Waking Hell is the second in Al Robertson’s series of sci-fi novels that began with Crashing Heaven, centred around the last enclave of humanity - Station, a vast satellite rolling above the atmosphere of a ruined earth.
The world of Station has seen some changes since the end of Crashing Heaven. The “Fetches”, the avatars constructed from the virtual selves of the recently dead, are now an active population. Once seen as little more than recordings, they’re now persons, as it were, and dealing with both acceptance and prejudice. Station itself seems the same – a gently decaying object under constant reconstruction by its nominally benevolent, somewhat manipulative AI rulers. One of the lovely environmental touches is the ubiquity of the ‘Weave’, which modifies the environment with a virtual overlay, depending on the socio-economic status of the individual. All of the characters are weave integrated in some fashion or other, and watching their environs shift virtually over a standard base is rather interesting. This is a world that carries an aura of a long past about it, but also one where everything is malleable. Where the world you see and here is something which you can change – but also one which you don’t control. The creaking corridors of Station are book lined studies and cramped utility rooms simultaneously – and both are accepted by all concerned as equally real.
Into this world, already built on an ever-changing selection of the virtual and the physical, steps Leila. She is a Fetch, one of the dead of Station, given life as a virtual presence – as real, in a world as virtually dependent as Station, as anyone around her – and occasionally more so. Leila is a survivor, a woman piecing herself back together after a trauma. Robertson shows us that in her actions – in the tight bonds she has with her friends, and in the caution with which she treats others. Leila is also partially defined by her love for her brother, Dieter – she has a connection there which is difficult to break.
She’s fiery, and if sometimes off balance, remains plausibly competent. When she staggers, it makes sense, and when she falls, we know why, empathise, and feel her pain. If she’s not the typical action heroine, she is entirely her own person. The drive she has, and the desire for stability, the curiosity and the capacity for love, all feel very real.
Her enemies do so as well, though from a slightly different angle. She struggles with antagonists whose motives are, at least initially, something of a mystery. But there’s a sense of menace there, a cloak of anonymity and relentless, implacable violence, a feeling of conformity for body and soul. Without getting into spoilers, it’s hard to discuss them here – except to say that the ideas that they present, in one way or another, are perhaps more terrifying than the individuals themselves. I was disturbed often, and delighted to be so, when the villains were upon the page.
The plot – well, it’s a solid bit of work. It starts a little slowly, bringing us up to speed with the current situation on Station gently – and in a way that would make it accessible to a new reader. But it quickly follows that up with several bangs – as Leila and the reader find her world turned upside down. There’s a sense of the detective novel here, of delving into hidden pasts, a sort of technological Indiana Jones blended with Sam Spade. The action is fast-paced and kinetic, and the surrounding scenes are fascinating insights into the characters and the world, and between them, they more than suffice to keep the pages turning.
If you already read Crashing Heaven, then this is a great opportunity to see more of Robertson’s world. If you’re a new reader, this is an excellently crafted sci-fi thriller in a unique world, and it will reward your attention.