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Dark Heavens

by Roger Levy

(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 cover scanlast 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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