The Voices of Heaven, Frederik Pohl

Tor, 1994, 280 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-85643-1

Frederik Pohl hasn’t become the living embodiment of a science-fiction professional for nothing. When even his average efforts like The Voices of Heaven end up being more fun to read that most SF published that year, it’s a sign that the man knows what he’s doing.

It’s not as if this novel has any particularly original element. Bring together a maniaco-depressive protagonist, a love triangle, a suicidal cult, a far-away colony, barrels of anti-matter, musings about religion, mix well and… there you have The Voices of Heaven.

It’s not immune to some of the traditional Stupid Stuff that contaminates so much quickly-written SF, mind you: Pohl’s assertion that political parties would be eliminated in favor of religious voting blocs is so silly it’s hard to know where to begin. But given that this is Pohl’s Religion Novel, some slack must be cut.

He certainly knows how to bring us in the story, as an unnamed questioner interrogates our narrator about his life leading up to the “present”. Who is asking the questions? What is at stakes? The answers are ultimately disappointing, but it doesn’t matter when it comes to make us read the novel.

This narrator, Barry di Hoa, is a technical specialist, an antimatter loader living a hard but comfortable life on the Moon, working in the only antimatter production facility in the solar system. Everything seems to be going well for him. He’s even thinking about marriage when he’s drugged by a rival and put on a colony ship headed light-years away. When he wakes up, he finds himself shanghaied on a faraway solar system. Without his beloved. Without the medication that keeps him stable.

The colony is not only ill-prepared to receive him, but it’s also helpless against most things. Accidentally established in an earthquake-prone region, the colony has been so far unable to develop, stagnating at the same level for decades. It doesn’t help that fully a quarter of the colony’s population are Millenarists, a cult that openly encourages suicide as a way to atone for all past sins.

Yikes.

Well, if you actually find such a belief sustainable.

But stranger things have happened.

Barry, as a can-do type of guy, finds himself with precious little to do there. Naturally, it gets worse when he starts cycling through his manic-depressive roller-coaster again…

It’s a short book, and a fairly simple plot, but Pohl’s got too much professionalism to turn it into just another SF novel. He infuses his narrator with a gradual amount of empathy, making the book far more interesting than you’d expect. Barry, for all his faults and shortcomings, is someone we can really cheer for. Ironically, his greatest moment of triumph is related in an offhanded, almost embarrassed tone of voice, as he seems reluctant to take responsibility for actions committed when he was in the maniacal half of his cycle.

In short, The Voices of Heaven, despite unsubtle anti-religion shortcuts, predictable developments (oh, can’t you predict part of the conclusion whenever it’s obvious that our hero will remain virtuous?) and generally unexciting plotting, manages to be a worthwhile read. The writing is clear and enjoyable, the characters are well-defined and it ultimately amounts to a good time.

A true professional’s job.

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