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David S. Goyer  and  Michael Cassutt
Heaven's Shadow
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Ace / Berkely / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-441-02033-1
Publication Date: 07-05-2011
404 Pages ; $25.95

David S. Goyer  and  Michael Cassutt
Heaven's Shadow
Tor UK / Pan Macmillan
UK Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-230-76031-8
Publication Date: 07-15-2011
356 Pages ; £12.99
Date Reviewed: 06-23-2011

Index:  Science Fiction  General Fiction  Horror

Science fiction, particularly that which involves space travel, tends to be set in the future. Positing technology we don't have to get us places we can't go, writers take two leaps of the imagination before the first page of the story. It often makes for fine writing, but it's not the only way to approach manned space exploration within the science fiction genre.

It's amazingly easy to forget that even as you read these words, we have humans in orbit around the earth. This is the stuff of classic science fiction, particularly the work of Arthur C. Clarke, brought to life. We can get off the earth with technology we have right now. And the places we can go with that technology remain largely uncharted. We've barely managed to get to the shores of space, and what we think we know about what's out there is based on theory, not experience.

David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt offer readers the experience of a lifetime — tellingly, our lifetime — in 'Heaven's Shadow,' a toe-tapping ripping yarn set in the present day but informed by big ideas and imaginative verve. Goyer and Cassutt use today's technology to take their characters to a wild science fiction sense-of-wonderland. It's the best of both worlds — hard SF that segues seamlessly into space opera, written with the pace of a techno-thriller. Best of all, Goyer and Cassutt throw in some Big Ideas that will bang around in the very same brain that lost sleep finishing the book.

The setup is simple and direct. Keanu is the name of the NEO (Near Earth Object, ie, rogue asteroid) that gets discovered just about now. It's coming close enough and is big enough to visit. The US, via NASA, and the Russian-Indian-Brazilian Coalition mount competing expeditions and manage to get them to Keanu in one piece. Once they get there, things get complicated.

Goyer and Cassutt make the most of their premise with cleverly-characterized astronauts, a time-sliced plot structure that cuts between the object's discovery and the in-progress mission to explore it, and lots of great hard science. Zack Stewart leads the US mission. He's a recent widower who texts his teenage daughter from the surface of Keanu. As with every astronaut character, Stewart is crisply etched into the reader's memory with the traits that make him an astronaut; primarily, in his case (beyond his work as an astronomer) that he "plays well with others." That's necessary, because he's swiped the captain's spot on the mission from Tea Nowinski, his new girlfriend.

Goyer and Cassutt do an outstanding job at managing a large cast of characters, keeping them straight in the reader's mind, and offer lots of verisimilitude by tying smart hard science to each of the characters. We know why these people are out there, why they belong out there and why they behave as they do. On the ground, the mission control team is well-handled, too. You even get a classic science fiction "Home Team" of advisors, one of whom is a crusty science fiction writer.

For a novel full of realistic science and characters who meet head-on with actual Big Ideas, there's never a dull moment in 'Heaven's Shadow.' Goyer and Cassutt have architected a plotline that is consistently thrilling and provides lots of surprises, none of which need to be discussed here. Suffice it to say that even though the characters themselves refer to Keanu at first as a BDO (Big Dumb Object), that proves to be a serious mistake. But with hard science and careful characterization grounding the action, as things get weird, and they do get weird, it's easy to buy in. It helps that the weirdness itself is based on some reasonable thought-experiments, and that the imagery is nicely played out. 'Heaven's Shadow' may start out in a very recognizable world, but it makes a considerable journey in what feels like a very short reading.

On a prose level, Goyer and Cassutt acquit themselves well. 'Heaven's Shadow' is easy to read, but never so slick as to seem oily. Descriptions of earth and beyond are well wrought and atmospheric, even when the atmosphere itself is either absent or unbreathable. The dialogue is smart and often appropriately funny, including one moment in the book where they manage to make the reader and the characters say the same word. They make use of every word in the book, even the obligatory chapter headings, which manage to tell a story. And, given that this is a collaboration, it is totally seamless. There's no dividing line. The voice is unified, strong and entertaining.

For those who already enjoy the science fiction genre, 'Heaven's Shadow' is a done deal. Goyer and Cassutt evoke many of the classic authors — Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, and Robert Heinlein just to start — but they make the story their own, and have a hell of a good time with it. But even readers who are just looking for a good thriller will find a lot to like here. They may discover that 'Heaven's Shadow' is a gateway drug to the books that inspired it. In any event — other than those described in the book — 'Heaven's Shadow' is the sort of book that will make the world go away for a couple of days. And it's good enough that readers will really have to wonder if the book itself is more fun to experience than the events it describes.

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