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Icarus
Roger Levy
Gollancz, 421 pages

Icarus
Roger Levy
Roger Levy is a dentist who doesn't use freaky future technology on his patients' teeth. He lives in England with his wife and children. He's the author of SF novels Reckless Sleep and Dark Heavens.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Reckless Sleep
SF Site Review: Reckless Sleep
SF Site Review: Dark Heavens
The Morning After, a short story by Roger Levy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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On a near-future Earth, humankind is reaping the harvest of its heedless exploitation of the natural world. Environmental disaster looms. One man, architect of a spiritual empire that has also endowed him with vast wealth and temporal power, believes he has the answer. Known to his flock as the Captain, this man is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve his vision.

Light-years away lies the planet Haven. Its wind-scoured, irradiated surface is uninhabitable, giving its human colonists no choice but to go underground. Generations have passed since that first landfall, and the settlement has grown into a vast subterranean community that is constantly pushing farther out into the rock. Contact with Earth was lost long ago, and along with it most memory of the colony's origin, a casualty of the struggle for survival. Haven is a regimented society, with each individual carefully assessed for ability and slotted into the proper job in the proper Department. Chief among these Departments is Fact, whose personnel preserve Haven's history and the small store of information about its beginning, ensuring not only that knowledge will never again be lost, but that it never becomes corrupted. In Haven, Fact is everything; unFact is a crime.

The planet Haze is all that Haven is not: forested, temperate, abundant -- perfect for human life. Haze too has a static social structure, though the mechanism of control is very different. In the deep jungle, peasants live a primitive existence in thrall to cruel lords, who claim their harvests and also many of their children, who are brought to the lords' citadel of AngWat and indoctrinated through suffering to become lords themselves. Only an elite cadre among the lords knows the origin of this system, or how there came to be human beings on Haze. The two planets maintain a limited trade of goods, and also a regular exchange of people, so that each culture can keep watch upon the other.

Deep under Haven, one of the survey teams that explore the planet's substrate in advance of the community's constant drive to expand makes an unbelievable discovery: an orbital escape pod immured in a solidified lake of lava. Inside is a mummified corpse; on the walls is scrawled a message: I was betrayed. The repercussions of this discovery, its significance for the lost history of Haven and the hidden history of Haze, and its links to an ancient conspiracy born on Earth, will threaten the artificial stasis of both societies -- perhaps even their survival.

Roger Levy's ability as a world builder was apparent in his previous novels, and it's on display in this one as well. All three societies -- Haven, Haze (note the resonance of those two names), and disaster-ravaged Earth (reminiscent of the ecologically devastated Earth of Reckless Sleep and Dark Heavens, but not, I think, the same place) -- are fascinating and fully-conceived creations. This is particularly true of Haven, with its underground society dominated by the Big Brother-like scrutiny of Fact, and the unique mechanisms by which its people survive -- from the many-leveled living and working areas, to the fungus-growing caverns that produce all the food, to the artificially-created river of oxygen that provides the air, to the Hades-like lower depths that house the Game, whose never-ending play doubles as a mechanism of punishment for those who flout the community's rules and a source of entertainment for the community as a whole. You can almost feel the claustrophobic confines of the coffin like survey vehicles that roam the rock; Levy's description of what it might be like to extend one's senses through solid stone, as the surveyors do in order to guide their vehicles, is especially striking. It's a thoroughly convincing portrait of a human society that, in its adaptation to the exigencies of survival, has grown quite alien. This is also true of Haze -- though Haze's alikeness, as it turns out, has a rather different source. By contrast, the doomed Earth is all too familiar.

The dystopic themes that have driven Levy's other books are also present in Icarus: the terrible cost of environmental exploitation, the venality of politicians who simultaneously exploit and pander to their constituents, the hypocrisy of religious leaders who sell dreams of redemption to their sheeplike followers, most of whom are all too willing to collude in their own deception. This time, Levy goes inside the head of one such leader: through the Captain's memoirs, we see not only the manipulation that is the religious charlatan's stock-in-trade, but also the complex psychology that fuels it -- a portrait of a not-entirely-fake visionary that's much more nuanced, though no less damning, than the savagely caricatured proselytizers who bamboozle the masses in Dark Heavens. This plays into another of Levy's recurring themes: the unreliability of any official version of reality. It's immediately obvious that the Captain is an untrustworthy narrator. As the reader will discover, a similar untrustworthiness lies at the core of the cultural narratives of both Haven and Haze, whose understanding of their own -- and each other's -- histories is as deeply, and as deliberately, distorted as the Captain's beliefs about himself.

All of this is wonderful. Indeed, the first two-thirds of Icarus is as fine as any science fiction I've ever read -- from the suspenseful opening chapters, to the skillful interplay of the multiple storylines, to the complex and sympathetic characters. Toward the end, though, a puzzling change occurs. The novel abandons the rich mix of gripping incident, fascinating world building, and acute psychology that has driven it thus far, and becomes a fairly straightforward action tale. Not only is this not nearly as interesting as what has gone before, it feels sketchy, as if the author were rushing to get the novel over, or laying down the bones of something he intended to flesh out later on. The mysteries that have arisen over the course of the story are resolved with breathtaking speed; characters' agonizing dilemmas, carefully built up over nearly three hundred pages, are disposed of in a few sentences. The plot turn on which the characters' fate ultimately depends seems contrived -- not because it's implausible, but because it hasn't been sufficiently foreshadowed to feel like anything but a deus ex machina when it arrives. Given the complexity of Levy's setup, the enormous number of threads to be tied up and character arcs to be resolved, it's possible that no conclusion would have been entirely satisfactory. But Icarus deserved better than it got.

Levy is a writer of great talent and originality. Flaws and all, there is much in Icarus to admire. Read it for that -- and, perhaps, to figure out what went wrong at the end.

Copyright © 2006 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Awakened City, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.


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