FAR FROM THE LIGHT OF HEAVEN by Tade Thompson (BOOK REVIEW)
“Space is the Brink of Death”
“So many ways to die on the Ragtime, so little time.”
Tade Thompson’s Rosewater Trilogy established him as one of the most exciting voices in modern speculative fiction. His new novel Far From The Light Of Heaven does not disappoint. Set aboard the spaceship Ragtime, the space station Lagos and the colony world of Bloodroot, Far From The Light Of Heaven is a locked-room murder mystery set in space. Unlike much space opera, Thompson directly engages with how hostile an environment space is to the human body, ratchetting up the tension by exploring all the ways in which things can go horribly wrong in space. Add to that corporate politics, an Afrofuturist utopian project, truly alien aliens derived from Yoruba spirituality, and explorations of Ais and androids, and you have one of the most exciting and intelligent SF thrillers of the year.
Michelle “Shell” Campion comes from a family of overachieving astronauts, so when a private company offers her the chance to be second in command of the Ragtime, she jumps at it, even though it means ten years in Dreamstate each way and serving under an AI captain on what should be a perfectly routine mission. However, when she wakes up in orbit around the colony world of Bloodroot, the AI is malfunctioning, leaving her the Captain, and thirty of her one thousand passengers have been murdered, brutally dismembered. Bloodroot sends up Rasheed Fin, a disgraced repatriator looking to redeem himself, and his robot partner Salvo, to investigate the murders. Space station Lagos sends its honorary governor Lawrence and his half-alien daughter Joké to assist. The killer is still loose on the Ragtime, systems are failing, and Shell, Fin and their companions must work together to solve the mystery before they run out of oxygen or are killed by the vast vacuum of space.
Far From The Light Of Heaven explores space as the ultimate locked room in which a murder could happen – the Ragtime is the ultimate sealed environment, not just because a space ship has to be a closed system, but because it is surrounded by the airless vacuum of space. Thompson frequently reminds us just how harsh and unforgiving space is as an environment for humans. Even before everything starts going wrong, the Ragtime is far from the luxurious, spacious starships familiar to us from Star Trek. Because of the huge distances in space, humans spend most of space travel in suspended animation, their conscious stored in Dreamstate whilst their bodies are kept alive by catheters and tubes, constantly monitored by the AI. Upon waking they require two weeks of physiotherapy to build back up their muscle tone so they can move about normally. Everything must be recycled, and the smallest leak in the water or oxygen systems spells total disaster. Thus, when things start to go wrong and they can no longer rely on the AI, the entire environment of the ship becomes hostile to the human characters. There’s just so much potential for things to go horribly, horribly wrong and completely screw everyone, and Thompson gleefully drives his characters through situations that go from bad to worse.
Having everyone on the ship whilst the killer is still at large creates an incredibly tense situation, which Thompson expertly exploits for drama. The whole set up becomes quite frightening, as Campion and Fin must decide whether to focus their efforts on solving the mystery or the simple business of survival as the ship crumbles around them. This makes Far From The Light Of Heaven an incredibly exciting and intense read. As in the Rosewater books, Thompson’s characterisation is excellent. Campion is trying to be as professional as possible, knowing as she does just how disastrously things will go if she loses control, as the situation deteriorates around her. She clashes with the paranoid Fin, who is mistrustful of everyone both as part of the investigation and his personality in general. Thanks to the trauma of his previous mission that went horribly wrong, he is even unable to trust himself, something he struggles with more and more as things get worse. Lawrence and Joké’s father/daughter dynamic is excellent, made all the more pronounced that, due to her half-Lamber nature, Joké is literally an alien to her father at times. Watching these well-developed and engaging characters bounce off each other is one of the major pleasures of the book.
The Lambers themselves are a fascinating presence that complicate and enrich Thompson’s stories. They are multi-tentacled beings who are capable of shifting from our plane of existence to another one. They have disorienting and addictive effects on humans, which has led to the repatriators – humans like Fin who track down Lambers and send them back to their home, as part of the stipulated agreement for humans to settle on the planet of Bloodroot. Next to all the rigorous science of Thompson’s imagined space travel, the Lambers provide a healthy dose of the numinous and the genuinely alien, something that engages our sense of awe in ways our rational understanding of the universe cannot grasp.
Thompson could just have given us a smart, high-concept SF murder mystery with great characters and cool aliens and called it a day. But Thompson’s imagination would never be satisfied with just that. Instead, as we learn more about the crime committed on the Ragtime and the reasons behind it, we are drawn more and more into the depth and complexity of Thompson’s world. The narrative expands to take in corporate ethics, the population of the Tehani Mining Community poisoned by the rare elements necessary for AI and spaceflight, the complex web of colonialism involved in humanity’s relationship with the Lambers on Bloodroot, meditations on life after death, the Afrofuturist’s utopian attempts to build a new community on Lagos space station. That he is able to fit all these expansive ideas within the novel without sacrificing the pace or intensity of its thriller plot is a testament to his incredible skill as a writer. Far From The Light Of Heaven is both a wildly entertaining ride and a thoughtful exploration of a wealth of ideas. It confirms Thompson as one of the genre’s most exciting voices currently writing.