An apology: excuse the title pun.
Reading a book for review can be very different than reading it for fun. This isn’t to say that reading books that one intends to review isn’t enjoyable, but there is a kind of mental awareness one has to keep while reading in order to review the book well and fairly. But every once in a while, a book comes along that sweeps that mental blockade away and forces the reviewer to enjoy it for what it is: a riveting novel. Lightless by C. A. Higgins (out today) was one of these books. I tried and failed to make sufficient notes in the margins as I read (looking back at the advance reader copy, there aren’t any past page fifty or so), and I walked around my apartment with my nose stuck in it when I should have been doing other things such as, you know, working.
Lightless features a very small cast of characters, which makes it feel incredibly intimate, as if you’re climbing into a box with them. You are, in a way, as the entire book takes place in an enclosure, a spaceship named Ananke, whose power comes from a fascinating source which is hinted at throughout the book (partly through the section titles which name and define the laws of thermodynamics), but that power source isn’t revealed until later on, and certainly won’t be spoiled here.
The character we start with, and whose movements guide us through the novel, is Althea, the ship’s technician and mechanic, the woman who created and coded the ship’s interfaces and built her inner workings from the ground up (the ship is always referred to as her, just like a ship at sea). At the start of the novel, Althea detects that there are intruders on the Ananke and she and the captain, Domitian, catch two men who managed to sneak onto the ship, landing in the docking bay and boarding without the ship sounding any alert. The two men are put in separate rooms for interrogation, though one manages to escape; the other, Ivanov, is charming and glib, and he is also the one who knows what buttons to press in Althea to get her to exhibit any emotion – most of the time, she is as stoic as her ship is, breaking the trope that the only woman in a small crew must be its emotional center. If anything, the ship is more emotional and fussy than Althea is; the Ananke begins to malfunction for mysterious reasons and Althea has to wrestle with her to keep her quiet.
In the world of Lightless there is a Big Brother-like System which is all-powerful and all-knowing, or so it claims. The Ananke is a System ship, and her crew are loyal to the System and the order it keeps in the intergalactic futuristic universe the novel takes place in. Like any despotic government, there are rebellions that arise and are quashed, destroying whole planets at times, but there are also small terrorist cells which gnaw at the System’s hindquarters, providing enough of a pain in the ass to put themselves on the System’s radar. The intruders at the novel’s start are believed to be part of one particular terrorist organization, and a System interrogator, Ida Stays, is dispatched to the ship to get the necessary information out of Ivanov, as she arrives too late to interview his escaped colleague.
Beyond this point, plot synopsis will begin to include spoilers. Suffice to say that there is a continuous evolution that takes place in Lightless, whether it is characters’ motives, plot points that bloom out of one another in neat synchronicity, or the realization that the book is in some ways a locked-door mystery.
C. A. Higgins is a debut novelist, and she has the gumption and the skill to dump us unceremoniously right into the middle of the world she’s very clearly labored over and built. She trusts her readers to follow along, and they will; she doesn’t make it hard to understand where the plot is set or who its main characters are, but she also refuses to give unnecessary exposition, to describe to us a long, long time in the future, in a galaxy far, far away. This is one of the best things about Lightless – the fact that its world is expertly established through scenes and storytelling. There are stories within stories in this novel, as Ivanov is interrogated, as Althea is asked prying questions, and as the Ananke herself develops strange malfunctions that seem to be attempts at communication. That all this works so flawlessly and without confusion is admirable in a first book.
When I first read Lightless, I had no idea that I would be lucky enough to speak to C. A. Higgins and interview her for my podcast, The Other Stories. Eventually, though, I did, and so tomorrow, Wednesday, September 30th, I will be linking the marvelous interview with the articulate, thoughtful, and intelligent author here. Please do tune in – she is well worth listening to.