Book review: The Rig by Roger Levy

(cover image courtesy Titan Books)

There is something utterly beguiling about walking (literally or figuratively) into what feels like nothing and watching it grow and grow until it is most definitely something.

This is true of novels as much as anything, and especially true of Roger’s Levy deceptively simply-titled The Rig, an economically-named book that is far more than it first appears.

The opening chapters aren’t exactly nothing to be fair; the characters are arresting and complex enough that you want to keep reading, and trust me you will keep reading about Alef and Razer whose stories exist in equally-fascinating parallel for much of The Rig, but the narrative feels small, insular and you wonder, at least this reader did, where these compelling characters are going to go.

It’s not that there isn’t possibility; far from it, both Alef, a proto-teenager on a backwater fundamentally-religious planet known as Gehenna and Razer, who earns a living writing high-rating stories for TruTales, a ParaSite of the System-uniting AfterLife phenomenon (like a social media platform but on steroids) have all the makings of characters who will bust through narrative walls and go somewhere.

Somewhere big, interesting and compelling.

The worldbuilding too is promising from the word go – we are introduced to the Upper Worlds, where most of humanity, forced to flee from a rapidly-dying earth have found some measure of home, Gehenna and the unsaid planet, which stands apart in xenophobically-violent isolation (or so it’s believed) and it all feels very real, very possible and very human, with everything scrappy and a little messy and not perfect, just as you’d expect a series of world terraformed in no time flat, with society cobbled together on the run, would be.

“As she listened to people’s lives and composed her stories, Razer often wondered what life might have been like back on Earth, when you could expect to live beyond fifty and to enjoy fair health for much of that time. What would their stories have been? Might they have gussed at such a future as this? The irreversible radiation sicknesses, the autoimmune diseases, the constantly shifting metaviruses, neocancers and reaction-toxicities? The savage mortality and general blight? The simple hardness of everything?

Back on Earth, they had imagined that the future would bring cures for everything, that eventually technology would outstrip nature.

She yawned, sleep at last. How wrong we always were.” (P. 37)

So far, so good – great characters in an environment that offers all kinds of narrative possibilities but you struggle to see where it all go, where these highly disparate characters could end up and how they will sustain a 600 page plus length.

But then, and this is thanks to Levy’s mastery of the slow-burning, compulsively-immersive and character-driven storyline, one which builds unremarkable by unremarkable event (or so they seem at the time) until something wholly dazzling’s big and amazing emerges.

The Rig is thus a delightfully-invigorating surprise – a novel that begins small and intimate, layers itself up until what seemed like the stuff of localised storytelling becomes much bigger, much grander and incredibly tension-filled.

It’s an impressive feat, one that makes you turn page after page with ever greater frequency, eager to see where Alef and Razer, and the ever-evolving cast of characters that fall into and out of their orbit, end up, and what great secret lies behind it all.

It’s impossible to say much more without giving away too much of this Jenga-like plot but suffice to say the payoff is more than worthy of the build-up, a rarity in pop culture of any kind where big, brash scene-setting all too often gives way to some reasonably banal or disappointing climax.

Not with The Rig which starts small, builds big and delivers in spades, a wholly satisfying end-to-end magical piece of storytelling which grabs hold of your heart, seizes your mind and entrances with its willingness to play big and humanly small all at the same time.

Roger Levy (image courtesy Titan Books)

That is the great delight of The Rig.

We are offered an ever-escalating narrative that grows in scope, piece by piece, until we are holding an epic story in our hands; and yet for all its sweeping developments and faster, conspiracy junkies, faster story, it remains very much the story of two people, Alef and Razer who, in their own ways, are looking to make their lives feel like they mean something.

Alef, who is likely on the autism spectrum like his father and gifted with computational abilities and a head for strategy that pushes through all kinds of envelopes, simply wants to feel at home again after tragic events rip apart everything he’s ever known.

He is slowly losing the religious fervour that characterises the anti-technology, anti-everything – the internet, which is now known as the Song and spans multiple planets and moons in the System, but he wants to belong, to feel and to love, a set of aspirations that constantly seem to fall prey to circumstances beyond his control, many of which circle around his frenemy Pellonhorc, the son of a newly-arrived neighbouring family on Gehenna who seem to have more than their fair share of secrets.

As he becomes ever more embroiled in these secrets, Alef is forced to make all kinds of deals with a devil he no longer acknowledges as having any veracity, hoping all along that he can pull off one of the greatest feats of holding onto what he values in history.

He is central to the storyline of The Rig and is at the heart of its increasingly epic meanderings, but Levy never lets us forget how much what is happening means to Alef and how much it affects him, always anchoring the story in very grounded, very human motivations.

“‘No,’ she said almost furiously, taking her hand away. Then, her voice settling. ‘No. We must think like this. It’s the cancer/ He’s relying on you. He needs you, Alef.’ She reached forward and kissed me again. ‘He believes in you, and so do I.’

‘I love you,’ I whispered. ‘I won’t lose you.’

She smiled at me, her face radiant, She was like a Gehennan madonna.

‘Then you have to save him, Alef. She leant forward again, kissed me again. ‘If anyone can save him, and save everyone, and save us, you can.” (P. 431)

Razer’s story is a whole other kettle of iridescent fish – read the book and this will make perfect sense – but her story is every bit as compelling.

Drawn into events that escalate from simple story-spinning to something far bigger and far more dangerous to the point where she effectively becomes the story (every journalist’s worst nightmare), she begins to understand that her AI Cynth may not be who or what she thinks it is, that she is more of a pawn than she realised and that she, perhaps, she wants to be connected to something more than she tells herself.

Again, even as Levy masterfully weaves Razer into bigger and bigger narrative eddies and currents, we never lose sight of the person at the heart of the machinations that soon join her and Alef together in ways that will leave you gasping and awash in admiration for a writer whose ability to marry the larger-than-life and the intimately human into one pleasing whole is astounding.

The Rig is everything you could ask for – big, brash and immersive and yet full of the human connection you long for from any book, a space opera that knows going large and staying there is a good thing for any sci-fi epic but that it means nothing if we don’t care who it is we’re there with, if what it’s saying isn’t thoughtful and arrestingly articulated and if the ending doesn’t make sense and resonate with us, even if we are centuries removed from the events taking place.

At the end of the day, we’re looking for a human connection above all, and Levy never loses sight of this over 600-plus pages that will make you wish every space opera could be this good and every person inhabiting it could be human as the emotionally-resonant inhabitants of The Rig.

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