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Great Ideas, execution could be better
on 7 July 2011
It's difficult to talk about this book without spoiling it a little so I will try to keep them to a minimum and not reveal some of the bigger twists that come later in the book. The synopsis gives away one of the main twists, but it comes early in the story so it's not too bad. Heaven's Shadow is written by David Goyer and Michael Cassutt who are both well respected TV and screenplay writers. Goyer worked on all three Blade movies and the TV series, both Nolan Batman movies and he's also a well known comic book fan who has written for DC. I'm less familiar with Cassutt, but from looking at a list of his work I have probably watched episodes of Eerie, Indiana and The Outer Limits that he penned. So the calibre of the writers is not in question and the idea is the sort of high concept that gets Hollywood folk excited. In fact, the movie rights for this trilogy have already been snapped up and optioned already. With all of that in the back of my mind I was expecting something quite remarkable and for the most part I was let down, not by the ideas, but the execution.
I read an advanced reading copy and this version of the book clocks in at a little over 560 pages, so the final version might change a little. However, I think you could cut 200 or more pages from this book and it would not have affected the story at all. In my opinion it would have made it much better, cleaner and sharper. Most of the time the story reads like a screenplay anyway. The chapters are short and punchy. The dialogue is fragmented and is exactly how people speak in real life. The description is light which helps the plot move along at a good pace. Unfortunately wedged into this exciting and tense plot is a lot of exposition, heavy SF detail and minor plot points and characters that will probably be culled from the screenplay for space and timing. I wish someone had done the same for the novel.
A vast Near Earth Object, or NEO, is on a trajectory that means it will pass through our solar system and it will come close enough for NASA, and a competing international space agency, to each send up a team. These two teams will land on the object, take samples, poke around a bit and then fly back, just as they would do as if they were going to the moon. As you might expect there is a lot of political wrangling and economic issues tied into the cost of sending up a team and what, if any, benefits there would be to such a mission. The really interesting part of the story comes when the object changes direction. This is not something that just appeared at the edge of the solar system one afternoon. It's been on its current trajectory for hundreds of years and suddenly, for no apparent reason when it gets close to Earth, it changes course. This suggests some kind of intelligence at work and I can't really say much more without spoiling it. Dodging around it I can say that the NEO has come to Earth for a reason and some thing has guided it there. The repercussions of that alone are astonishing, frightening and very troubling for some people as its solid proof of alien intelligence of some kind.
At this point I had a lot of questions and I was very keen to keep reading and find out what was going on. Then I hit a few barriers as the story lost momentum and the pace ground to a halt. If you like what some would describe as traditional science fiction, if you enjoy the technical side of `realistic' SF movies like Apollo 13 and you like NASA documentaries, then you will enjoy this. For me there were far too many technical details and I struggled to get through it and find my way back to the story. I was bogged down and bored at times and I found myself skipping whole sections filled with acronyms and unnecessary detail.
The fantastical twists come thick and fast soon after and I did enjoy that part of the story, but it's only about half of the book. The rest builds characters by awkwardly jamming in information, about their relationships and history, and by adding new characters to what was already a fairly large cast. There again, minor spoiler, but by doing so you practically know that some of them are red shirts and it's just not going to end well for them.
I think the movie of this novel will be a really good science fiction blockbuster which will end on one heck of a cliffhanger if it stops at the same place. As a novel it lurches from the exciting and fantastical end of science fiction to, what was for me, less interesting technical information. I'm totally willing to admit other people may not notice or care, and will whip through the whole book in a few hours.