Tor UK / Macmillan
UK Trade paperback First Edition
Publication Date: 09-03-2004
392 Pages; £10.99
Date Reviewed: 08-24-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004
Sure, we all start with the stone tablets. Then there are the burning bushes, the innumerable books, and who knows what lies in the future? Gods undergo the same kind of technological upgrades as anything else, Gary Gibson suggests in his first novel 'Angel Stations'. Nobody knows what lies in the future so far. But writers can make educated and entertaining guesses. Gibson imbues his high-flying space opera with a combination of grit and a three-dimensional vision not common enough in the burgeoning world of space adventures. But his novel unfolds with a peculiar and ultimately winning strategy. Written as a fast-paced tale of humanity loose among the stars, 'Angel Stations' nonetheless gives up its secrets slowly, deliberately. Well past the point where readers expect to know all the ground rules and be immersed in a tense chase towards the conclusion, Gibson is still doling out content from his stone tablets. We're propelled forward not only by our desire to know what will happen. We want to find out exactly what has happened and is happening.
'Angel Stations' plays out in a widescreen presentation. As the novel opens, humanity has long ago discovered the remains of an ancient civilization that spread throughout the galaxy. Called "Angels" by their discoverers, they left a network of fully functional space stations behind, each built around a singularity that enables instantaneous travel from one to the other. Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy using this technology, and discovered only one other civilization. The lupine inhabitants of Kaspar are off-limits though. They're still in the medieval stages of development. Travel to the planet is proscribed, with the exception of one remote area where the Angels left an enormous complex buried under the ice. Researchers in the caves excavate Angel technology and try to make it useful to humans.
On Earth, Elias is a dealer in information and stolen technology. He's been changed by experiments with Angel-modified DNA. He has visions of ghosts, and powers he barely comprehends. Kim is the pilot of one of the small mobile ships called Goblins. She once led an expedition in the Angel complex on Kaspar, but it ended in disgrace. She consumes the memories of her deceased lover with the aid of Angel technology. Ursu is a priest-acolyte in the city of Nubala. He's been granted a vision by his god Shecumpeh. But his god has asked him to perform a task that itself is the highest heresy.
These characters form the core of 'Angel Stations', but Gibson adds many, many more. Well past the point when authors typically refrain from introducing new characters and new plot twists, Gibson is methodically adding them in. That said, Gibson's characters are all quite clearly delineated, presented and conceived, no matter how small the part they play. And though humanity has thrived enough to spread out across the galaxy -- with the help of Angel technology -- it hasn't gotten beyond leaving individual humans in circumstances that break their hearts and their minds. Gibson's characters all seem particularly human even to his present-day readers. He offers a number of nice touches to complicate matters in a pleasantly unpleasant fashion.
But Gibson is writing a science fiction novel, and these convoluted lives are sometimes complicated by the technology that the Angels so conveniently left strewn about. So, as the characters are revealed by their flaws, sometimes these flaws are the result of Gibson's Angel technology, and sometimes the result of advances humanity has made under its own power. This adds up the kind of culture-shock that science fiction readers are wont to enjoy greatly.
Gibson's alien culture seems a bit sketchy at first. But that's because, like everything else in this novel, he's letting it unfold over the not-so-long haul. 'Angel Stations' is after all, not quite four hundred pages. But as Gibson plunges us into the world of the Kasparans, readers will find a fully developed set of aliens, with some fascinating touches. They'll also find aliens that are at least familiar enough so they can become fully-realized characters.
Gibson doesn't just create a universe and let the reader tool about in it. There's a threat about that affects all the characters. But this writer creates tension and forward reading momentum not only with plot, but by virtue of the method and speed at which he's chosen to reveal the details of his universe. 'Angel Stations' is in a sense a very large mystery, and readers will have just as much fun finding the anthropological and scientific clues as they will following the chase of a clever adversary.
As 'Angel Stations' unfolds at both a break-neck and leisurely pace, readers will enjoy a number of thrills, and foremost amongst them is finding out precisely what science fictional ideas lie at the core of this intriguing novel. That's because Gibson's not only introducing new characters, he's introducing new ideas, or rather revealing them, bringing them from behind the veil of hints into a foreground of fascinating speculation. Suffice it to say that 'Angel Stations' proves not to be about what you might think it is about. Well, it is about that, but there's a lot more going on in this dense narrative than readers will expect.
'Angel Stations' is dense and involving, puzzling and perplexing. It's unabashed science fiction, with an almost "Golden Age" feel to it, but a very modern density, the culture-shock that makes science fiction so enjoyable. It does require a soupcon of patience, but that patience is rewarded with surprise after surprise, amongst them, surprising sympathy for and understanding of a large cast of characters, not all of them human. Yes, Gibson does ignore advice from the original stone tablets handed down by the publishing deities. Readers will feel themselves fortunate to reap the rewards of Gibson's acts of literary heresy.