I began to read SF in graduate school, because classicists are mad about it, and you couldn’t have a conversation at Bear’s Place (a local dive) unless you could (a) quote Caesar over pizza or (b) talk about Ursula K Le Guin and Westworld. But I really became bewitched by literary SF in the 21st century, with my discovery of Jonathan Lethem, Jo Walton, and, most recently, the surreal Argentine writer Angelica Gorodischer.
Where do we find out about SF classics? Not usually at The New York Times. But I enjoyed the lively writer Sarah Lyall’s enthusiastic review of C. A. Higgins’s Lightless. If she likes it, I will, I thought.
Much as I like Lyall, Lightless could not even hold my attention on a plane.
I read it in dribs and drabs. It is a pretty good first novel set in outer space…if you don’t mind a novel that reads like a movie.
You know Gravity? The beautiful, suspenseful movie set in space, where all goes wrong for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney ?
Lightless reads like a cliched, much less complicated SF movie. All of the action takes place on the spaceship Ananke, described as “a System-sponsored research vessel with military applications.” Yup. That’s the caliber of writing.
There are only three people in the crew, unlikely as that seems on a military super-ship, and the only one of any interest is the engineer, Althea. Domitian, the captain, and Gagnon, the senior scientist, are there strictly for plot purposes. Althea is not a well-developed character, but at least we understand her seriousness and that her personal life revolves around the computer.
Then two intruders, Leontis Ivanov and Matthew Gale, suspected terrorists, break onto the ship and introduce a virus into the computer.
The ship goes haywire. The computer tries to kill Althea with one of her many arms, which are intended to do repair work. The computer’s functions are screwed.
Althea and the other two officers try to catch the trespassers, but Gale gets away. They catch Ivanov, and a special officer, Ida, comes to the ship to interrogate him to prove that he is linked to terrorists.
In their surveillance society, where every minute of their lives is taped, disabling the computers facilitates privacy. Ivanov seems sympathetic, and gives Althea information about the virus, but he is also manipulative. Is he a hero or a villain?
Higgins is an awkward writer. Lightless reads like hard science fiction, only without complexity or style. The dialogue is wooden. The characterization stinks. Althea is terrified about her baby, the computer, which Domitian would like to shut down.
Hopelessly, certain that it was not precisely what she wanted to ask, Althea said, as she had before, “Are you…are you worried about the computer, too?”
“Yes,” he said, and he said it gently, but Althea was struck with the awful feeling that he did not know what she meant. “Of course I am. It will seriously impact our mission if the computer remains”–he paused–“in a state of disrepair.”
If you can stand the hackneyed writing, you might tolerate this book, but it might be a better fit in the Y.A. sector.