Sci-fi novels: set in space, battling aliens, distant planets and featuring a plucky crew of either misfits or jobsworths, yes? Think again…
RB Kelly’s debut evolves around the fate of two people drawn to each other in a time of crisis. It’s a classic tale of boy-meets-girl, love across the barricade, but with enough twists to give the story a refreshing context, one that adds extra levels of jeopardy. Boston Turrow is a janitor working for the city, whose daily work allows him to bear witness to the continual decay of the distinct he lives in. His work is based in a computerised equivalent of a large housing executive office, where daily call waiting queues can spiral above 1000. Danae Grant is a waitress, facing skid row but determined to survive. Both have family members who are ill, and both dream of a better future.
300 miles away, a dog walker discovers a badly decomposed corpse. The fate of dog walker, and the subsequent investigation into what exactly killed the anonymous body, quickly builds into severe ramifications for Danae and Grant, as well as the city.
So far, the story could be seen as a type of dystopian version of Camus’s ‘The Plague’ – a city goes on lockdown, and the focus is on how the people inside survive. However, all of this is set against a backdrop of a world recovering from the aftermath of a technological war. Cleverly told through excerpts of imagined news report transcripts, newspaper reports, academic papers and historical articles inserted between chapters, Kelly gradually unweaves the dark context that the characters, and their city, Creo Basse, live in.
Kelly makes the reader work here, and it is a pursuit that is rewarded fairly. Very little of any history is directly addressed by the characters, because chaos and fallout have become their norm. There are no simple spelling-outs of the facts here: Kelly constantly keeps in mind what her characters already know, and doesn’t compromise their talk or actions in order to gratify the lazy reader (imagine the opposite of a Dan Brown novel). Instead, we get the gradual revealing of a framework, one that runs parallel to hinting at a secret that Danae holds herself.
The realm of Irish science fiction writing is relatively small, even if you add in CS Lewis and Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. But just as Swift’s was a satire on human nature, ‘Edge of Heaven’ is essentially a humanistic novel, with universal concerns. There is a similarity here to how the X-Men series dealt with the very real issues of genocide, eugenics and religious persecution through the idea of the “Mutant Registration Act” and the Days of Future Past story arc (especially the Sentinels). The classic plot of man vs machine is at play here, but the idea of who is good and who is bad is constantly blurred.
At times, the narrative drags, the action stepping away from Danae and Grant to focus on other bit-players, mainly city officials and medical professionals. Kelly wants us to be exposed to the threat of seedy corruption, but it is the scenes that involve the young couple that are the strongest (it’s wouldn’t be a surprise if Kelly’s next work was a romance novel). Passages that deal with family issues and tensions (a sick sister, dying or dead relatives) are also notably for their tenderness and sense of reality. On the other side of the emotional scale, Kelly very effectively maps out some great fight scenes, guiding us step by step throughout the action without relenting on the pace or ferocity of the scene (Kelly is also a film reviewer, and would make a good fight choreographer for an action movie).
Overall, this is a novel that will have you rooting for the characters right til the end, but one that takes a while for the action and tension to really rack up. Some of the actually ‘science’ behind the fiction can be bewildering in its explanation, but is obviously well researched. It’s really up to the reader whether they want a love story or a good old sci-fi romp.
‘Edge of Heaven’ is published by Liberties Press, ISBN 9781910742464