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Lightless

Author: C. A. Higgins

Genre: hard SF, space, AI

Length: 304 pages

Available: Goodreads

Publisher: Del Rey (2015)

MY RATING: 4.5 stars

*NOTE 1: this review is based on the pre-publication electronic Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley*

*NOTE 2: I briefly discussed this book previously on the blog. I am happy to be able to review it in full in this post.*

In the dark vacuum between worlds, the experimental spacecraft Ananke makes for her destination beyond Pluto. Her crew of three–Captain Domitian, physicist Gagnon, and engineer Althea–run a variety of experiments while testing the miniature black hole that is her pulsing heart. They serve the System, the authoritarian government that spans the whole of the solar system, keeping humanity on one tight leash, for the benefit of Earth. The author keeps readers focused on the Ananke and the humans who dwell within her steel and carbon body while revealing slowly and deliberately what life is like in the System at large.

The arrival of two intruders, Matthew Gale and Leontios Ivanov (Mattie and Ivan), inserts chaos into the crew’s well-ordered routine. Mattie flees in an unpowered escape pod, while Ivan remains a captive. A System intelligence officer, Ida Stays, arrives to interrogate Ivan while the ship begins to malfunction in a variety of seemingly random ways. The small, enclosed world of the ship is thereby disrupted as Althea struggles to fix her ship and Ida interrogates Ivan to discover what he knows about a terrorist group that intends to destroy the System.

The plot slowly unwinds, the author providing readers with the details of what is going on in her POV characters’ flow of consciousness and dialogue, all of it progressing very naturally and gradually building suspense. A substantial part of the book is Ivan telling stories about the people he knows and Ida following up with questions, as she tries to put things together. Althea meanwhile tries to unravel what Mattie did to her ship before he escaped.

Their purposes eventually come at odds in interesting and increasingly poignant ways. Ida demands obedience and immediate results, much like the System government. Althea operates much more in the shadows, in the margins. She is also bound to the System, but her main concern is the ship, her creation, that she describes in her POV in organic terms, from the first paragraph. Ida devalues Althea’s work, sneers at her as an insubordinate and incompetent mechanic who cannot see the big picture. (Telling perhaps is that Althea is referred to by her first name, while the rest of the crew is called by their surnames. Ida Sells is “Miss Sells.” Like everything in this book, I assume that the author is doing this deliberately and with careful calculation.)

The two men on the crew are determined to carry on the mission as much as Althea but bend to Ida’s will, each in their own way. Domitian is a career military man compelled to carry out orders. We never get into his head, but it’s clear he recognizes that Ida is a force well beyond his control, the better to do as she asks and so get her off his ship all the faster. The plot picks up considerably in the last quarter of the book as all the pieces that Mattie, Ivan, and Ida (and the author of course) come into play.

The book deals with weighty issues–freedom and all its opposites (tyranny, oppression, obedience); surveillance–the System has cameras everywhere, records everything–and how to get around it; and what is life, starting with Althea’s conception of her ship as alive and then developing in interesting ways. Like all good science fiction, Lightless challenges the readers’ preconceptions, opens up questions that though posed in the future are all about the present.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy science fiction, in particular space-based hard SF (in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke), discussions of artificial intelligence, and the future of humanity. It is at the same time a police procedural, told from the point of view of a cruel, cold government agent who matches wits easily with her subject. The book is also noteworthy, among other things, for only having female POVs. Ida is a ruthless woman who has risen through the ranks of her society; Althea is a female engineer (and as is revealed a woman of color) who decides what matters, where her priorities are.

Lightless is well worth a look if hard SF, unreliable narrators, and mysteries appeal to you. The mostly self-contained world of Ananke was at first a startling contrast to the sweeping landscapes and enormous casts that seem to dominate science fiction and fantasy stories at present. I recommend it as well if you like small casts of well-drawn characters who must solve big problems. In the end the book reminds me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein meets Firefly (in particular the last episode, “Objects in Space”). I look forward to a sequel, if that’s in the cards.

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