Tade Thompson’s Far from the Light of Heaven finds us aboard MaxGalactix’s colony ship, Ragtime. First-time first mate, Michelle “Shell” Campion is tasked with waking the ship’s sleeping passengers upon arrival at the colony Bloodroot after ten years of interstellar travel. When Shell wakes, she finds thirty-one of her passengers missing from their pods and, later, dismembered in the ship’s disposal unit. Quickly, it becomes clear that, of the victims, only one is the real target: MaxGalactix’s CEO, billionaire Yan Maxwell. But the ship’s AI captain is malfunctioning and there’s no murder weapon or suspect. Shell and a cast of characters, human and not, must find the perpetrators and ensure the safety of the remaining passengers, all while contending with an escalating assault of technical crises.
Thompson’s tight prose and spirited pacing make Far from the Light of Heaven a really exciting read. I often had to force myself to pause, needing to intentionally take in the matter-of-fact, unpretentious, and thoughtful passages when all I wanted was to find out what happened next. The characters are kinetic - fully developed while not overelaborated. Throughout the novel, Thompson gives us only the amount of detail we need and not a shred more.
The one thing I wished while reading was that the murderer and his motive had been introduced a little earlier than about halfway through the book. Given that suspense is a key feature of the mood of the novel, this isn’t a problem. But with that revelation comes the introduction of a whole set of characters and contexts not mentioned at all in the novel’s first half. It’s not that those things are unbelievable, but that the resolution of the mystery would, for me, be so much more satisfying if it was “on stage” the whole time.
Far from the Light of Heaven is somewhat of a departure from Thompson’s previous work, namely the Rosewater trilogy. Though elements of Afrofuturism and Nigerian culture play a role in both works, Far from the Light of Heaven is Thompson’s first novel set in space. He writes in the afterword that Far from the Light of Heaven is less a space opera and more a locked room mystery in the most locked room possible, an interstellar spaceship. In the book, space is less the subject than it is a device. Nonetheless, Thompson’s vision of space and humanity’s future in it is a refreshing one. In this way, as I will elaborate, Thompson is able to question some large assumptions made henceforth by the genre: that space colonialism requires conquest, that space colonialism requires war, that an absence of war is also an absence of violence, and that aliens are diametrically opposed to humans.
Whereas many authors in the space opera genre imagine humanity’s expansion into space as being militarized, Bloodroot, Thompson’s planet colony. and Lagos, the space station, are both pacifist. On Bloodroot, the colonist culture has evolved in concert with the planet’s natural biology. Human architecture is designed to be symbiotic, not dominant. Built infrastructure is interspersed with forests resulting from a tree planting tradition as old as the colony itself. In Thompson’s words, Bloodroot is “built on the principles of collaboration and ecological integration” (p.16).
In sharp contrast to much of the genre, where newly discovered planets are plundered for their natural resources, Bloodroot is a place where the culture and biosphere have evolved in tandem. As a result, Bloodroot’s technology is much more limited than that of Earth or even Lagos. The colonists, it seems, are just okay with that. Of course, Thompson’s universe is not one completely without conquest. Bloodroot’s early settlers learned the hard way, from the failure of a previous colony, Nightshade. And on Earth, as we discover, there is plenty of environmental and human exploitation and devastation. But in the universe of the book, conquest is not a necessity. This is a fairly radical assertion in a genre that often relies upon it.
Perhaps even more inventive is the fact that, in Far from the Light of Heaven, humans have never fought in space. On Bloodroot, colonists have managed peaceful relations with the Lambers, somewhat benign “aliens” with whom they can’t even communicate. But Lambers draw humans into drug-like trances, making them unproductive and a detriment to society, so they’re sort of pesky. Rasheed Fin, the investigator Bloodroot sends to assist Shell on Ragtime, is a Repatriator, disgraced after accidentally killing a Lamber while on the job. It’s a Really Big Deal.
