Icarus by Roger Levy
Reviewed by Paul Raven
Gollancz, London, 2006, 432pp, £12.99, t/p, ISBN 0-575-07860-X
Haven is a barren world, its surface scoured by ferocious winds. The human colony it holds has burrowed into the rock of the planet – years of desperate effort to stay alive have rendered their origins all but forgotten. What remains is held in the Vault, rigidly mediated by the Directorate of Fact. Storytelling is forbidden, as is the speaking of 'unFact'. When two survey-drillers discover a vessel buried in a sea of solidified magma, far out beyond the boundaries of the colony, Fact moves to conceal the evidence that it contains. One of the Surveyors, Quill, manages to escape alive with some mysterious artefacts and a whole lot of questions. He is a wanted man, on the run and in search of the truth.
Haze, by contrast, is a lush jungle world. But life there is scarcely more idyllic than on Haven – the forest holds villages of subsistence-farming peasants, living in thrall to the ruling caste of Lords who inhabit the AngWat temple-compound. Personal possessions are forbidden – the villagers are not even allowed to refer to children as being 'theirs'. Dissent against the rule of the Lords is anathema, but war between the villages is carefully engineered and encouraged. Petey's son Marten is taken to the AngWat by the Lords, as children sometimes are. A series of accidents and mishaps results in her turning outlaw, never to return to her village as she tries to uncover the mysteries that lay within the restricted compound.
The story of how these two worlds came to be centres on The Captain, and runs as a first-person retrospective narrative stitched between the action on Haven and Haze. Cap, as his associates call him, was a televangelist faith-healer on a near-future Earth, and his solipsistic history slowly fills the gaps as the book progresses. This demonstrates Levy's extraordinary skill with character, the first-person perspective means that we can only judge Cap by what he has to say about his own actions. At first, he seems like a fairly decent guy who is redeeming a childhood of abuse. But as his thread lengthens, and his interactions with the politics of a dying Earth are revealed, it becomes increasingly obvious that he is a monomaniacal sociopath of the highest order – a cunning, driven man with the charm and ruthlessness of a cobra. He stops at nothing to see his vision fulfilled – a vision that leads to Haven and Haze.
The core theme of Icarus is the concept of history, and also the mutable and viral nature of truth. The characters all have dark secrets and real human flaws – there are no paragons among them, and this makes it easier to sympathise with their often desperate actions. The echoes of Orwellian dystopia resonate with today's world of governmental deceit and doublespeak, but have a timeless lesson as their axis. In the societies portrayed and in the writing itself, certainty is a fleeting thing, all the more precious for its scarcity. Near the end of the book, Marten experiences this in a revelatory moment; "Memory and knowledge were two different things, he realised, and neither was necessarily the truth." (p408) Perspective is everything, and judgements made in a vacuum of information are frequently revealed to be dangerously false. The truth must be mined, dug out from its grave of lies and obfuscation.
Icarus is a labyrinthine novel. Levy's measured pace of plot leaves the reader constantly yearning for the characters to unearth the next piece of the puzzle, as the story smoothly crescendos towards its climax. In some respects, this may be the book's only failing point – the perpetual demands it makes of the reader are a facet of modern sf that is much bemoaned by those who yearn for a simple all-action adventure story. Levy, perhaps, is an 'sf writer's sf writer' – a man unafraid to demonstrate his command of the genre's architecture at the risk of alienating its more pedestrian fans. However, readers who revel in the slow denouement of a story, and who hunger for depth of theme and character in the books they read, will find Icarus to be profoundly rewarding of their effort.
This article first appeared in Vector 250. Back issues of Vector are available from