The novel “Lightless” by C.A. Higgins was published for the first time in 2015. It’s the first book of the Lightless trilogy.
The Ananke scientific spaceship is engaged in a research mission by order of the System, the regime that rules the solar system. The mission is put in jeopardy when two strangers board the Ananke with intentions that are unclear but presumably not friendly. After a fight with the crew, one of them escapes but the other gets captured.
Identified as Leontios Ivanov called Ivan, a thief with links to a terrorist organization, the prisoner gets questioned. The System sends Ida Stays of the intelligence to find out what he wanted to do on the Ananke along with his accomplice, identified as Matthew Gale, and the identity of the terrorist organization’s leader. The Ananke’s artificial intelligence malfunctions, presumably as a result of sabotage, making the situation more complex.
“Lightless” is set in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system building artificial habitats of planets and moons, all under the rule of a regime called the System. The spaceship Ananke is engaged in a secret scientific mission that seems to proceed normally when two men board it upsetting the plans.
The nature of the Ananke’s mission is one of the mysteries that are revealed only at the end of the novel, which quickly becomes a sort of sci-fi thriller in which the actions of the two illegal thieves are crucial for the mission but also for their links with a terrorist organization.
The Ananke’s artificial intelligence starts having a series of malfunctions explainable as the result of a sabotage. Althea Bastet, who created the that system, must try to understand what changes were made ot it to repair it and to continue the mission.
Meanwhile, the interrogator Ida Stays arrives on the Ananke to interrogate the captured thief. Her main purpose is to get him to reveal the secrets of the terrorist organization that is opposing the System and that is preparing new attacks.
After the initial action, the novel is mainly developed through conversations between characters. There are constant references to past or current events around the solar system but the only what happens aboard the Ananke is told directly. The result is that the story seems to be the subject of a stage play.
The development of plot and characters left me some doubts. The System is widely described as a dictatorial regime so the fact that torturing a dissident is absolutely illegal is really science fiction. Ida Stays brought with her a drug that is supposed to act as a truth serum to use on Ivan but doesn’t seem very useful.
The Ananke crew is composed of only three people, maybe to preserve the mission’s secrecy, but their competence leaves many doubts. The captain seems the typical System servant, who acts by the book but struggles to figure out what to do in a situation that’s out of the ordinary. The science officer Gagnon is the only one partly justified because in an emergency is the one who can do the least.
In particular, the problem concerns Althea Bastet, who is described as the person who created the spaceship’s artificial intelligence yet seems totally unable to understand how it was sabotaged. There are no hints of the existence of a system backup to restore it to a working version but the existence of backup copies in any literary work also seem science fiction.
In this bizarre situation, the information graciously bestowed by Ivan end up being indispensable to give answers to the many questions. He’s a prisoner and yet he seems the one who decides when and on what terms those information are revealed especially to Ida Stays and sometimes to Althea Bastet. The result is a stalemate that last a long time with conversations that go on at a very slow pace.
This may be fine if the characters are seen as particles that have some pretty limited characteristics and interact accordingly. These interactions may occur as a result of contacts between them or due to various external forces. In all cases, it’s a complex system but based only on a few laws.
This may make sense because “Lightless” is based on physics, its parts begin with the wording of the laws of thermodynamics and its chapters are connected to physics as well. However, if we consider the characters as human beings their development in general seemed to me questionable and in some cases limited with various stereotypes.
In a novel that gave me mixed feelings, I think the best part is the one about the various mysteries introduced at the beginning and slowly revealed until the final part’s twists, where the pace strongly accelerates. If it’s a kind of story you like, you might enjoy “Lightless” as well.