Al Robertson burst onto the scene with Crashing Heaven, a techno-thriller set on a space station orbiting Earth that is run by sentient corporations and is the last refuge of humanity. We accompanied Jack Forster and Hugo Fist, a sociopathic AI in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy, as they uncovered and took down a massive conspiracy threatening Station. The sequel, Waking Hell (published by Gollancz, review copy from NetGalley) returns us to Station, but without either Forster or Fist.
Following on from Crashing Heaven was always going to be a challenge. Sad as it is for the reader, both Fist and Forster are iconic characters, but by the end of Crashing Heaven were too powerful to carry a further novel by themselves. Instead, Robertson introduces us to a new cast of characters. Leila Fenech is a fetch: one of the dead who lives on thanks to the storage of personality and memories and a digital body that can manifest thanks to the ever-pervasive Weave that provides an AR overlay to life on Station. Leila’s brother Dieter is also dead. A digital whizz-kid who specialises in old Earth technology, his death occurs in strange circumstances, with his digital self sold to the Pressure Men – representatives of a mysterious corporation called Deodatus – in exchange for financial security for Leila. Teaming up with Cassiel, a representative of the Totality, Leila sets out to rescue her brother’s fetch from Deodatus, unravelling a further conspiracy that, yet again, threatens the existence of Station.
This return to Station picks up from Crashing Heaven by adding more layers to the world. With peace with the Totality (super-complex AI consciousnesses) now firmly established, the inhabitants of Station are forced to confront their previous prejudices and come to terms with their dead (the fetches) now freely living among them. Waking Hell begins to delve into the history of Station, and the conflict-ridden, wasteland of Earth that it orbits.
As with its predecessor, Waking Hell asks us questions about the ethics of future technology, and what makes us people. With our experience increasingly mediated through the digital, and the potential for increasingly complex AIs to learn, grow and be fused with digital storage of memory, “fetch rights” becomes a real issue. Human memory is notoriously fallible, but the digital can be easily edited, changed and duplicated. Robertson asks us not just what truth is, but which versions of ourselves have primacy.
Waking Hell is a thought-provoking thriller with real warmth at its heart. Fans of Hugo Fist should embrace its richness, rather than be disappointed by his absence.
Goodreads rating: 4*