sending out mass-rejection letters I would read and report on submissions. Here I was free to spew forth many passionate and ill-informed opinions.

A few manuscripts stuck in my memory after I left. One of them was a powerfully imagined corporate dystopia, a vision of decay with one foot in operatic cyberpunk and the other in a rain-soaked detective noir thriller from 1940; real ‘he was in a dark place, between two gams and a Smith & Wesson’ material.

That was then. I’m not sure why – it could be careful editing, or it could be that peculiar effect personal growth has on your interpretation of a novel – but the CRASHING HEAVEN I hold in my hands reads very differently. What I once saw as a promising sci-fi debut with charm and wit is now a sleek and sinister beast which brings depth and heart to a universe that is as disturbing as it is fascinating.

We join disgraced accountant Jack Forster and his hateful weaponised subconscious, which takes the form of cybernetic A.I. Hugo Fist. We meet them on the cusp of an ill-advised personal quest which soon unfolds into a larger mystery they must solve before Fist’s software license expires, taking the rest of Jack’s mind with it. Robertson’s slick writing style drives the action forward without pause, slowing only to paint an ever-more threatening picture of a Huxleyan society consumed by fear, its people retreating as much as possible into a permanently sanitised internet, blinding them to grimy streets crawling with junkies and militarised police. Robertson’s humanity has bought a one-way ticket on a soma-holiday, and only through Jack’s eyes can we see the extent of its collapse. An all-powerful Pantheon of corporate A.I.s runs the ark of humanity in a hollowed-out asteroid, known only as Station, and struggles to gain the upper hand in peace negotiations with a hivemind of sentient machines known as the Totality.

Robertson expertly tempers the darkness of his setting (and the grittiness of his style) with a watertight plot that never feels excessively bleak, and characters who slowly, reluctantly, come to be deeper than they appear. Jack – who at first seems grey and static, as if his story is over – willingly tears open old psychological wounds, becoming more and more alive as his deadline approaches. We see a dead protagonist slowly willing himself back to life, fighting his self-destructive side (manifest in Fist) every step of the way. Every tiny victory feels incredibly hard-won, and following Jack on his dangerous path is at once a joy and a terror.

Cyberpunk has always tried to appropriate the trappings of noir detective stories, and why not? They’re cool, they drip with hypermasculinity (not to mention the accompanying misogyny) and they live in this zone of ironic detachment which makes it easy for protagonists to be big cool action heroes while tackling – or, more often, wisecracking while tiptoeing carefully around the perimeter of – meaningful subjects. What I find interesting about CRASHING HEAVEN is how it creates a movement away from this ironic detachment into a place of what feels dangerously like sincerity.

Jack starts as any detective would – with a closed case to crack, a fractured self, a demon screaming in his ear and a capital-W Woman as a goal to be obtained. However, as the Totality becomes a greater presence and gaps appear between two ideals of unity – unity under the Pantheon and unity within the Totality – we see something very strange happen to the relationship between Jack and Hugo Fist. Where a hardboiled Chandlery detective might fight his demons hand-to-hand, wrestling alcohol and leggy dames into submission, Jack Forster takes a route of far greater risk.

Jack’s character is set up by a crushing betrayal some time before the story begins. His journey is easily interpreted as one of revenge, but it is not. Jack, in undertaking a huge and pointless task, is required to open himself up and trust people he cannot reasonably trust. As he grows closer to other people he slowly begins to reincorporate those parts of himself he has abjected, and he and Fist become more of a functioning single unit.

Fist, apart from being a foul-mouthed nightmare on tiny wooden legs, represents a part of Jack that is already dead. He also represents an ongoing literal threat to Jack’s life. By self-determining a purpose and daring to trust again, by showing care in places where care was denied him, Jack reclaims and rebuilds this fragment of himself. This nuance is vital. Jack does not overcome his demons – he accepts them as a part of him, and redefines who he is to safely incorporate them. Put simply, he grows as an act of recovery. In a reflection of external events, Jack shows himself mercy. Rather than self-annihilate by denying the things about himself he hates, he struggles to love them as well.

The central question that emerged during my reading was around the damage left on Jack by past abuse. It felt like an open wound throughout the story, and I became deeply invested in seeing Jack deal with it, even as a gripping murder mystery unravelled around him. The whole time, my eyes were on Fist. I think this is how best to understand CRASHING HEAVEN. A victim of abuse comes up against the ultimate enemy: not an abuser, nor any physical threat, but the precipice between severance and unity. The biggest threat to Jack is not Fist – it is the personal inertia that urges him not to try and regain himself. Fist is as much a victim as Jack is. The danger is not that Fist will kill him – that is set in stone – but that Jack will not be strong enough to live again before he dies.

Rather than taking the easy route through cyberpunk, through noir and hypermasculinity and ironic detachment, CRASHING HEAVEN grabs its damaged, hurting characters with both hands and screams at us that we have to care. It is a warm, heartfelt approach to victimhood and trauma.

On top of all that, it’s bloody good fun. Read it.

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