Gary Gibson is the latest entrant in the British New Space Opera revival; Stealing Light is his third novel, following the release of Angel Stations and Against Gravity, and is expected to be his "breakout book." As such there are pressures on Gibson to deliver a commercial hit, and he has probably done so—although whether there is a cost to commercial success is debatable.
Five centuries from now humanity has spread out across the stars, courtesy of technology chartered from an alien race called the Shoal. Of the few alien races Mankind has met, only the Shoal have developed FTL travel, which gives them unrivalled influence. These aquatic aliens are squid-like, long-lived, and cautious to the point of paranoia, which has allowed them to survive a sixth of a million years. They have confined humanity to a bubble of space three hundred light years across, which is already in danger of becoming overcrowded.
As always happens when resources are scarce, competition spills over into war between competing factions. the Shoal periodically exacerbate such situations by evicting populations from colonized planets without explanation or notice.
Meanwhile, with the Holy Grail of true Artificial Intelligence proving impossible to develop, some of the local governments on the colony world of Bellhaven have instead concentrated on man-machine interfaces, and hire out those citizens—"machine-heads"—allowed to implant neural interfaces, as contractors.
Four years before the main story, Dakota Merrick has been sent by the Bellhaven Free States as one of a group of "military advisors" to the colony world of Redstone. Merrick is no more an advisor than were the American troops sent by Kennedy in the early 1960s to South Vietnam; instead she is to fight alongside the Freeholder forces native to the planet against the Uchidan interlopers, resettled on Redstone after being evicted from their own world by the Shoal. But Merrick's implants—her Ghost—have been subverted by the Uchidans, and she loses control of her own body, and turns on her own allies.
Certainly Stealing Light opens with a bang:
It was like waking up and finding you'd just sleepwalked through the gates of hell.
Bodies were scattered all around her, under a slate grey sky from which snow fell in sporadic squalls. Most had been cut down as they ran for safety. It was a scene of appalling carnage.
She remembered with dazzling clarity what it had felt like to kill them.
So far, so good, as Gibson grabs his reader by the lapels and hauls them into the novel. But the problem with Stealing Light is that rather than going into that main story straight after the brutal opening, Gibson unnecessarily complicates the opening of his novel's structure; first backing up two more years to give us background on Dakota which could as easily have been worked in later, then cutting across to the Shoal, which is interesting, but this early in the novel confusing; all without separating those opening three chapters into a prologue before finally starting the main story, the complexity compounded by inconsistently structured chapter headings: sometimes dated, sometimes not, sometimes referring to a date, sometimes present-day.
By the time that main story does open with Dakota's pell-mell chase around the asteroid of Bourdain's Rock, it's as likely as not that the casual reader will have returned the book to the shelf unfinished.
Which would be a shame, because in other ways Gibson has done a fine job, by creating a complex and generally believable set of politics and back-story to his human space, and giving the impression that Stealing Light's narrative is part of a rich tapestry of future history.
The main story opens four years after the massacre; although she has been cleared of responsibility Dakota is a pariah, reduced to ferrying dubious cargoes around human space. Soon after she meets Trader, the first member of the Shoal that she has ever encountered, the asteroid to which she has delivered cargo to is destroyed by sabotage, and Dakota must go on the run, both to evade capture as the alleged perpetrator, and to survive the real killer's attempts to tidy up.
Adopting a pseudonym, she takes a job requiring a machine-head to interface with a derelict alien ship, and to her horror finds herself working with radical Freeholders, who loathe her as much as they need her. Worse, she is implicated in the death of the former lover who arranged the contract. When she is witnessed killing another lover and almost fatally wounding one of her employers, it seems as if Dakota is leaving a trail of death and destruction across space, and even she can't be sure that she has nothing to do with it, for all her convictions that she is innocent.
Dakota meets Corso, a Freeholder desperate to ease the military's grip on his people but whose family are held hostage. When he rebels, he and Dakota engage in a desperate cat-and-mouse game for possession of the alien derelict. Dakota and Corso are an engaging heroine and companion, and Stealing Light is a rich and complexly plotted work—perhaps too complex, because the elements are thrown in one after another, often without giving the reader time to appreciate Gibson's rich scene-setting.
Gibson is clearly a hardcore SF fan, and there is no doubting his love for the genre, as evidenced by his name-checking authors as diverse as Iain M. Banks and T.J. Bass; it seems churlish to criticize a fellow fan, but while my inner fanboy cackles as I gleefully note another nod, another part—the dour Puritan aspect that a Scot like Gibson would surely recognize—is irritated at the constant name-dropping, and wishes he'd write his own story.
The most interesting aspect of Stealing Light is the Shoal, a species reminiscent of Niven's Puppeteers leavened with a dash of Herbert's Bene Gesserit. Apart from seventeen pages in Gibson's unlabelled prologue, however, they are—with the exception of the rogue, Trader—kept off-screen, which is a missed opportunity. As well as Hamilton, name-checked on the cover, other influences appear to be Dan Simmons and Arthur C. Clarke, and it is the apparently Clarke-influenced last forty pages that offer the greatest hint at Gibson's potential.
Like other novels published this year, such as Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air, Stealing Light suffers from an overcooked plot, in which running-up-and-down-corridors is used partly to substitute for real content. This is not to say that it's a bad book—it's not—but Stealing Light needs to be more if it's to be remembered long after the thousands of books published this year have settled back into their papery graves. And make no mistake, Gibson is capable of more.
For it's only with the last part of the novel, which graphically details the death of a solar system and Dakota's almost superhuman efforts to ride out the storm, that Stealing Light shows what it could be. Part of that is cumulative, of course—the ending needs the first ninety percent to give the climax its momentum. But the last section shows us what Gibson can do; the destruction is shown in graphic and poignant detail and Gibson gives us fascinating glimpses of the Magi, which are far more interesting than yet another plot twist.
Gibson's challenge is to give the reader more than ninety pages of real wonder and moments of real character, and less than four hundred pages of what is effectively lightsaber wielding. It would be nice to at least see equality in that ratio.
Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance, Lightning Days, and The Silk Palace. He is currently working on Blind Faith, a thriller with the slightest speculative twist, set in Brighton in July 2005. He also has a day job, but it’s not very interesting.