The novel “Dark Light” by Ken MacLeod was published for the first time in 2002. It’s the second book in the Engines of Light Trilogy and follows “Cosmonaut Keep“.
When the spaceship Bright Star arrives on the planet Croatan, the consequences are immediate. The fact that it was piloted by human beings and not by kraken is for many inhabitants a blasphemy against the gods. The authorities seize the Bright Star and for Matt Cairns, his descendant Gregor, Lydia de Tenebre and Salasso, there’s also the problem of understanding local laws and customs.
The planet Croatan is part of the Second Sphere, a group of star systems inhabited by various sentient species. That’s the will of the gods and the idea that Matt Cairns and his fellow travelers go against it is a big problem for them but they want to speak directly to one of the gods to obtain clear answers.
“Dark Light” resumes the plot set in the distant future in which there are human beings living on various planets side by side with other sentient species. To understand at least something of that situation and the protagonists you need to have already read “Cosmonaut Keep”, where Ken MacLeod outlined the foundations of an alternative future.
The story of a first contact with an alien species in an alternate near future was completed in the first novel so in the second one the author focuses on the long-term consequences of that contact, which are only a part of a much larger story. “Cosmonaut Keep” ended leaving many elements of the plot pending and in “Dark Light” Ken MacLeod expands them a lot providing some answers that however lead to new questions.
The plot is developed substantially through a number of more or less violent conflicts that have a very different duration depending on their nature. “Cosmonaut Keep” was above all a story of human beings and their relationships, not always simple, among different political and social positions and occasionally the relationships between human beings and other sentient species. In “Dark Light” the political and social elements keep on being central as is typical of Ken MacLeod’s stories but the interspecies relationships become more important, also in connection with the various questions and answers contained in the novel.
During their search for the truth about the origin of the group of star systems called the Second Sphere, the protagonists arrive on the planet Croatan, where there’s a society inspired by the medieval European ones. The technological level is far higher but certain social conventions, the trade and even certain beliefs such as a Ptolemaic system have very medieval connotations. Actually the situation is more complicated as there are a Christian and a heathen population, there are other social conventions use by Ken MacLeod to develop issues related to sex and gender issues and more.
In “Cosmonaut Keep” I was particularly intrigued by the story of the first contact and in “Dark Light” I’m still intrigued by the developments of that part of the plot. There’s clearly much more than what happens on the Second Sphere’s planets in a much larger space and time framework.
Unfortunately I found in this novel some flaws similar to those of the first of the series. Few characters are well developed and they’re often used to represent a certain position, sometimes political. The part of the plot about the events on Croatan is the one that left me the coldest but it’s probably the one most influenced by subjective opinions and tastes.
Ken MacLeod included many ideas in “Dark Light” but often they seemed to me fragmentary, rarely well developed. It’s one of the cases in which doubling the length of the novel would have helped him to develop all the themes. As in the first book, there’s no real conclusion but a story that remains open waiting for the third book in the series. If you’re interested in the themes, it’s a series you might like, but you will have to get all three books.