Set in the near future, rival groups of American astronauts and a coalition of Russian, Indian, and Brazilian space agencies set out to land on a mysterious “near Earth object” (or NEO, cheekily dubbed “Keanu”). So far, so Armageddon. But in Heaven’s Shadow, things take a turn for the worst and as a result, are all the more interesting because of it.
Despite being set several years into the future, David S Goyer and Michael Cassutt present what feels like a realistic portrayal of space flight. Mission control and ‘insider politics’ as the White House naturally becomes involved are all present along with the surprising tedium and minutiae of space travel are shown in fascinating detail. The inner workings of NASA add to the realism of the book as we follow their frantic efforts to understand what is happening on the surface and within ‘Keanu’. In due course American attitudes to their rivals in this new space race are exposed as the competition grows between NASA and coalition as to who reaches Keanu first and makes first contact. NASA firmly believes they have the superior technology but routinely underestimate their inexperienced rivals.
The pace is continuous and the majority of the characters are likeable and relatable. A few lines of dialogue are clunky and clichéd; no doubt better said out aloud, but never jarred from the story. The reaction of the wider world is shown through extracts of blog posts at the start of each chapter, expanding the story and revealing what the world is thinking as events unfold on live television. It was an interesting choice that gives more context but never distracts from the impetus of the story.
Coming from two successful Hollywood and television writers, it is easy to apply familiar movie motifs to the story. It begins, as I said, in a way reminiscent of Armageddon and as it unfolds, mishaps and technical misfortunes in space remind us of Apollo 13. Yet it is far better suited to the late, great Michael Crichton and his works of grounded science fiction. Like most sci-fi, what Heaven’s Shadow really explores other are more philosophical and potentially controversial ideas throughout. Without giving away the big reveal, it becomes a science fiction story with spiritual elements, examining the human soul and what happens after we die. Just what is left behind? Where do we go? As questions are answered, more need to be resolved, leaving you wanting more. As the first part of a trilogy, Heaven’s Shadow becomes an interesting starting point for a wider and further reaching idea.
Any Cop?: Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued by Heaven’s Shadow. What a first appeared to be a rather tried and tested, even tired, concept became one that takes on a far deeper resonance. With a film script already in the works, it is certainly one to read before the movie version comes out…