Paul Di Filippo reviews The Rig by Roger Levy
The Rig, by Roger Levy (Titan 978-1785655630, $14.95, 617pp, trade paperback) May 2018
In the period from 2000 to 2006, Roger Levy gave the world three novels: Reckless Sleep, Dark Heavens and Icarus. I recall receiving review copies and making a mental note that these books seemed several cuts above the average, and I should pay attention to them. But of course, due to the constant, overwhelming influx of good books and the slim odds for reviewing any particular one, I never did. Then his byline faded from my memory due to twelve years of authorial silence. But with the arrival of his fourth book after the long interregnum, I am making the effort to turn my eye towards his work. After all, I still have those first three books, as alluring as if new, waiting for me after I finish The Rig.
Having made this bold and selfish/selfless critical move, I am delighted to report that The Rig is an outstanding SF novel, rich in ideation, emotion, suspense and speculation. It’s the kind of space opera–if I may stretch the category that far–which does not focus on giant galactic empires and battles, royalty and rebels, but rather on the mechanics of interstellar civilization, if you take my meaning. (And although the action here is limited to but a single solar system, the myriad variegated planets therein furnish a capacious and extensive milieu.) If I were to cite Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Laumer & Brown’s Earthblood, and Delany’s Nova and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, I think you’ll apprehend what the book encompasses: a true sense of the “quotidian future,” if you will. I would also rope in Bester’s The Stars My Destination, for a certain bravura tone and the shared themes of revenge, wealth and destiny. Levy’s book can hold its own with all these illustrious predecessors.
Let me synopsize the backstory in ridiculously reductionist fashion, while reminding you that all this info is conveyed by Levy with grace and elegance in sly tidbits.
Earth and the rest of the home solar system is empty of humanity, due to some unspecified catastrophe. But before that time, humans discovered another sun with “seven major planets and few minor ones….” Colonists in suspension (rigor vitae, just one of the many fab neologisms and repurposed words that Levy juicily deploys) traveled there at sublight speeds en masse. “Each bloc took one or two of the main planets, Heartsease, Spindrift, Magnificence, and the twin-mooned Vegaschrist…” Our main story venues will be three: the world of Gehenna, dominated by religious fundamentalists. The world of Bleak, dominated by the titular rigs, gigantic platforms and mechanisms that extract the valuable molten core-stuff of the planet. And the tiny world called Peco, dominated by the crimelord Ethan Drame. Additionally in the background lurks a sealed-off enigma world christened “the unsaid planet.”
The narrative proceeds along two tracks. We start on Gehenna with our main protagonist, Alef. He seems to be a simple lad, but with unusual talents. He is a rare blend of Asperger’s-style savant and empath. His two halves are in constant tension. He knows nothing of civilization save the teachings of his church. Then arrives an immigrant fellow his own age, Pellonhorc, and the boy’s mother. Pellonhorc is a budding sociopath who won’t talk of his past. He and Alef bond along unlikely axes of friendship and support and dominance/submission.
Meanwhile, on the world Bleak, we encounter Bale, a cop for the System-wide agency Pax, and Razer, a writer for the online service TruTales, where the product is inspirational real-life biographies. (This future internet is dubbed the Song.) Once lovers, Bale and Razer are now just friends. But when Bale is nearly murdered while pursuing a serial killer, Razer becomes more deeply involved with helping him recover his health and with his continuing probing into what is deemed, by suspicious management fiat, a closed case. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence behind the killings, and implicated in the mystery is the last victim, Tallen, who also barely survived, and only with heavy-duty cyborg repairs. Tallen has, however, suddenly decided to become a rig operator, isolated on the dangerous seas of Bleak, and is not too handy for questioning.
Meanwhile, on Gehenna, all goes kerflooey for Alef and Pellonhorc. (Minor spoiler here, but it happens around page 100 out of a 600-page book.) We learn that Pellonhorc is the son of crimelord Drame, in hiding on Gehenna, and that Alef’s own Dad works for Drame! And now Drame’s rival, merciless mafioso Spetkin Ligate (love these Vancian cognomens!), knows of Pellonhorc’s whereabouts and is out for familial revenge. Suffice it to say that Alef and Pellonhorc are soon transplanted to Peco, with Drame, and thus begins Alef’s education in the harsh realities of interplanetary existence. Meanwhile, Bale and Razer find themselves tumbling down several rabbit-holes during their investigations. And perhaps Razer is more of a key player than she seems.
This tiny outline barely begins to convey the density and complexity of the tale, with its spicy, propulsive, vivid language. I have not even begun to describe the AfterLife program, which is akin to that famous novum best codified by Greg Egan. All humans are implanted with a neurid, which captures their essences right up to the point of death, allowing for a theoretical reincarnation later. Nor have I discussed such brilliant, almost throwaway ideas as the Chute, an underground labyrinth of winds on Bleak where daring athletes can fly at frightening velocities, always risking instant death. This book is overstuffed with wonders along the lines of a Charles Harness or Peter Hamilton confection.
But the white-hot core of the book is a kind of Jacobean revenge drama played out between Drame and Ligate, along with a metaphysical Faustian quest undertaken by Pellonhorc, for which he brutally enlists Alef and his skills. The emotional wattage of this electrifying melodrama is very intense, especially in the first-person narrative by Alef. The portrait that develops of this almost Ender’s Game-style hero–a youth whose unnatural talents skew his whole life–is highly affecting and accomplished and, ultimately, heart-breaking.
And so this tale rockets along, never predictable (several last-minute revelations pull out all the Van Vogtian stops), always engrossing, a blend of Cordwainer Smith estrangement, Barrington Bayley pure weirdness, and Alejandro Jodorowsky cultural critique. You will want more from Levy at the close of this volume, and be down on your knees praying you don’t have to wait another dozen years!
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