Heaven's Shadow is the brainwave of a couple of Hollywood A-listers. David S. Goyer co-wrote such blockbusters as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and is one of those we have to either thank or blame for the Blade franchise. He also scripted a favorite of mine, Dark City, and gave us the adaptation of Steven Gould's Jumper. Michael Cassutt has extensive TV credits including Stargate SG-1, Farscape, Max Headroom and The Twilight Zone (the 80's reboot, not, as the promo material states, the "classic"). Of the two, he seems to have the better background in space science. Their plans here are ambitious: an SF adventure trilogy to be simultaneously developed for the movies. Warner Bros. is supposed to release the Goyer-directed film of this book in the summer of 2012, though in Hollywood, plans change and collapse all the time and the only certainty is that nothing is certain.
If Heaven's Shadow does make it before the cameras, it will likely fare better as a summer Hollywood popcorn movie than as a novel. In the theater, less-demanding audiences out for nine bucks worth of escapism will be less likely to mind the improbabilities of the story and the wafer-thin characters. As a novel, its clean, screenplay-inspired narrative efficiency — in which you only get as much character development as you need to make sure everyone's roles are established, and the emphasis is on getting to the action as quickly as possible — makes for a brisk and engrossing read, but an inescapably shallow one. It isn't bad, but it won't stay with you, let alone go down as "the science fiction event of our time."
So it's 2019, and two competing space missions, one by NASA and the other by an Indian-Russian-Brazilian alliance, are racing to land on a Near Earth Object named Keanu (yes, after the actor, because it's a "NEO" — the one industry in-joke the writers allow themselves) that is approaching our planet from the vast intergalactic beyond. Once both craft have touched down, it becomes evident that Keanu is not a natural object, but a vessel. This fact surprises them, if not us. Discovering a way into its interior, our stalwart astronaut teams learn that Keanu is the product of an alien race so insanely advanced that — well, there is a surprise here that I will not spoil, even though every other review of this book you will read is almost certain to. (Publishers Weekly has.) Events quickly go from strange to catastrophic as both the teams exploring the eerie vessel and the harried ground crews do their best to figure out exactly what it is these aliens — whom we learn are called the Architects, because that's the kind of cool name ineffable and mysterious aliens ought to be called — are after from humanity.
Given their advancement, what they're after makes not a whole lot of sense. Again, doing my level best to avoid spoilers, I find that when I'm confronted with a story whose main conceit is that beings so far beyond us as to be almost gods desperately need our help, the logic escapes me. If a problem is too profound for them to solve, why should they expect us shaved apes to do any better? It escapes our protagonist, mission commander Zack Stewart, as well, but I will allow that there is perhaps some excellent reason for it, as we have two more books to go.
Goyer's suspense chops, honed over 20 years of screenwriting, bring the book several entertainingly tense scenes that are certain to play well onscreen. Character development is perfunctory. In screenwriting fashion, everyone gets readily identifiable traits the audience can check off with little effort. Stewart lost his wife Megan prior to the mission. His daughter Rachel waits breathlessly at Mission Control under the watchful eye of family friend Harley Drake, paralyzed in the accident that killed Megan. Astronaut Yvonne Hall has issues with her cold and distant father, JSC director Gabriel Jones. Cocky Brazilian flyboy Lucas Munaretto thinks of himself as the World's Greatest Astronaut, only to find himself in way over his head when confronted with scary alien wonders. And NASA is staffed by a bunch of harried folks who wring their hands to varying degrees but are more or less interchangable as people.
This may get the job done at a superficial level. But as veterans like Goyer and Cassutt doubtless know, one crucial element in strong character development is the arc, in which adversity is used to make your protagonists change and grow. And there is little to none of that here. I mean, there's adversity plenty, but to our characters, it achieves little but to position them for whatever the sequels have in store. And while the pacing of Heaven's Shadow certainly never flags as it races toward its climax, it's hard to feel any degree of personal investment in a story that feels more and more like an exercise with every crisp page. Like 2001 or Rendezvous with Rama without the substance or sense of wonder, Heaven's Shadow, while not lacking for escapist thrills, is nonetheless a shadow of what it could have been.