Heaven’s Shadow, David S Goyer & Michael Cassutt
Heaven’s Shadow, David S Goyer & Michael Cassutt
Tor, 356pp, £12.99
Each year, a handful of science fiction novels arrive with a resounding thud. If these books have one thing in common, it’s that, though they appear to be aimed at sf readers, the marketing focuses on non-genre aspects. Heaven’s Shadow, the first of a trilogy, is one such book. The cover boasts a quote from Guillermo del Toro, and identifies the two authors as “the writers of The Dark Knight and The Twilight Zone“. You have to wonder why Tor would think sf readers would care about this. A film script is not a novel; a successful movie does not mean the success will translate to the written word.
Of course, the writers’ pedigrees has had one very important effect on Heaven’s Shadow: the film rights have been sold for a “massive seven-figure” sum. With so much money already invested in the story, it would be foolish of Tor not to contribute. However, while it’s true that Michael Cassutt has written and produced a number of television shows, he is also a Tor mid-list genre writer, whose previous five novels never made it across the Atlantic. That’s hardly something to boast about, but at least it indicates that Heaven’s Shadow possesses some genre credentials…
Which means it comes as a surprise to discover that Heaven’s Shadow actually reads more like a techno-thriller. It is indeed relatively high-concept science fiction – the (appropriately enough) Hollywood pitch would go something like, “Rendezvous With Rama meets Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld” – but because it is set a few years hence and focuses on a space mission, it does not initially read like genre. And it makes a decent fist of this aspect. But this is no surprise: Cassutt, besides being a television writer and a genre writer, is also an aviation journalist and has written articles for a number of space-related magazines.
In 2016, a comet is spotted approaching Earth. A coalition comprising the ESA, Roscosmos and the Indian Space Research Organisation puts together a manned mission to visit this Near Earth Object, which has been nicknamed Keanu after the actor. NASA promptly panics and repurposes its next lunar mission to beat the Coalition to the NEO (in this future, the US has already been back to the Moon once – making Heaven’s Shadow alternate history?).
The Americans, of course, land first. But then Keanu begins to behave strangely. Outgassing from ice geysers on its surface puts the NEO in an elliptical orbit about Earth. Together with the Coalition astronauts, the Americans investigate and discover a passage leading into the interior of Keanu. And in there, they find an Earth-like environment and strange hive-like cells… in which are people. Humans. Including the US commander Zack Stewart’s wife, Megan, who had died in a car crash two years before. Two of the Coalition crew also find people they know who had died.
As if these discoveries weren’t enough, both missions have also experienced more than their fair share of calamity. The US pilot is killed by an enigmatic alien, but then finds himself resurrected like Megan. But Houston plays it cagey and in the pilot’s desperate attempt to re-enter the lander, the astronaut left onboard sets off the nuclear bomb she brought with her (secretly, of course). This immediately kicks off an Apollo 13-style narrative, in which Mission Control tries to figure out how to rescue the surviving astronauts using the command module…
Meanwhile, Keanu has sent two glowing balls of energy to Bangalore, the Coalition’s mission control, and Houston. And Megan has explained to Zack what Keanu is, why it contains resurrected dead people, and the spacecraft’s purpose. It’s all to do with a war between two alien species, one of which – dubbed the Architects – has decided to draft in humanity. This war will no doubt be covered in the remaining two books of the trilogy…
Reading Heaven’s Shadow, it’s hard to see what Goyer bought to the book. Cassutt provides the science fiction concepts and the astronautics. Goyer provides the… clichés? The bland prose style? This is a novel in which the words have only one purpose: to tell the story. Despite the 356 pages, you won’t find any impressive turns of phrase in Heaven’s Shadow. Nor, strangely, are there many memorable visuals – but those, of course, would be the job of the director, not the screenwriter. The book’s cast (helpfully named in an opening dramatis personae) each follow carefully calculated character arcs, and each has just enough back-story to a) justify their role in the story and b) explain their actions. The chapters switch viewpoints regularly, often leaving narrative threads on cliff-hangers. It’s all very efficient.
As a result, Heaven’s Shadow is not an especially satisfying read. Too much of it feels like a mélange of other sf novels. The two space missions I had expected to find fascinating – it’s a subject which interests me – but, while the topic is covered with authority, there wasn’t enough to detail to hold my attention. Heaven’s Shadow is the sort of book to be read on a long journey. It requires little engagement. It is mildly entertaining, but not especially immersive. But, for the investment in time it takes to read, the pay-off is surprisingly small.
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