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Heaven
Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen
Warner Books, 343 pages


Art: Steve Stone
Heaven
Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen
Ian Stewart is Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematics Institute, University of Warwick, Coventry, England. In 1995, he was awarded the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Medal for outstanding contributions to the public understanding of science. He continues to be an active research mathematician, working now on the effects of symmetry on dynamics, with applications to pattern formation and chaos theory.

Currently at the University of Warwick, Dr Jack Cohen is an internationally renowned reproductive biologist, having published nearly 100 research papers. He also acts as a consultant to top science fiction writers, such as Terry Pratchett, designing credible creatures and ecologies.

ISFDB Bibliography: Ian Stewart
ISFDB Bibliography: Jack Cohen
SF Site Review: Wheelers
SF Site Review: The Science of Discworld

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Hank Luttrell

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Heaven has an ambitious high concept; I think the authors wanted to write a humorous, satirical study of the evil often wrought by religious fanatics. The difficulty is that it is hard to make such an unpleasant subject funny. Frankly, there is a lot of evil in the name of religion going around these days. So while this book can't be as amusing as it might, the theme is still important. That it is rather successful is a spectacular achievement.

One clue that this was supposed to be humorous, or at least satiric (in case you weren't getting it...) was what seemed to me a clever inside joke. The human character transfers from one job site to another, and in order to do this he packs all his belongings in his most prized possession, his luggage, a robotic device that obediently follows him about. This really seemed to me like a homage to Terry Pratchett's Luggage. Least you think I might be reading too much into this, I'll remind you that these are the writers who collaborated with Pratchett on The Science of Discworld.

One of my favorite types of SF are those stories which involve contact with alien races. Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen really deliver on this theme. There are dozens of alien races mentioned, and many described in great detail. Only one human character is involved at all, although Earth is also represented by a surviving Neanderthal civilization, rescued before their extinction. The Neanderthals are described as great with empathy, but completely without the capacity for faith, so they are immune to the attractions of the book's malicious religion.

In any SF story dealing with aliens, there are multiple, conflicting challenges involved in creating these characters. It is hard for any mere human writer to imagine an alien sentient or culture except in terms of how they differ from humans. Story book aliens are often humans with elf ears and a few narrowly defined, eccentric character traits. This may make the aliens about as unusual as your black-sheep Uncle Henry, but not different enough to account for variant evolutionary background, environment, culture and biochemistry. It is a daunting challenge for a writer to create something like an alien -- by definition, it should be outside of the parameters of how we, humans, define intelligence and culture. At the same time, a writer must deal with the story telling necessity of understanding the alien in some way.

Some of the aliens in Heaven are more ambitious, or perhaps outrageous, than others. One of them initially reminded me (again) of Terry Pratchett's Luggage, in that it scuttled about its desert habitat on bunches of tiny legs, carrying lots of miscellaneous creatures and other stuff like, well, biological, ambulatory luggage. I really had a hard time believing this at first. But to their credit, Stewart and Cohen eventually sold me on it, made it seem plausible, as they did with most of their imaginative notions.

The most prominent alien characters in the novel are a group of polypoids: sea dwelling, squid-like creatures and their wives, coral reef builders able to link to form a huge group mind. It might seem rather too human that the squids speak in a Popeye-esque seamanly manner, but you could think this is due to the translation into vernacular English for the benefit of the human character, (and of course The Reader) by a fantastic translator. This device, and many others, are part of the "Precursor" technology, incredibly advanced gizmos discovered at various places in the galaxy, left behind by a previous advanced civilization, and now exploited by younger cultures. Exploited, too, by the authors, who use the Precursor stuff as infrastructure for the cultures in the book, and for the book itself, especially for interstellar transportation and communications.

The conflict of the novel involves the invasion of the home world of the coral reef-mind/polypoid sailors by an armada representing Cosmic Unity. This is a religion gone malignant: with a belief system based on diversity, tolerance and peace, it will use any means, including torture and military attack, to force acceptance by new populations.

The aliens are plentiful and delightful, both as characters and imaginative scientific speculation. The variety of sentient life makes Cosmic Unity's celebration of diversity seem necessary, and the religion's subversion of these ideals particularly appalling. The story telling short cut provided by Precursor technology affords more opportunity for scientists Stewart and Cohen to extrapolate about biological and even astrophysical systems. Religion is considered here mainly as a means for accumulating power, and a method for suppression, but there are also messages about redemption, and exhilarating ideas on diverse possibilities of life and intelligence, some of which are positively spiritual.

Copyright © 2004 Hank Luttrell

Hank Luttrell has reviewed science fiction for newspapers, magazines and web sites. He was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and is currently a bookseller in Madison, Wisconsin.


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