Audiobook Review: Lightless by C.A. Higgins
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera
Series: Lightless #1
Publisher: Del Ray (September 29, 2015)
Tiara’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Narrator: Fiona Hardingham | Length: 11 hrs and 32 mins | Audiobook Publisher: Random House Audio (September 29, 2015) | Whispersync Ready: No (as of this posting)
Lightless blipped on my radar for two reasons. First, there is a Worlds Without End challenge dedicated to the books that made io9’s list for 2015’s best science fiction and fantasy novels, which features this book. Second, I received a review copy of the upcoming second book, Supernova, and since I can’t dive into a second book without reading the first, I decided to purchase this book and give it a listen.
First a warning for those who enjoy reading the Amazon and/or Goodreads summaries of books. There are some spoilers in the summaries for both books. I don’t mind spoilers, but while listening, I realized that the author was trying to buildup to these reveals (at least one of them, anyway). Part of the appeal of the story is trying to sift through what’s truth and what’s fiction. It’s one thing to have the readers assume these things might be true in their reading, but putting it right there in the summary takes away from the mystique of allowing readers to make their own conclusions until the fog clears. With that brief rant out of the way, let’s get on with the review.
In this distant future, humanity has spread across the galaxy, reaching as far as the outer edge of the galaxy. The System Intelligence Agency polices the galaxy, handing down harsh punishments to people for slight offenses. Dissent has festered among some groups, and the System finds itself faced with pocket rebellions throughout the galaxy. However, the galaxy’s struggles, while present and important, are secondary in this novel. This story centers around the ship Annake, an experimental military vessel built around a black hole, and Althea Bastet, a engineer who has become emotionally attached to the ship. Side note: Althea reminded me of another character from my favorite game series (Joker from Mass Effect, duh) who also was emotionally attached to a spaceship.
Despite it’s massive size, the Annake is manned by a three-man crew including Althea, but they find their numbers increased when thieves breach the vessel and tamper with the ship. Althea works tirelessly to undo the disruptive virus introduced by the breach while her colleagues work to find out why the thieves targeted the Annake.
Lightless is a psychologically driven novel that focuses on its characters more than anything else, so if you prefer your space operas fast and furious, this book may prove to be too slow for your speed. The story unfolds layers at a time as readers try to piece together what’s real and what’s not as the characters wage psychological warfare against one another. As the story soldiers on, you begin to see frayed edges of the main characters–their weaknesses, their prejudices, their fatal flaws. Despite their beliefs that they’re good at what they do, they fall apart. The ship’s continuing problems further aggravates this by playing into the familiar theme of man versus machine, which creates a tense backdrop that culminates to a chaotic, explosive end. Higgins employs the laws of thermodynamics to frame this narrative, using it to allude to the environment on the ship and the interactions of the characters with one another, their interactions with the galaxy/power structure at large, and their interactions with the ship itself.
The amount of work done in one direction is the same as the amount of heat transferred in the other, or, the internal energy of an isolated system is constant.
Because of this, a perpetual motion machine cannot exist, and all systems come to an end.
As interesting as this deconstruction of her characters was, and while I certainly understand why she went the direction she did with some characters, it didn’t stop me from feeling as if certain characters were a joke, a really bad joke. There were moments when I just felt these characters were completely incompetent and stupid, but that could go hand-in-hand with the overestimation of their abilities. However, I enjoyed this story, so I can forgive that.
Now, this book does suffer from being a bit too “talk-y.” I would expect a story like this to be more action oriented, to really capitalize on the claustrophobic, isolated feel of the setting, but a large portion of this book revolves around two characters conversing around the sections of the novel that focus on Althea and the ship. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in this case, it made the story feel tedious at times. There had to be better ways to convey the information they exchanged than to have two characters literally sitting in a room together going back and forward for a huge chunk of the novel. While I love a good psychological story, I expected much more to happen in this story than what actually happened. In fact, I feel like the last third of the book is where the pace really picked up and showcased the best of this story.
Fiona Hardingham narrated the story with the kind of straightforwardness you’d expect from a novel in this vein. While most of her men sounded largely the same, she did an excellent job with the female characters’ voices, especially a cold, calculated character named Ida Stays.
If you don’t enjoy “hard” science fiction, don’t fret. Aside from these brief passages about the laws of thermodynamics, the science in this novel is easy to grasp. The science is almost secondary to the conflict. Higgins has created an absorbing and thoughtful read with Lightless. Sabotage, intrigue, and terrorism meets loyalty, freedom, and even a hint of humor in this story. I’m definitely looking forward to visiting this universe again in Supernova, especially to see if we’ll be diving into the larger conflict now that we’ve established the characters.