So foreign is the concept of war that when Yan Maxwell’s contingency plan in the case if his death threatens Lagos, the space station has to make a do-or-die decision. Upon learning of Maxwell’s death, a MaxGalactix ship will set out to attack Lagos. The space station detonates its bridge around the MaxGalactix ship, cutting Lagos and the system off from the galaxy, and effectively bringing warfare into space for the first time. In the novel, this is a monumental decision, and almost mutually assured destruction is Lagos’ only means of self-defense. The station doesn’t even have weapons.
So many space operas treat war, either with aliens or other humans, as integral to space expansion. On my more cynical days, I feel like that’s probably pretty realistic. But it’s refreshing and enriching to think of war in space, or just war in general, not as an eventuality but as something we could all just choose to avoid.
Though humans in Far from the Light of Heaven are a species at peace, we still commit our fair share of violence. The main crux of the plot is, of course, a terrible act of violence wherein thirty sleeping civilians are murdered to cover for the assassination of just one, Yan Maxwell. Perhaps even more brutal, though, are the crimes MaxGalactix has perpetrated against the isolated and doomed Tehani mining community. The Tehani’s quest for vengeance ultimately precipitates the events of the book and, in turn, more tragedy. I’ll also mention that the way that the novel wrestles with themes like forgiveness and accountability at its conclusion is incredibly inventive. Without saying too much, violence is taken seriously in this book, with mass death not shrugged off as collateral damage.
In the novel, an absence of war is not necessarily peace, or if it is, peace is not without its sneaky savagery. By differentiating between war and violence, Thompson draws attention to the everyday crimes of capitalism unchecked. These crimes don’t live exclusively in speculation, or in some far-future dystopia, but are real and devastating in our present day. Whereas many speculative fiction and sci-fi authors turn to the logical extreme of corporate warfare in space to critique capitalism, Thompson’s approach is perhaps more chilling: it’s almost realism.
Most alien encounters in sci-fi feature extraterrestrials so very different from humans that characters can’t even fathom how they might communicate across species. This is assumed to be the case in Far from the Light of Heaven, too, at least for most of the book. Joké, the half-Lamber daughter of the governor of Lagos, reveals to Fin, when the two believe they are about to die, that Lambers aren’t aliens, or at least not completely. Lambers are the spirits of humans gone to another dimension after death. They can interact with our dimension only in very specific ways.
Whereas, when most of us picture first encounters, we might picture reptile-like creatures who communicate with, say, clicking noises as opposed to spoken language, Thompson imagines beings outside of ourselves, but not separate from us. Lambers are humans, or they were, but they’ve become something new. In that way, they are neither our species nor another. In the book, and in real life, this revelation prompts a rethinking of aliens’ supposed otherness and causes us to ask: when we say, “life is out there,” what do we really mean?
The fact that Far from the Light of Heaven is framed as a locked room mystery and not as a space opera or, even more broadly, a novel about space, allows it to break free from the assumptions often seen in books that take place in space. Thompson strikes a lovely balance, critiquing capitalist exploitation and war without taking those things to the logical extreme in his imagined future. When space is a device as opposed to the point of the book, there’s a little more room to play with and subvert expectations.
It remains to be seen what humanity’s future in space will be. At present, we are nowhere near the technological advances depicted in this or any space opera. I, for one, don’t have a personal investment in humans actually living in space or other solar systems. It’s one of my favorite things to read about, yes, but in all the imaginings of a spacefaring future I’ve read, great tragedy is almost always part of the equation. In movies, TV, books and so on, humans take a very similar approach to life among the stars as we have on Earth: war, oppression, and plunder. That is to say, I’m not terribly keen on us making those advancements because I’m scared of what we would do with them.
So much of our expectations about what space travel, expansion, and colonialism might look like are formed by fiction. And if that fiction largely depicts an exploitative, warmongering future, then we are in for some trouble. Not only does Thompson make prescient critiques of exactly those human tendencies and the systems they’ve constructed, but his take on humans in space is refreshing and fairly radical. It is possible, even, because that’s not necessarily what he set out to write about.