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Waking Hell (SF) - Al Robertson ****

In his sequel to Crashing Heaven, Al Robertson manages both to do the expected and to surprise us.

Let's get the surprise out of the way first. Having established a very strong pair of central characters in his first 'Station' novel - Jack Forster and the malevolent but somehow likeable puppet-like virtual entity Hugo Fist - the natural thing to do would be to give us another Forster/Fist story. I was a little sad to start with that he didn't - in fact our previous main characters are sidelined to a couple of mentions (Fist, it seems, is now a chat show host) and instead we have a new central character, Leila to get to know. She's going to have to save the world. Which is something of a challenge, given that she's dead.

There's no doubt that Robertson likes to set himself serious challenges as a writer. Because Leila is a digital, computer-based entity, made up of memories and the 'weave' (internet) remnants of the person after death, she can't actually be somewhere. Whenever she takes part in a scene, the only way she can see, for example, is either through surveillance cameras or through someone else's eyes if they are suitably digitally equipped. It says something for Robertson's meticulous style that he gets away with this and Leila comes across as a person without slipping up too much on the practicalities of her interacting with her environment.

As in the first novel, we have a society on a space station orbiting a ruined Earth where there is a huge interplay between the real world and virtual reality, up to and including a pantheon of gods which are actually digital corporations. But now, Robertson has the chance to fill in some of the past, as well as giving us a fast-paced thriller where the survival of the human race is at stake (again). There are some genuine surprises here and plenty of clever extensions of the whole digital universe metaphor.

As with the previous book, I would say that strictly this is mythology rather than science fiction, because the real-life metaphor in the virtual world is too strong to ever reflect reality. (For example, when a computer virus is produced, it appears in the form of a glowing green test tube.) There are a good range of secondary characters - I particularly liked The Caretaker (though I did guess his true nature earlier than I think the author intended) and the virtual entity Cassiel, who really grows through the book. Perhaps the only issue here was Leila's brother Dieter, who, partly due to the circumstances we find him, in proves a frustratingly vague contributor until the last minute.

As with the previous title, Robertson gives us lots to think about around the way virtual reality and life could become more and more enmeshed - and what that implies for society. There's also a lot about the nature of personality and memory. So we get a good mix of thought-provoking concepts and a page-turning thriller. The only reason the book doesn't have five stars is I felt the parts set on the Earth and the ending felt a little rushed and didn't work quite as well as the rest. But that doesn't stop Waking Hell being, overall, one of the best contributions to truly original SF of the last decade.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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