(Gollancz, £10.99, 389 pages, trade paperback, also available
in hardback priced £17.99, published 20 February 2003. Gollancz,
£6.99, 389 pages, paperback, this edition published 12 February 2004.)
The back cover blurb for Dark Heavens paints a bleak picture.
The Earth is on its last
legs, thanks to a group of End-of-the-World fanatics who nuked the San
Andreas Fault some years previously. Untold thousands are signing up
for the Leavings, or Consensual Mass Suicides, state authorised suicide
cults. Two attempts to colonise a replacement world called Dirangesept
have failed, but surprisingly a third mission is on the cards, and this
time the Administration is confident. Have they figured out a way to
combat the aggressive indigenous life, the Beasts that lodge themselves
in the minds of the would-be colonists? Meanwhile, two students at GenMed
have apparently committed suicide in related and suspicious circumstances.
It could be the start of an unauthorised mass suicide, but CMS investigator
Cy Auger is ordered off the case. It doesn't help that his wife, a psychological
wreck, is a permanent GenMed patient. When he pursues the investigation
to satisfy his personal curiosity, he uncovers a conspiracy that affects
him personally -- very personally...
Dark Heavens starts out as a futuristic noir thriller, heavy
on the "noir" and light on the thrills; it later becomes a cyberpunk
adventure, with VR, corporate corruption, even the chance of a happy
ending. It's at that turning point that the pace picks up and the story
becomes more engrossing, but it takes Levy half the book to get there,
and in the meantime the reader has to wade through material so relentlessly
morose that it's actually off-putting. In describing a depressed world,
Levy's prose itself seems to become depressed, almost listless. This
does wonders for the atmosphere of the story, but it's no help in grabbing
the reader's attention in those crucial early chapters. I absorbed the
details on which the later story rests almost by osmosis.
Once Dark Heavens gets going, it's literally a different story
altogether. What may have appeared to be an apocalyptic mood piece turns
out to be a more direct sequel to Reckless Sleep, revolving around
the virtual space of Cathar and the off-stage world of Dirangesept rather
than around organised suicide in the real world. I can see why many
reviewers have drawn parallels with Philip Dick's work, given this displaced
focus on worlds that are either entirely fabricated (Cathar, with its
Fantasyland trappings), or simply not shown first-hand (Dirangesept
-- is it real, or is it just a state of mind?). For me, though, Dark
Heavens smacks more of Make Room! Make Room! with a touch
of the Soylent Greens in the latter half. Perhaps it was the
result of this mental association, but I found it hard to read Dark
Heavens without giving the characters American accents, and this
is annoying since the story's set in London. It's certainly not the
fault of Levy's characterisation, which is uniformly superb (and pretty
uniformly pessimistic), with snappy dialogue and believable motivation
a-plenty. The plot's good too, satisfyingly neat if a little convoluted.
Dark Heavens is not a bad book, it's just a book the reader
has to work at, and not in a good way. On a second reading, I think
I'd cut in around page 150 and demand Pass Notes on the story so far.
With that out of the way, I'd be able to enjoy the remainder of the
book more fully.
Review by John Toon.
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