“No fate but what we make” is a classic line from the Terminator movies. This poster tagline is catchy, economic and informative of the franchise’s overarching plot. It’s also representative of a wider push in science fiction to nip at the heels of the powers that be. It’s not that science fiction is atheist—the higher power is a deep reservoir from which science fiction writers drink often—it’s that the genre is anti-power in the hands of those who would abuse it.
It’s this rebellious punk of a novel that Al Robertson has so masterfully crafted with Crashing Heaven. With Earth abandoned, the human race populates a single habitat in a solar system dominated by artificial intelligences. The Pantheon are the Gods in Heaven. These sentient corporations control everything, from TV to children’s’ games of football, in a society that exists “onweave”, a virtual reality that overlays, and is preferred to, actual reality. The Pantheon are on the brink of a second war with the Totality, a group mind that threatens their way of life.
This world of sentient corporations that control everything through a strict application of intellectual property is frightening because it feels like a distinct possibility. Robertson establishes Station and its society subtly and seamlessly, with little or no buffering, as Jack Forster, an accountant, and Hugo Fist, an AI that manifests as a ventriloquist’s dummy, make their way from prisoners of war to liberators.
Hugo Fist is a joy to behold. He can literally kill a god and spends much of the novel salivating at the prospect while rebelling against Forster, who he inhibits and will eventually take possession of when the relevant licences expire, conjuring menacing demon dogs and wiping his enemies from existence. Through his symbiotic relationship with Forster, he gradually moves from the novel’s major antagonist, a position he holds because Robertson paints him as the worst artificial intelligence has to offer, to Forster’s equal as hero. This transition is expertly underlined by the distinct lack of a physically bad presence, barring a few henchman, until the novel’s closing stages.
The baddies, once they show themselves, feel less high def’ than their counterparts, largely because they get such little screen time. But what Robertson achieves by dealing his characters this way is a Hugo Fist who changes for the better, against the powers’ wishes, and a system of control that is built bigger so it can fall harder.
Crashing Heaven is a fine addition to the science fiction collection that questions the authority of the future. It’s expertly expressed, highly charged and a frightening reality.