Tade Thompson’s 2021 Far from the Light of Heaven is a stand-alone science fiction novel.
Starflight is challenging but routine. Michelle “Shell” Campion’s father may have made the history books by vanishing mysteriously in space; but Shell does not expect to earn even a footnote. And why should she? Shell may be second-in-command on Ragtime but this is a sinecure. Starship Ragtime’s captain is an infallible AI and there will be no need for human input.
Shell’s expectations are too humble. She makes the history books, in the worst way possible.
After ten years in a lowered metabolic state as the starship makes its way from Earth via multiple Bridges to distant Bloodroot, Shell wakes to discover that Ragtime’s AI is mute and that she is now the ship’s captain. Further investigation reveals the alarming detail that of the thousand passengers who boarded Ragtime, only 969 are still alive. The room full of dismembered body parts strongly suggests the fatalities were not due to some undocumented hazard of hibernation.
Feeling discretion is necessary, Shell sends out a public message warning of shipboard contagion with a contradictory alert tag about fatalities. Authorities will read between the lines and understand something even worse than measles is loose on the ship. However, colonial resources are by their nature more meager than would be available on Earth. Bloodroot’s choice of agent is Fin, whose track record is sufficiently irregular that they can blame him for any catastrophes. Fin is accompanied by his faithful artificial partner, Salvo.
Starflight to Bloodroot falls under the purview of the system’s space station, Lagos. Although few of its staff have considered Lagos’ contractual obligations1, not only do they not get paid for facilitating starflight through the Bridge they control until the ship sends the appropriate confirmation signal, but Lagos is also on the hook if the ship suffers a mishap. Fearing the consequences should Ragtime be lost, Lagos dispatches its own team to Ragtime: Shell’s godfather Lawrence, and his half-alien daughter Joké.
The lack of coordination between teams would be matter for serious concern were the swarms of killer robots on Ragtimenot so distracting. However, even as matters are going from bad to worse on Ragtime, alarming news arrives at Lagos. Yan Maxwell, the richest man in space, is one of Ragtime’s passengers. If he is one of the fatalities, his subordinates will rain literal hell down on Lagos and Bloodroot for the crime of not having prevented something outside their power to prevent.
Maxwell is extremely dead. Lagos, Bloodroot, and everyone still living on Ragtime are extremely screwed. Also, there is a wolf.
There is a reasonable explanation and it’s not that Ragtime went mad. This is not a Hal 9000 scenario.
I am puzzled by Amazon dot UK’s blurb: “Far from the Light of Heaven: A triumphant return to science fiction from the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author.” When did Thompson leave SF?
In keeping with my grand tradition of looking at the setting and not the actors, I was somewhat distracted by the oddness of Ragtime’s power supply. It has conventional rockets (chemical and ion), it has a bioreactor, fuel cells, and solar panels. Note the absence of nuclear in any form, including our friend helium-three-based fusion. Which isn’t to say the setting in general is power-poor — they have automated Dyson swarms — but the vehicles themselves are somewhat underpowered compared to those in other SF novels2.
In fact, one can see the author’s skepticism about certain genre conventions in other aspects of the worldbuilding. Successful settlements are given the example of unsuccessful colonies to draw on. Keeping humans functioning in space is an ongoing challenge and the workarounds themselves present issues, such as Coriolis force-induced vertigo. It’s as if we evolved on the surface of a very specific planet and don’t do well outside those very specific conditions.
On the other hand, Thompson’s aliens are very alien3.
The characters themselves, poor Ragtimeincluded, are diligent but out of their depth (save for one entity, who is diligent but unfamiliar with the concept of proportional response). Bad news for anyone expecting protagonists able to repair broken spaceships using two d‑cell batteries, a roll of aluminum foil, and some duct tape. The characters in this novel do their best with what they have while maintaining more decorum than most people would in the face of shipwreck, killer robots, and of course the wolf.
Although this seems to be intended at a stand-alone, there is lots of room for a sequel.
1: Secretary Beko has run Lagos for at least a decade and part of the reason she keeps her job may well be that she is one of the very few functionaries on Lagos who reads the full text of contracts rather than just skimming them.
2: One is reminded of GDW/Mongoose’s 2300 AD, which featured fuel-cell-powered FTL drives.
A lot of the plot is driven by the fact the ship’s parking orbit is comparatively low, which could be due to AI malfunction but also could be an attempt to use the planet’s Van Allen belts for radiation shielding.
3: Also, not the cause of the problem on Ragtime, in case anyone was wondering.