Del Rey (Sept, 2015), Cover by David G. Stevenson
Caitlin A. Higgins’ ‘hard sf’ Lightless (2015) is a solid, first novel that engrosses from the get-go. It balances scientific speculation with developed main characters in a tense, claustrophobic and psychologically thrilling drama. Whilst Higgins covers familiar ground in her exploration of SFnal themes, she does so competently and employs a deliberate pace that, as her ship’s moniker Ananke signifies, moves pitilessly forward to a point of unsettling and violent inevitability.
The future Higgins depicts is a common one in science fiction: humanity spread across the solar system, ships with advanced drives capable of relativistic speeds, and an all-oppressive, all-surveilling authority that rules with a vice-like grip, where dissent is met with the severest of consequences. Yet, the details of this macro-scene are not the prime focus. They drip into the narrative gradually as the plot unfolds within its isolated setting: a sophisticated, experimental and highly secretive research vessel somewhere deep in interplanetary space.
The plot’s impetus is the covert boarding of Ananke by thieves whose attempt to steal sensitive information is arrested through the vigilance of the ship’s skeleton crew: captain, theoretical physicist and computer engineer. Once the thieves’ circumstantial link to a highly dangerous and active terrorist is revealed, a System interrogator is promptly dispatched to suss out any concrete connections so that a suspected, perhaps imminent attack might be averted. There are two layers to the narrative then. One focuses on the interrogation between a highly perceptive investigator and an equally intelligent, charismatic thief. The other deals with the ship’s engineer’s frustrating attempts to undo the chaotic code introduced into Ananke by said thieves-cum-saboteurs.
One of the major motifs that Higgins weaves into her novel deals with the implications of thermodynamics. Like the guaranteed and increasing sway of entropy in isolated systems, the intruders’ incursion, physically and through their code, gradually leads to escalating levels of chaos in Ananke and the interactions of all those aboard her. Higgins adds an ominous, eerie quality through empty corridors and re-occurring system failures. The interrogations are equally foreboding. Ida is highly intelligent and dominates through ever harsher methods to tire and psychologically unbalance her mark whilst Ivanov parries with a seemingly unaffected openness and a sly tongue.
The display of power and domination through Higgins’ interrogation scenes is itself a microcosm of the System and the disproportionate, punitive force it employs in its efforts to exert control. One can’t help but admire Ida and in equal parts despise her, both for her sharp mind and her distasteful exultation in power over others. These sessions gradually shed light on the larger stage, though never more than is necessary for the purposes of their constrained setting. It does, however, add a third, peripheral layer to the narrative. The impression is always of events taking place far away, even with the cognizance of relativistic speeds ferrying people in ‘reasonable’ time frames given interplanetary distances. Yet, events aboard the isolated Ananke are acutely affected by happenings farther in-system.
Higgins juggles between these tense, interrogation scenes and the engineer’s urgent efforts to correct the failings of her beloved ship and limited AI. The descriptions of Althea’s problem-solving processes feel realistically grounded but don’t overwhelm with unnecessary detail. Even the growing ‘conflict of wills’ between Althea and Ananke mirrors and reinforces the psychological battles being fought elsewhere. Higgins allows the stress of these over-lapping circumstances to touch all characters and unravel raw, emotional baggage to varying degrees. Handled well is how the cumulative effect reveals weaknesses in all three central characters. Whilst they initially start out confident in their respective capacities, they each succumb to vulnerability or despair in their own particular ways. Higgins drags her characters through ethically muddy ground with a strong undertone of paranoid distrust, and you’re never quite certain where sympathies should be directed, if anywhere. Details concerning overall plot are sparser than they could be, but the focus is instead directed towards the interaction of fallible and, ultimately, unlikeable characters. And whilst both plot-lines are fascinating, Ida’s and Ivanov’s interrogation scenes definitely steal the show for most of the novel. The combination of their unpleasant charisma, sociopathy and manipulation propels the narrative, and the effect spills over to infuse the rest of the story.
Against a gradually revealed backdrop of terrorism and scientific mystery, Higgins ties together themes of dangerous political idealism and oppressive, authoritarian governments in a limited, more personal context. She’s able to craft a streamlined tale with Lightless that speaks of the abuses of power yet one that does so without feeling too heavy-handed. Higgins uses an underlying scientific premise as a metaphor to break down that power structure, both in her appealingly claustrophobic, oppressive setting of a ship going ‘mad’, and the grander events that parallel the growing entropy of her isolated vessel. The apprehensive build-up of the mystery surrounding Ananke and the revelations gleaned through interrogation ultimately converge to explode with an unexpected and brutal finality, setting the stage for what should be a more expansive sequel.
© 2016 Nirvan Jain
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.