Like The London Project, this is a crime story with female protagonist in a total surveillance society.
I’m not doing a theme. The gods of Amazon Vine demanded a prompt review of this one.
Review: Lightless, C. A. Higgins, 2015.
Things are claustrophobic in the Solar System of a few centuries hence.
There’s room, plenty of room. Man lives on Earth, Luna, Mars and various planetoids and moons.
People used to live on Saturn’s moons too – before they rebelled against the System, and it killed them all.
Rebellion persists, though, in a shadowy figure, the Mallt-y-Nos, and her organization.
When stowaways Leontios Ivanov and Mattie Gale are captured aboard the System’s supersecret spaceship the Ananke, System security agent Ida Stays is sent aboard to interrogate Ivanov. She is convinced he knows who Mallt-y-Nos is.
The best part of the story is Higgins skillfully filling in the backstory mostly through those interrogation sessions.
She restricts herself, for most of the book, to three viewpoint characters: Ida, Ivanov, and the story’s heroine, engineer and computer scientist Althea Bastet.
There is a claustrophobic feel to the story because we never leave the Ananke and because the characters are always cautious about the emotions and thoughts they express because, like everywhere else humans live in the Solar System, they are watched by the System.
The various plots and subplots come together perhaps too neatly at the end, but I particularly liked the final chapters.
The overarching problem with Higgins’ story is vagueness. We’re not sure if the System is a government headed by an artificial intelligence or humans or a combination of both. The details of the government are vague. The justification for what happens in the final chapter is vague.
And the marketing for this book is misleading. It is not a “’locked spaceship’ mystery”. It is more a haunted spaceship mystery. Higgins, trained as an astrophysicist, does not give us “bold speculation”. The secret ability of the black-hole powered Ananke? It can reverse entropy. Certainly useful, but we don’t even get pseudoscientific babble as an explanation.
Presumably some of these questions will be answered in the sequel, and I found this book good enough that I will probably take a look at it.
Explicit Additional Thoughts (with Many Spoilers)
The final chapter is called “Deus Ex Machina”, and it is meant quite literally.
After their capture, Mattie escapes, briefly plays around with the ship’s computer, and then seemingly exits the plot via a death of starvation in an escape pod. That he hasn’t really left the ship is no surprise.
Nor is a surprise that he has altered the program of Ananke‘s computer. This results in a new intelligence — nicely unconcerned with humanity — being born. But this is another case where even the pseudoscientific rationale is pretty minimal. You see Mattie and Ivanov like having their ship’s computer being a bit chaotic, having a personality. Althea’s computer is programmed to alter chaos (that’s the thin gruel rationalization for controlling entropy). The meshing of the two somehow produces an intelligence.
Not only is the System vaguely described. It seems kind of stupid in missing the obvious use of Morse code in Ivanov’s communication with his allegedly law-abiding-as-they-come mother (and widow of that rebel that got his fellow Saturnians wiped out).
And there is one of those annoying, so easy to fix and so trivial, bits when Althea gets her hands on a gun that has a double action which, it is implied, means it has something like a hair trigger. Handguns with a double action are the opposite of having a hair trigger. They are often deliberately engineered to be harder to fire.
Higgins likes to make her metaphorical connections. Stays’ rotting body is compared to the post-revolutionary political corpse of the System. And there’s a brief mention at the conclusion of the real Solar System being perturbed like the System. (I was briefly reminded of Donald Moffitt’s Mechanical Sky where the Solar System is moved.)
Speaking of the System … Higgins’ name annoyed me for idiosyncratic reasons. When I was a teenager, I wrote a science fiction “novel” with a government called “The System” — that was the title too. (I know. You’re shocked, shocked that a reviewer once tried their hand at fiction.) It was inspired by the tv series Logan’s Run though it naively used elements of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — which I hadn’t read yet.
Finally, I really hope that the author’s name, “C. A. Higgins”, was intended by the marketing department to sound like the successful brand name “S. A. Corey” associated with Solar System adventure. I’d really hate to think somebody thought nobody would buy a hard science fiction novel with a woman’s name on it.
I wasn’t able to find Higgins in the ISFDB. She is listed as being a runner up for the 2013 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. I was too lazy to ferret out her identity.