Heaven, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen

Warner Aspect, 2004 (2005 reprint), 428 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61103-4

I may blow my entire Science Fiction credibility out of the room by mentioning the following, but here goes: I’m not a big fan of alien-centric SF. Strange, isn’t it? But put down those pitchforks and allow me thirty more seconds to explain that one. I’m more interested in the extrapolative aspect of SF; in its ability to illuminate the familiar with the unfamiliar. The problem with alien-centric SF is that is too often feels like a self-satisfied series of tricks that are of interest to the author and few others. “Card tricks in the dark”, to cite the Turkey City Lexicon again.

Add to that my lack of interest in SF that tackles religious themes (it’s been done before, folks) and that explains why I never really bothered seeking out a copy of Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s Heaven. Both authors, respected scientists in their own fields, had previously shown an impressive ability to match scientific speculation with adequate fiction in their first novel Wheelers. I had to wait until I saw a paperback copy of Heaven deeply discounted at a used book sale before committing to their follow-up.

I shouldn’t have waited that long. Despite a back-cover blurb that suggests a worst-case-scenario of alien-centric SF crossed with pure religion-bashing (“…mariner Second-best Sailor leans this his planet is discovered by evangelists…”), Heaven turns out to be a lot more palatable than my own prejudices had led me to believe. Oh, it’s not an immediately compelling read, at least at first: I ended up re-reading the first fifty pages once I realized that if I hadn’t been hooked by the first few pages, there really was something intriguing going on.

Once properly set up, Heaven flies by with a succession of neat ideas and better-than-expected plotting. Stewart and Cohen won’t be mistaken for great prose stylists anytime soon, but their affection for their imagined aliens shows through, and it’s a minor marvel that they can make a deeply alien life form so compelling. Their specialty is xenobiology, and it shows in their portrait of a aquatic life-form with a strong kinship to coral. Comfortable with the language, the common assumptions and the writing quirks of genre science-fiction, the authors then proceed to deliver an unusual adventure that plays with the usual tropes of SF.

It’s not a book that I would suggest to someone who’s new to Science Fiction, since it fills a very intriguing niche in the SF ecosystem: The kind of novel written by practicing scientists, far more comfortable with ideas and conceptual issues than in delivering a standard reading experience. Fans of Hal Clement, Charles Pellegrino or John Cramer’s regrettably few novels will understand what kind of SF this is: the pure bedrock of the genre, crammed with speculations while unburdened by notions of literary respectability.

And yet explicit comparisons with Cramer and Clement do a disservice to the considerable reading pleasure offered by this novel once the basic language of the novel is established: There are a few neat tricks in Heaven‘s prose, the coolest of which being a discussion between chunks of a planet-spanning intelligence. The novel doesn’t always make sense, but it usually sacrifice logic for hard-hitting visuals: The scene that illustrates the titular “heaven” is nonsense, but it’s an utterly memorable image nonetheless.

All in all, Heaven ends up being a small surprise. It doesn’t try to be for everyone and so will probably appeal to those who are already familiar with genre SF, but it’s an overlooked delight for that readership. The lesson learned here is that authorship should trump subject matter in choosing a book to read. If you loved something by an author, don’t be afraid to disregard what you think you know about the subject of their next book. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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