Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Iovino, Skybound (2021)

Lou Iovino, Skybound. LAB Press, 2021. Pp. 304. ISBN 978-1-7371-7460-8. $15.99.

Reviewed by Don Riggs

Lou Iovino’s Skybound is a real page-turner. The chapters are short, often end on cliffhangers, and shift back and forth among a handful of subplots. The often breathless pace of the plot is appropriate for the rapid unfolding of dire events in an apocalyptic scenario, matching form to function. To call Skybound a promising first novel is not to give it a backhanded criticism; it is to welcome a new speculative fiction writer into the field with anticipation of more to come.
The novel starts on the International Space Station, where there are three astronauts—or two astronauts and one cosmonaut, since one of them is Russian. However, the focus of the very first scene is on an experiment that one of them is conducting on the initial development of a plant beyond Earth’s atmosphere, where the initial growth of roots is oriented toward the earth, indicating that geotropism holds even in distant orbit around our planet. What this does is emphasize that Earth is our home, and should be the central focus of our concerns; what plant life knows instinctively, we humans must be aware of consciously.

When the crew of the International Space Station sees a large unidentified object blocking their view of the Earth, they swerve out of its way and try to land on their home planet, and find that there are extreme disruptions in the wind, electronics, and the Earth’s rotation, making it unexpectedly difficult and dangerous to land. Two of the three crew members are killed at some point in the reentry and landing process; the one survivor, Yanez Prescott, grabs the hard drive of data collected by the crew of the ISS and determines to get that information to some authorities to help with the process of dealing with this unexplained intrusion into planetary stability. People on the earth realize that their planet has stopped spinning, with a number of environmental cataclysms such as floods, rising sea levels, and seismic disturbances.

However, rather than have all life planetside being thrown off their feet and blown away with the mighty winds, as in H.G. Wells’ 1898 story “The Man Who Could Work Miracles,” Iovino’s narrator explains why none of these fictional events are taking place, although there is no extensive infodump as to why not. The narrator simply dismisses these possible reactions to the rotation stopping without going into depth as to the geophysics involved. In fact, there is no explanation of what the alien vessel—if that’s what it is—might be, or why it has stopped the earth’s spinning, if it has, what it wants, how it works, or any other questions that may be raised in the characters’ or readers’ minds.

Day is permanent, as is night, as it is on the planet Mercury. The communications grid is down, except for a few chance exceptions, so the governmental structures must struggle to establish contact within and among each other to figure out what is going on and then how to respond to it. One brother and sister, Michael and Noel, who have taken complementary career paths—he is a Roman Catholic priest, she has gone into the STEM field with a focus on communications—develop different approaches to the overall situation, and this conflict results in a sibling tension and larger real-world implications. Noel enters their fathers’ radio tower and gets it back in working order, while Michael has a vision of God’s purpose for the last days as they—in his view—unfold. The congregation of his church, St. Anne’s, in the small town of Franklin, Colorado, swells to follow and be inspired by him, with unsurprising results such as happen with extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds.

The plot moves the various characters over the earth from the United States to various European countries, with a major international conference in Moscow and radio communications from Latin America. One location that I had never known was a real place is the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado; this is where the President of the United States takes her final position with her staff in the novel, but there is an actual complex created by NORAD that seems to have formed the basis for the structure described in Skybound.

There are car crashes, fistfights, explosions, gas fires, earthquakes, and thick clouds of onrushing flocks of birds—one of the characters refers to Hitchcock in reference to this last. Human beings’ misunderstandings and struggles with each other are shown to be major impediments to overcoming and even understanding the major crisis the alien entity poses the human community, with masses of people panicking in response to the unknown. Sometimes these are revealed in instances of personal trauma or tragedy, at other times a crowd will create its own dynamics and wreak havoc on the part of the collective unconscious. Ultimately, the focus is on Michael and Noel, brother and sister, and their lives as they have been transformed by the mysterious entity and its transit through our space and time. The threat is finally driven from the Earth, but it is no Hollywood ending, although there is a sense of closure. Iovino’s plot may have earned him the privilege of an illogically sweet finale, but he does not stoop to that temptation.

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