What happens to us in the afterlife is one of the oldest and most-trodden paths in science fiction, dating back to at least Dante. Author and podcaster Mur Lafferty provides a new take on the subject in Heaven, a series of audio books about the adventures of two friends after their deaths, by the author, and available through the author's web site. The series is now up to four “seasons,” entitled “Heaven,” “Hell,” “Earth,” and “Wasteland,” with a fifth and final one to come.
In the first installment, we meet Kate (who narrates most of the action) and Daniel, two young friends who are on their way to getting themselves killed in a car crash. Kate wakes to find herself in heaven, where Daniel declares his love for her (she had always been in not-so-secret love with him) and the two live happily forever after…until she discovers that this version of Daniel is a fake, cooked up by the Almighty to make her happy. She meets the real thing – although one has to wonder, given the shifting nature of reality in this highly metaphysical afterlife – and the two of them head out from the Christian heaven for a journey through various other heavens. Along the way, the pair get Armageddon started, and Kate has amazing sex with a god.
“Hell” finds the twosome venturing through the pan-religious underworlds, searching for the deity responsible for stealing souls fated for other destinations, and learning to use their new powers. After Armageddon, they find themselves separated, and responsible for rebuilding, which is the subject of “Earth.” Things don’t go so well, which leads the story to “Wasteland,” and the pair’s search for answers, including the whereabouts of all the old gods.
Nothing in the first three seasons was particularly Steampunky, but – I hope you knew I’d get this on topic at some point – things take a very Steampunk right-hand turn midway through the fourth season. Kate and Daniel, having created a third Earth (don’t ask what happened to number two), travel through it and see what their creations are up to. They wipe out one city because the priesthood has made a sham of the “true” religion of Daniel, so they…take to the sky in an airship! From then on, it’s Steampunk central, complete with airships (and an airship battle!), mooring ropes, a city in the sky, weird inventors, brass goggles, mysterious energy sources, and “improbability storms.”
The whole series is highly entertaining, in a 1950s Saturday matinee serial kind of way. Breathless plot twists, cliffhanger endings (each season consists of 10 to 12 episodes, generally between 10 and 20 minutes long), sprinkled with liberal doses of humor. Mur Lafferty has a terrific reading style and voice, filled with changes in tone and inflection, crisp but never rushed. Even the occasional flubbed line comes out sounding a little endearing. It’s great fun to see the two well-intentioned but bumbling mortals become gods and learn how to use their powers.
Now for the bad news: the writing is a little clunky in places (yes, pot calling the kettle black). I lost track of the number of times Kate shouted, “Jesus, Daniel!” or “S**t, Daniel!” as he screwed up one thing after another. (Oddly, in the first season, he was the cool one who had greater knowledge of the overall plan than she had. After that, he became the comic sidekick.) I’m far from clear on the relationship between the various heavens, hells, and wastelands – perhaps some of this will be resolved in the end, perhaps I was paying too little attention as the details unfolded, and perhaps the story never gets there. More problematic is that the plot is filled to the brim with deus ex machina twists, generally involving gods invoking god-like powers to get out of trouble. Some of these are surely deliberate plot devices – for example, in “Heaven,” Kate has a backpack from which she continually finds useful objects, until she finally realizes that, as a god, she can create what she needs for the situation – but others feel as though they arose because the chapter needed to come to an end quickly. Fantasy fiction can survive any number of super powers, but those powers have to be articulated, and their limitations noted, early on, before the climax of the story. Otherwise, one wonders why any dramatic tension exists: just let the super power instantly make everything fine. End of story, cut to the kissing in the final reel.
Still, I enjoyed the journey, and look forward to the last part. I can’t recall where I heard about the books, but I’m glad I did.