If I was given a nickel for every dystopian novel set in an embittered, nihilistic future that I’ve plowed through over the past five years, I’m pretty sure that by now I’d at least have made enough to plunk down the deposit for an eerily human-like android that would cure me of all disease, gun down my enemies and never once crack a yolk while cooking a proper morning breakfast. Oh wait, they haven’t quite invented those yet. Well fair enough, I’m short a few nickels of a roll anyway.
The Irish author R B Kelly’s The Edge of Heaven, (Liberties) as you might guess, is one of that genre. For those who like a quick summary, well you’ve come to the wrong place, for this is an excellent 300 page novel stretched over 432 pages. There are long novels that slip by as quickly as a sweet summer’s romance; whereas there are others that feel like a very long walk up a steady incline. My the scenery is lovely, but why are my legs getting so tired?
Do you want to know why or how a novel can drag, even when the writing is excellent on a sentence-by-sentence basis, and the story itself is gripping? Here’s how. During a scene about two-thirds of the way through The Edge of Heaven, the whole pace of the novel calls time-out for this:
There were two empty chairs, one on either side of Corscadden, and Hadaway’s selection of one over the other would almost certainly reveal something interesting to his host that Hadaway would almost certainly prefer him not to know. Moreover, there was probably no way to mitigate against this, and any attempt to do so would undoubtedly make things worse. In the end, he chose the one on the left, because it put the glare at his back and would make it slightly less comfortable for Corscadden to watch his face as they conducted their conversation, but, Hadway thought as he lowered himself into his seat, the chances were not high thar Corscadden would see it that way. Certainly his smile was suspiciously bland.
Or, you know, as some hack like Ernest Hemingway might have put it, Hadaway sat down. Now that’s not entirely fair of me, for The Edge of Heaven exists within a paranoid world of suspicion and danger; hence even the choice of a chair can further compress the walls around the claustrophobe. But when this self-same scene wanders along for a further three and a half pages before any plot-moving point is made, well all I can say is that Earth’s future may be great or it may be dire, but dear God if there is any mercy let red pencils and strike-throughs still exist.
Now it is in no way like me to lead with a negative, but in the case of The Edge of Heaven I have to for I came closer to giving up on this novel than any I can recall. For all Kelly’s eloquence – and she is eloquent and stylish and all those other good things – her novel moved forward about as well as a bad-tempered mule on a hard scrabble road. I actually marked the point where I felt the plot truly began. That was on page 207. This is not a good sign.
However, from there the road clears, the slope vanishes, the near-endless diversions into the precise qualities of the rain and dust of the imagined Creo city are less obtrusive, and Kelly’s story becomes absorbing. I don’t blame the author; but I’d like to horsewhip her editor.
There are themes that I love in The Edge of Heaven for when it gets to them, this novel exists in the same allegorical construct reflecting our present time that is the secret of all great science-fiction. (Please don’t quibble on definitions. To me, if it’s set in the future and has technologies we don’t have at present, it’s sci-fi. Argue with someone who cares, okay?) Set in the early 22nd century, The Edge of Heaven sees an Earth where essentially sentient androids, here called a-nauts, were developed and enhanced with organic material. This, in a development unexpected by the manufacturers, led these a-nauts to rebel against their de facto slavery, causing violence, causing paranoia, causing a multiple division of society. Kelly fills in the details between our time and her imagined future time with end-of-chapter ‘clippings’ that describe the a-naut rebellion and society’s reaction in the year 2077.
In some ways, and groan if you must, The Edge of Heaven greatly reminds me of “The Measure of A Man,” one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This novel and that episode both concern themselves with the question of what is or isn’t a “life form.” Metaphorically, if your laptop crashes you can toss it in a recycle bin; but what do you do if it says, “Oww”?
The sentient a-nauts merge themselves even more completely with humans, resulting in something called the Progeny, literally children of androids and humans. Because I respect authors and readers alike, I will not go further in describing the plot as that would give away far, far too much. However, do bear in mind that any time we mass-classify a group as immigrants, Muslims, Jews, blacks or whatever, we subsume the individual to a genetic or cultural coding that the specific individual did not choose.
This is what I love about R B Kelly’s writing, and no matter what you think from my introduction, I actually do love it. It is the cagey, virtually Platonic game of logic that she plays against the reader that I admire. If you have a prejudice – and darling, I’m rather sure you do, even if you won’t admit it – against a color, race or group; well, I shall never win the argument or convince you otherwise by arguing the merits of that color, race or group. Your mind is made up, questioning its conclusions is to question its quality, and who amongst us wants that?
But. (Ah and this an important “but”.) If a writer of daring and deft characterization can make you feel, even for a moment, an empathy with a character who is the victim of paranoia, of a wrongly aimed group-think, then you just might change those prejudiced conclusions all by yourself. Where rhetoric fails, novelists can succeed.
The Edge of Heaven is flawed by its laggard pace; I cannot pretend otherwise. Yet if it is the evidence of its author’s skill as well as its author’s morals, I can hardly wait for what comes next. Give R B Kelly a read, even if you skim through dozens of pages. She’s worth it. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.