While one of the saboteurs remains at large somewhere on board, his captured partner—the enigmatic Ivan—may prove to be more dangerous. The perversely fascinating criminal whose silver tongue is his most effective weapon has long evaded the authorities’ most relentless surveillance—and kept the truth about his methods and motives well hidden.
If you’re on the hunt for new science fiction, one that puts the science up front and center, a new author is on the horizon with her first novel, Lightless. Check out my full review to see if it’s worth your time!
I grew up loving old-school science fiction stories: Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Asimov...etc. Back in the days where science played a bigger role in the story, sometimes to a fault. While much of the 'science' in those old tales have since changed, or been proven entirely wrong, there's still something fun about those "hard sci-fi" novels from the past that still appeals to me.
As such, I'm keenly aware of any NEW sci-fi book that comes out which seeks to fill the same void (The Martian does it wonderfully). When Del Rey reached out to me about Lightless, pitching it as one of these kinds of stories, I was instantly intrigued. Jumping into it, however, was a little tougher than I expected.
The science aspect of the book is entirely sound. Author C.A. Higgins has a degree in physics and more than aptly explains the science behind the technology she presents in the story (from a black hole based traveling spaceship, to how enclosures and colonies on other planets). The problem, however, is that none of the science presented is all that interesting. For the most part, it boils down to providing more of a backdrop than actually being used as part of the overall story, with one MAJOR exception (but I'll come back to that). But where the science is sound, it's not the problem with the book. It falls apart in the story it tells, treading traditional tropes of the genre without adding much new to it.
Ostensibly, the story of Lightless is pretty simple. A small crew on board a top-secret military vessel discover burglars have snuck onto the ship and capture them. Upon their capture, an intelligence agent believes there's more to the robbers than meets the eye, and arrives to interrogate them about their ties to a terroristic rebellion that's brewing. One of the men escapes, while the other must struggle to survive the intense scrutiny of Ida Stays (the agent).
At it's bare bones, this is the story. The primary focus of the book is on the ship's, Ananke, technician who works on the ship's computer. In order to board the Ananke, the burglars, Ivan and Mattie, messed with the computer and it causes massive problems throughout the book. The lights and cameras don't work right, and the crew is desperate to fix whatever's wrong. Between that and the interrogation, and you've got the entirety of the story.
The solar system is currently under control of The System, and it's pretty much the same as every other futuristic government that has too much control and mercilessly monitors and kills their own citizens to maintain it. It's the same as any totalitarian organization you've read in sci-fi novels over the decades. There's rebellion brewing and through reports heard on the ship, and conversations during the interrogation, the readers learn more about it.
Lightless falls short in a few different ways. From the outset, it’s incredibly slow and plodding in pace. It takes a good amount of time to feel like it’s making forward progress in both the story and characters. Considering how relatively short the book is, coming in under 300 pages, that’s not a good thing. Truly, but the time I felt like the story was picking up steam and getting engaging...it was over.
The book also seems to have trouble figuring out exactly what it wants to be. It has mystery elements, it presents a rebellion vs. oppressive government angle, and then suddenly shifts gears near the tail end (SPOILER) where Artificial Intelligence going rogue is tossed into the mix. This eclectic mix of ideas never fully comes together in a significant way. More so, each of those elements are executed poorly on their own.
A good mystery leaves the reader enough clues to figure out what’s going on, on their own, if they look and think hard enough. Lightless doesn’t offer up enough evidence, and outright lies to you about what’s going on at times, in an attempt to make the reveal a ‘surprise’. The result, however, is less of a surprise and more aggravating because it doesn’t make sense with the information you’ve been given. The rebellion part is told entirely in the background, making the events more passive than active, leaving you little reason to care about why they’re happening at all. The AI curveball comes so late and is so cliche that it never has time to develop and try to be interesting.
I've come down pretty hard on Lightless, but that's not to say that it's entirely unreadable. It has its charms, and does a good job of evoking the old-school science fiction feel to it. Despite it's SLOW start, it does manage to reach a point where I kept turning the pages and was interested to see what came next.
As I mentioned, though, just as things finally start to get interesting, the book ends...rather abruptly. It’s wholly unsatisfying and leaves too many things dangling for you to overlook. I get that it’s the start of a series, and likely things will be more resolved in the next book, but I doubt I’ll make it to that one. This one felt too unfinished and generic to really pull me into the overall story.
While the writing is solid, and the science makes sense, there’s not enough enjoyment here to warrant a read-through. Unless you’re really itching for something new, it might be best to look elsewhere for reading material.