The Ananke was beautiful, its gravity-producing mass nestled in its center, contained by a cage of sparking magnets, with the rest of the ship curling out over the core, the lights of windows studding its black spiral like bioluminescence. When it drifted through black space, it looked like an extinct creature of Terran ocean depths, a creature out of time and into space. The Ananke was Althea’s in heart of not in law, and Althea knew her every inch.
Althea knows her ship.
She knows its flashes and its whirs, its hums and its shivers. She knows its programs so well that when something—even the smallest, most insignificant variable—is out of place, she immediately and instinctively recognizes that it is a problem.
And something is wrong aboard Althea’s beloved Ananke.
Manned by a trim crew of three—Domitian, the Captain; Gagnon, the physicist and theoretical scientist; Althea, the mechanic and computer scientist—Ananke is a marvel of engineering, dedicated to a secret mission as she travels the System, gathering information. It’s during this mission that Althea notices that something isn’t quite right with her ship.
Two men, Matthew Gale and Leontios Ivanov, have boarded Ananke to some unknown purpose or end. Both are dangerous thieves, manipulators, and bombers with connections to the Mallt-y-Nos—the disruptive terrorist mastermind that represents the most dangerous opposition to the totalitarian System’s regime. Gale manages to escape, but Ivanov is detained aboard Ananke for questioning; one of the System’s finest and most ambitious agents, Ida Stays, boards Ananke with relish. Stays always wins, and she hungers to exert her control over Ivanov to discover the true identity of the Mallt-y-Nos once and for all.
For Althea, though, none of this really matters—all she cares for is her Ananke. And somehow, Gale and Ivanov were able to unleash a virus that Althea cannot pinpoint, stop, or reverse. As Stays interrogates Ivanov, Althea struggles to understand what is happening to her ship. And all the while, the rebellion, and the Mallt-y-Nos, rises....
The debut novel from C.A. Higgins—a young author with a degree in astrophysics—Lightless is, like its central character the Ananke, striking. I say striking because the book is actually quite beautiful in its simplicity. Lightless exists in several states: it’s first a form of a locked room mystery—though a locked spaceship, or (as I prefer) closed-circuit mystery are probably better metaphors—with a lightweight cast of just a handful of characters and a basic premise. There is a man who is being detained and interrogated for acts of sabotage and chaos, and a group of people who are trying to discover, understand, and prevent the havoc. There are two alternating threads of plot in Lightless that examine this mystery: the interrogation of Ivanov by Ida Stays, and the frantic examination of Ananke by Althea. In the novel’s first three parts, these alternating storylines increase in their urgency and internal tension: Stays and Ivanov play a game of manipulations, microaggressions and concessions; Althea tries to understand what is happening to Ananke with increasing fervor and dread.
Lightless is also a story of political unrest and rebellion. The System that built the Ananke and that promoted Stays to her position of power is an all-seeing totalitarian regime that stamps out the first sign of uprising under its unforgiving boot. It’s this System that has birthed Mattie and Ivan, the Mallt-y-Nos (which is a terrible and obnoxious name for a criminal terrorist mastermind, based on the crone of Welsh mythology). Lightless is a closed box of disorder on its micro-level with its characters, replicated on a macro-scale within the Solar System; this sense of scale is one of the reasons why the book works so beautifully. As tensions mount internally, our characters also realize that their struggles are being replicated around the System as the Mallt-y-Nos ascends to power and moons of the outer planets are taken by her followers.
Finally, and perhaps most potently, Lightless is a story of entropy. Is it “the deeply moving human drama of Gravity meets the nail-biting suspense of Alien” (from the book’s jacket description)? Absolutely not: both are very bad comps , and paint unrealistic and unfair expectations for this novel (ok, maaaaybe I’ll give you Alien 3 with its twisted mommy angle). If anything, Lightless is more akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the lesser-known (but one of my favorite books of the past few years) The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist, with the overtones and dark-hearted promise of Event Horizon. Make no mistake: this is not a character-driven novel, and it is not a moving human drama—in fact, the characterizations within Lightless are broad strokes at best, with single-purposed personalities devoted to single-minded causes.
That’s ok, though, because Lightless is a story of ideas, secrets, and revelations. It’s a story of chaos personified, of supersentience, and the many, many big-picture implications that may follow. I loved this book, and I can’t wait for the next horrific leg of Althea and Ananke’s journey.
In Book Smugglerish: 8 and a half malfunctioning robotic spaceship arms out of 10.