Warner Bros. made a deal with David S. Goyer to write the screenplay for an adaptation of Heaven’s Shadow before the book even hit shelves. The only surprising thing about that is the sheer speed of the deal, since Heaven’s Shadow can only be improved by being brought to the big screen, where the special effects in the action-packed story could go a long way toward making up for the weaknesses of its writing and character development.
A team effort between Goyer (screenwriter of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) and space historian Michael Cassutt, Heaven’s Shadow is the first book in a science-fiction trilogy expected to continue with Heaven’s War in 2012. Drawing heavily on Cassutt’s familiarity with the workings of NASA, Heaven’s Shadow is largely set in 2019, when the approach of a Near-Earth Object dubbed Keanu triggers a new space race as America and a coalition of astronauts from Russia, India, and Brazil send manned ships to explore it. The two teams are quickly forced to cooperate as they discover their landing site isn’t a comet or asteroid, but a massive alien spacecraft.
The fast-paced novel plays out like a horror movie, with the astronauts and cosmonauts facing all the expected perils of space along with unforeseen wonders and nightmares within the spacecraft. The narrative bounces between Keanu and NASA headquarters, where the story is more reminiscent of Apollo 13 as experts at Houston desperately try to deal with a constant stream of problems.
While the descriptions are highly evocative, much of the rest of the book falls flat. There’s a huge cast of characters, but none of them are well-developed. The authors attempt to give depth to the protagonist, Zack Stewart, through his wife’s tragic death and his efforts to balance his obligations to his daughter, his love of exploration, and duty to his team, but all that just makes him feel like a universally beloved hero rather than a real person. While the dialogue is fine, the internal monologue feels like a lazy afterthought. Two different characters are compared to the Sundance Kid because they like to move when they talk, and every international astronaut gets a line about how their English skills start failing under stress. The book is filled with well-worn science-fiction tropes including technology capable of accessing the Akashic Field, bad guys called Reivers, and a super-advanced alien race that’s lost the ability to think creatively and needs primitive humans to help them defeat their enemies. One of the book’s cleverest ideas is the chapter headers, which feature a mix of message-board posts and excerpts from press releases and news reports showing the attempts to cover up what’s going on, and how the information inevitably leaks onto the Internet anyway. Unfortunately, some chapters just start with thematic quotes from Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and other notable authors, interrupting the story-within-a-story with clichés. Heaven’s Shadow is fun, fast summer reading, but it will likely make an even better summer blockbuster.