(2007) Gary Gibson, Tor (UK) £16.99/£10.99, hrdbk/trdpbk,
489 pp, ISBN 978-0-230-7-0040-6 / 978-1-405-0-9189-3
(2007/2013) Tor (UK) £8.99/ Can$15.99, pbk, 603 pp, ISBN 978-1-447-22409-9
It is five centuries hence and mankind has spanned the Solar system. However the stars only became within reach, and only continue to do so, with the help of advanced aliens: a fish-like species called the Shoal. Only they posses the secret of faster-than-light (FTL) or transluminal travel, but they do allow client species, and their spacecraft, onboard their small-moon sized interstellar transports. And so humanity occupies a portion of space around Sol with only the rare encounters with species from beyond this region that the Shoal allow.
So humanity has a toe-hold on the stars, but solely with the Shoal's sufferance. On the other hand the Shoal demonstrate that there are forces in the Universe that dwarf humanity's, and so in one sense it could be viewed that the Shoal were not restricting Mankind so much as protecting it as well as other client species. That the Universe was a dangerous place was further underlined when many stars in the Magellanic Clouds (the nearby dwarf galaxies to our Milk Way) went nova. This could not be natural. What is more there were even things that scare the Shoal who themselves were quietly moving their home world. (Shades of Niven's Puppeteers.)
Naturally it is a future with advanced technology. Some find that if they can incorporate technology into their brains -- becoming machine heads -- they can ghost-like interface with computers, and computer-controlled devices like space craft, as well as enter virtual worlds as if they were actually part of the machinery or physically in cyberspace. The problem is that machine heads could be subverted and controlled, as if hypnotically, by hostile ghost technology. In one famous incident on a colony world a troop of machine heads had massacred the local population. So machine heads were feared, or at least looked upon suspiciously, in some places while fully outlawed in others.
Space pilot Dakota was one such machine head. When a contract turned sour she had to lie low. The best way to do this turned up unexpectedly when those from a warring human colony wanted her to pilot a spacecraft. What she did not know was that the ship they really wanted her to fly was an ancient derelict found in an uninhabited system. This derelict, its discoverers deduced, may well have FTL capability. What was known was that it was not a Shoal craft, and if the Shoal found out that humans were on the point of getting hold of FTL technology then their wrath would be great. All in all Dakota was in the proverbial hot seat.
British SF writers have a long tradition of excellent space opera. Yes, there is the average stuff, but equally every generation for all of the latter half of the twentieth century has seen some stunning British space opera. So the question SF aficionados will be asking is whether Gary Gibson's Stealing Light is run of the mill or is it something more special? The unequivocal answer has to be that the novel is decidedly ahead of much of the pack. If you had to place Gibson's Stealing Light somewhere in the contemporary landscape (and while I am not fond of pigeon-holing it does help in letting you know whether or not this is the sort of thing you are likely to enjoy) I would say that the novel comfortably sits between the space opera of Alastair Reynolds and Iain Banks. I understand that there are (at least) two more in the 'Light' sequence to come. I for one will be looking out for these. With two to follow, please do not think that this ends in a cliff-hanger enticing you to read on. Stealing Light neatly ties up all the plot strands so readers are not suckered in to having to buy the follow-ups. I liked that. Having said that, if the sequels are as complete in structure and plot-development as this then the series could well add up to more than the sum of its parts. We will see. This is Gary Gibson's third novel. If he can build on this standard with a new novel a year over the next decade then he could become a very big genre name.
Jumping ahead from when this first novel came out to 2013 and Tor have reprinted all of Gary Gibson's novels (to date). This reprinting includes the 'Shoal' trilogy of which this novel is the first. When this trilogy first came out we had to wait a year for the next one and this was just enough time for memory of the intricate set-up to begin to fade. Today, you can get all three together and read them over a shorter period of time and this can only add to their enjoyment.
For a review of Gary Gibson's Against Gravity see here.
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