The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams

Bantam Spectra, 2008, 409 pages, C$14.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-553-38541-0

I didn’t like this novel and it feels like a defeat.

I started it with the best intentions, after all: I love high-tech SF thrillers, and everything about The Mirrored Heavens suggested the equivalent of a techno-thriller kicked a hundred years in the future, with super-powered operatives, competent terrorists, tensions between global power blocks and spectacular disasters. It’s got effusive blurbs by authors I like a lot, leading with a front-cover blurb from Peter Watts. I like SF, I like thrillers. What could possibly go wrong?

Indeed, from some angles, The Mirrored Heavens still feels awesome. The complex power dynamics within the dystopian world described by Williams are credible and unpredictable. The relentless pacing of the book, where crises barely resolve themselves before there’s another rushing at full speed, is the type of breathless rhythm that’s missing from several novels. Some of the set pieces are spectacular in the way only wide-screen action sequences can be. Heck, even Williams’ staccato prose is among the best I’ve read this year. Try this early paragraph for a taste:

Marlowe opens up on the two suits at point-blank range, his wrist-guns set for flechette swarm. The armor worn by Marlowe’s targets is good. It’s nowhere near enough. Marlowe cuts through it like he’s wielding a giant buzzsaw. The figures he’s facing suddenly aren’t figures anymore. Marlowe fires his thrusters, plunges down the shaft toward what’s left of them. He lands on the roof of the elevator car. He leaps through the open doors from which the dead men emerged. [P.34]

Now imagine 400 pages like that.

And that’s part of the problem: As the book’s events accumulated, as the four main characters dispatched entire armies of faceless opponents, destroying chunks of cities and changing the history of their world by their actions, I found myself increasingly numb to the novel’s impact.

This isn’t normally a problem: My number-one complaint about novels these days is that they’re too long and too dull. 400 pages of action ought to have been a plus, not a minus.

I finally realized what had been bothering me upon reading the novel’s Appendix, which presents a time-line of world history for the next hundred years. The amazing thing about it is that year by year, item by item, things get constantly worse in order to lead to Williams’ nightmarish future where even the U.S. is under martial leadership. There have been a lot of SF thrillers in the past few years (indeed, they make up most of the output of acclaimed new authors such as Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan), but their menagerie of secret agents and super-powered operatives are usually fighting to preserve or bring about a desirable world: they’re the wolves guarding the sheep with whom the readers are supposed to identify. But there’s no such thing in The Mirrored Heavens: The entire world is bleak and whatever the characters will do won’t change a thing in improving everyone’s lot. It’s like having gunfights and car chases on the deck of the Titanic: they’re all doomed anyway.

The novel’s other annoyances (a punchy style that never lets up; ridiculously over-powered characters; humorless tone) would not have been problems in other circumstances, but here they feel magnified by the novel’s lack of success in earning at least a bit of empathy.

On of the toughest skills in being a reviewer is trying to dissociate a personal distaste from a more dispassionate consideration of a work’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s an admirable but futile quest since all reviews are subjective, but trying to explain where The Mirrored Heavens goes astray raises an uncomfortable doubt: The fact that I don’t like it right now doesn’t mean I may not like it in other circumstances; once I won’t be overdosing on SF thrillers, for instance. Fortunately, everything about this book screams of a sequel: we’ll see then if there’s any improvement.

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