It's not easy to balance themes of political idealism, terrorism, oppressive governments and the chilling prospect of a homicidal AI unit. But in C.A. Higgins' debut novel, Lightless, the rookie author effortlessly weaves these threads together for a taut, suspenseful read that is ultimately satisfying, if not a little overly familiar.
The entire novel takes place on the Ananke, a highly sophisticated spaceship – named after the Greek personification of fate – with a very HAL 9000-ish AI unit onboard. Its crew is on a mysterious mission on the behalf of The System, which is, you guessed it, the overall authority of the galaxy. Among the crew is Althea, the ship's mechanic, who is not only proud of her work but sees the ship and the AI unit as something more personal, viewing herself as a maternal figure to the Ananke itself.
Early on, two known terrorists break into the ship: one of them escapes during the confusion, but the other one, a man named Ivanov, is captured and held prisoner on board. In order to find out his true motives and get more information on the suspected leader of his terrorist group, The System sends the cold, calculating Ida Stays to the Ananke to interrogate Ivanov and get intel on the Mallt-y-Nos, the leader of the most powerful terrorist organization in the galaxy. As the book moves along, the mystery behind her identity becomes a key for Ivanov's character and sets up what is likely to come in Supernova, the sequel to Lightless.
Once the main premise is set, Lightless becomes the literal tale of two books. One half of the narrative focuses on Ida's interrogation of Ivanov, whose silver tongue slowly reveals more background about The System and its various crimes against humanity, as well as the oppressed populace that is slowly surfacing to take it all down.
The tension in these interrogation scenes is crafted like a police procedural, with Ivanov's backstory becoming the most interesting development in the entire novel. Higgins makes himself easy to hate, while also giving readers enough reason to feel that he isn't so much a hardened criminal but a victim of circumstances brought on by a complex, unfair world.
The other half of the book follows Althea, as she frantically tries to save the Ananke from a virus released by Ivanov and his comrade, Matthew Gale. The issue is that the virus itself is what gives Ananke the ability to become a sentient entity that switches effortlessly between sounding like a horrifying deity and a spoiled teenager kicking the back of their parent's seat during a torturous car ride.
Despite being awash in sci-fi elements, Lightless is at its best when it's a claustrophobic, psychological thriller. Higgins' writing is sharp and flowing, and there's a real element of danger to all of these characters. She's clearly not out to create heroes to cheer for. The main characters – especially Althea, Ivanov and Ida – are usually treading morally murky waters, and their own personal failings have a way of eventually catching up to them.
As the plot unfolds, the baggage and trauma these characters carry around with them is on full display, like a raw nerve for Higgins to poke and prod at. Confidence gives way to vulnerability and love quickly becomes despair, as she strips the sci-fi genre of its sleek, futuristic luster to bring us a complicated world that seems to parallel many of the same political issues we have today.
The problem, however, is that while all of the ideas could easily fill a book on their own, they end up competing for attention as Higgins tries to balance everything into one cohesive narrative.
Althea's attachment to the Ananke and Ivanov's duplicity are easily the highlights of the story, but some of the world-building portions and side characters could use some more fleshing out. A lot of that is a product of Lightless' constrained setting on the Ananke — but there a lot more questions about the world and the crew than there are answers.
That said, Lightless is just part one in a larger trilogy, so there is more than enough time to get those answers in future installments.
Overall, Lightless is a tight, tense, quick read that proves to be a successful debut for Higgins, despite the fact that there's not a whole lot of new ground here. We've seen AI run amok before, we've been aboard the cramped quarters of a ship filled with miscreants and criminals, and we've been faced with some of these exact moral/political questions in other books.
Fortunately, Higgins does an admirable job of pulling off the juggling act of different ideas, and though some aspects get shortchanged at times, the end result is stronger than the sum of its parts.