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Lightless
by C.A. Higgins
Del Rey, $25.00, 288pp
Publication date: September 29, 2015

I got a real kick out of 'Lightless', a debut novel written while the author was getting her Bachelors degree in Physics at Cornell, but I couldn't help but feel confused for quite a while because of the false advertising that drew me in.

'The deeply moving human drama of 'Gravity' meets the nail-biting suspense of Alien,' claims the back cover blurb, which goes on to highlight how much of a sci-fi thriller this book will be, where this new Ellen Ripley will match wits with a 'perversely fascinating criminal.' Yeah, I'd read that book.

I can see where some of this comes from, but it's really not like that at all. This is a quiet, thoughtful novel, set entirely on a spaceship way out there and populated by a minimal cast: the three members of the Ananke's crew, the two crooks who sneak onto her, the agent who shows up to interrogate the one they catch and two names from the prisoner's past brought in as witnesses.

Oh, and Ananke herself, because while ship's mechanic Althea may be 'the true heroine of the story,' as the opening letter would have it, it's the ship's computer who really dominates this story. I wouldn't compare 'Lightless' to 'Gravity' and certainly not 'Alien,' but I would bring up 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' for a number of reasons. They're completely different books in most regards, but at heart they're both telling the same stories. If I was forced to build a mashup pitch by adding another title for comparison, I'd probably go for Alan Moore's 'Watchmen.'

So: 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' meets 'Watchmen.' That's hardly 'Gravity' meets 'Alien,' huh?

I presume the 'Gravity' reference is because the ship is way out there in the far reaches of the solar system and we never leave it, meaning that there's a constant and palpable sense of isolation, hence the title which explains just how dark it gets when the ship turns off her lights. However, the people we listen to are inside the Ananke not outside it and they're safe throughout, at least from the sort of external threats that populated that movie.

The threats here are inside, courtesy of Leontios Ivanov and Matthew Gale, the two criminals who find their way on board, only to promptly get caught, surprising given that it's a large vessel, there are only three crew members and the intelligence agent who soon shows up to interrogate them (well, the one who doesn't promptly escape again) believes them to be massively important terrorists who threaten the existence of the System, the surveillance-based construct that rules our dystopian future solar system.

Really they're not threats either, given that one spends almost the entire book in custody and the other one in absentia, but let's not quibble. There is a little sense of tension, but it's far from a driving force. There is some claustrophobia, but it has nothing to do with monsters running around corridors and all to do with the fact that the ship's computer is misbehaving and we can hear that in the ducts and maintenance channels.

As things begin, Althea is just the ship's mechanic, nothing more, and she mostly keeps out of the way. Her job soon turns into trying to figure out what Gale did to her ship's computer before he flies away to certain death. As you can imagine, the resident IT support tech trying to undo a virus isn't quite the most prominent character in the story when there's a potential galactic terrorist being interrogated next door by an allegedly infallible intelligence agent.

There are other things going on, of course, but it's hard to conjure up 'the nail-biting suspense of 'Alien'’ when we're sat in one room watching Ida Stays trying to verbally trip up her subject, who is unable to lie. Oddly, Ida can hook him up to a polygraph immediately, but only when he lies can she then move onto truth serum. That means a verbal battle of wits. Ida is convinced that he's a terrorist with personal connections to the Mallt-y-Nos, the single greatest danger to the System. Leontios denies everything and puts any suggestions down to coincidence.

To suggest that the book alternates these two threads, the tech working to undo a virus and the agent interrogating her captive, makes it sound acutely boring and I don't want to give that impression in the slightest. I was riveted. I was just confused to find something utterly different than I was led to expect.

As you can imagine from the minimal setup, C A Higgins is mostly interested in character. The 'Alien' reference is only valid in the way that our cast decreases because of death, which merely emphasises the growth of the characters in those who remain. There's no monster running rampant through the ship, just some sort of virus running rampant through her computer and a grand mystery running rampant through the battle of wits, just out of reach. We engage with this through growing characters.

Perhaps the best way to praise the author's exploration of the varied players is to suggest that their growth as characters is entirely logical and consistent but done subtly enough that we change our thoughts about who is good and who is bad, perhaps more than once. It's a real mystery and we're as eager to solve it as Ida Stays.

The most dangerous thing I can do is to explore my comparisons too deeply because those who have read those books will leap to conclusions that may spoil this one. Let me just suggest that 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' is an appropriate comparison for more than one reason, so let me have you puzzle on that. I'll only say that manipulation of language isn't one of them. And 'Watchmen' is an apt comparison for more than one reason too, but none have to do with masked vigilantes or alternate history.

I wonder how critics like me will be able to discuss 'Supernova,' the sequel to 'Lightless' that is due in 2016, given that the merest mention of synopsis is likely to spoil its predecessor in grand style. It's hard enough to discuss this first book without hurling out spoilers. There's almost nothing to say in synopsis; everything that matters comes out of the little subtleties in character development that deepen the mystery until the grand reveal.

So there you have it. There's a mystery out there in distant space and an interrogation that might explain it, but how? One sentence is the safest way to cover the whole thing. Really you just need to read it for yourself. And I'd recommend that we all do that before the sequel comes out, so that we can be safe in our newfound knowledge and ready to discover how small it really is. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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