David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt
Random House Audio, 2011
A little over a year ago I read and reviewed the classic science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama. David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt’s Heaven’s Shadow is in many ways a modern update to that story and tries to blaze a new path employing tropes and scientific concepts that weren’t as familiar or at all extent during Arthur C. Clarke’s time. Heaven’s Shadow opens as two competing spacecrafts, one from America and one an alliance of Europe/India/Russia, race to intercept a Near Earth Object (NEO) amusingly dubbed Keanu. It of course becomes obvious that Keanu isn’t quite what it appears to be; it is not a simple asteroid but rather a ship sent by mysterious alien entities. Heaven’s Shadow owes a lot to Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. How much? Keanu, the NEO detected in the novel, would have been found by the Spaceguard program. The Spaceguard program, founded in 1992, is inspired by the organization of the same name in Clarke’s novel. Rama, I should add, was also mistaken for a NEO.
My main issue with Heaven’s Shadow is that it gets bogged down in details of operations. As I’ve said countless times I really do love a good science fiction story that focuses on the discovery and exploration of an alien spaceship. The problem with Heaven’s Shadow is that a lot of the exploration just never happens. The story spends a lot of time focusing on NASA Command seeing how they manage to revelations regarding alien life. That reaction is very much endemic to modern cynicism in how big government operates. Honest in some ways but lacking the optimism of classic science fiction. Indeed that response, and the similar tension regarding the potential threat of the non-American crew of the Brahma spacecraft, reveal an atmosphere more in line with the old Cold War era space race than today’s more egalitarian level of cooperation.
I didn’t really connect with any of the character aboard Keanu. For some reason none of the characters, particularly the Destiny mission commander Zack, really seemed to come together in a meaningful way. Despite being the novel’s protagonist Zack remained a difficult character to understand. While he seems adept at making decisions over the course of the novel his willingness to abandon important personal relationships, particularly with his girlfriend and daughter, seemed a bit strange. In fact many of the secondary characters had more interesting relationships. I rather liked the blustery and rough-around-the-edges Harley Drake whose no-nonsense attitude and straight-shooting personality felt more real to me than dispassionate feeling Zack.
That same habbit of showing rather than telling later extends to the aliens who sent Keanu. Any information we glean about them is through dialogue and hazy at best. There is a clumsiness to the scenes where Zack question’s the alien’s mouthpiece and while some of what we learn is interesting there is a certain letdown to the casual, almost flippant, air in which that information is conveyed. On the other hand Goyer and Cassutt manage to convey some awe inspiring and truly wonderful scenery both with the views from space and of the bizarre interior of Keanu. The moments when Keanu are at its strangest, when the writers move away from staid character interaction to fantastic description, are when Heaven’s Shadow shines the brightest.
The pacing of Heaven’s Shadow is never perfect and this is unfortunately more true the further into the novel one progresses. The final third seems to drag as very little forward progress is made and almost no answers to questions posed early in the novel are forthcoming. The ending of the novel is disappointing answering almost nothing and raising a lot more questions in the process. Thankfully there is another book in the works: Heaven’s War.
I listened to the audio version of Heaven’s Shadow produced by the folks at Random House Audio. Narrator Joe J. Thomas does a good job offering accents for some characters (his Harley Drake is probably part of the reason I felt drawn to the character) and manage to employ slight variations in tone and pitch to create distinct voices for everyone (important to note, since the audiobook I’m currently listening too is entirely less successful at doing this). Some of the novels pacing issues, parts that might be easily glossed while reading text, are a bit of a trial in the audio format but by and large I found the added character provided by a talented narrator made the book a bit more palatable to my tastes.
In the end Heaven’s Shadow is both a promising and disappointing read. Despite the question’s raised at its conclusion, or maybe because of them, I am curious to see where things will go in Heaven’s War. Characterization remains an issue throughout the novel but the sense of wonder and the fantastical nature of Keanu’s interior make up for those issues. Furthermore, though I can’t quite corroborate this, the operational aspects of the novel ring true (at least to someone unfamiliar with NASA operations). Heaven’s Shadow has been optioned by Warner Brothers and I definitely think, especially given my experience with Joe Thomas, that the right characters could at the very least gloss over the deficiencies in characterization. Disappointment aside I look forward to seeing where this series goes in both print and film.