I picked up C. A. Higgins’ 2015 debut novel, Lightless, because 1) it got a glowing review from io9’s Andrew Liptak and 2) it got a starred review from Kirkus. Having read it, I am left wondering what Liptak and Kirkus saw in this book that I did not.
In the grim boot-stamping-on-a-human-face-forever world of tomorrow, the Solar System is ruled over by the merciless System, an authoritarian regime slightly less lovable than the Qin Dynasty Legalists. Deviation, rebelliousness, and criminality are ruthlessly punished. The entire Solar System is one big panopticon state.
Or that’s the theory. In practice, recording everything everyone does not mean that the System has the means to sift through all the information they are collecting. Dependence on computer surveillance systems means that those systems are vulnerable to people who know how to manipulate them. The System has abundant blind spots; both criminals and terrorists thrive.
Including people like Leontios Ivanov and Matthew Gale, the two space pirates who have just covertly boarded the experimental space craft Anake.
Even though her beloved ship is lying to her, Althea knows it well enough to realize that Anake has been invaded and her computer systems subverted. Althea raises the alarm and both men are captured. While Gale escapes to what is surely certain death in the depths of space, Ivanov isn’t as lucky.
While Ivanov himself doesn’t seem to be much more than a criminal, he has a background that makes him of considerable interest to the System. His father led a doomed uprising that resulted in the obliteration of all human life around Saturn. More recently, he appears to be connected in some way to the notorious terrorist Mallt-y-nos, someone on whom the System would very much like to gets its hands. The hands of the system, in this case, belong to System Intelligence agent Ida Smalls, a top agent with a hitherto sterling record.
Although the Anake is out in space, far from any settled worlds, this doesn’t faze the System Intelligence Agency, which has impressive resources. Ida Smalls arrives in a relativistic rocket to have a chat with Ivanov. This chat will last as long as it takes to break the criminal and extract every last bit of information about Mallt-y-nos. Or that’s the plan. In fact, the situation is a lot more complex and available interrogation-time more fleeting than Smalls could possibly suspect.
If I had to pick one word that kept kicking me out of the story to reflect ruefully on the worldbuilding, it would be the word “tape” used for a recording medium. Most experts agree that adhesive tape—especially duct tape, the handyman’s secret weapon!—will be around until humanity goes extinct, possibly longer. Tape as a recording medium , however, is so deliciously 1981 that it makes me think of old C. J. Cherryh novels. And Walkmans.
”Tape” leads to further musing on dated details, such as character names. If the names are any guide, very few people from China, India, or Africa appear to have made it into the future. (Given the System’s habit of reacting to challenges with overwhelming displays of force, the implication of the absence are ominous.) The author also seems to have an idea that Revolutions consist of throwing bombs and making stirring speeches. It’s not all clear what Mallt-y-nos plans to do after she overthrows the System. If she plans anything beyond the Glorious Revolution.
The technology doesn’t make sense either. The Anake is said to be testing a new propulsion technology that will allow the System to reach out to the stars. But … if Smalls already has a super-fast personal relativistic spacecraft, don’t they already have the tech they need? And what’s the point of a relativistic spacecraft within the confines of the Solar System? It’s not like there is room to get up to speed. Even if the stars are farther away than the local planets, space travel seems to be a solved problem. There may be a good explanation, but if so, Higgins didn’t tell us about it.
There is a reasonable(ish) explanation (other than plot convenience) for the unusually spacious air vents/maintenance shafts with which the Anake is equipped. However, I was not convinced by Althea’s implausibly belated realization that someone who has thoroughly hacked the ship’s computer systems might also be using those vents as thoroughfares.
Higgins’ imagined Solar System is oddly bland and featureless. Like a contemporary mall or an air terminal. There seem to be two kinds of settings: Earth and not-earth (those planets and moons where people live in tunnels and domes, and the System can quell riots by letting the air out).
Much of the book is taken up with Smalls’ interrogation of Ivanov and her long effort to find some lever—an inconsistency in his testimony, a relative to implicate—to force Ivanov to share the information she is certain he has. Interestingly, the System does have regulations about this sort of thing and Smalls is expected to colour within the lines, which is an interesting change of pace for what is essentially a ticking time bomb scenario
I am afraid that this novel pretty much failed to engage me.
Vast, malevolent panopticon states are nothing new; this was more of the same. I was less than invested in the characters and their fates. Liptak and Kirkus (and Seanan McGuire, whose blurb is on the cover) saw something shiny here, but for the life of me I cannot figure out what it is. I opened this book full of anticipation but I am afraid I closed Lightless with disappointment.
Lightless is available from Random Penguins.