Fiction Reviews

Dark Dweller

(2023) Gareth Worthington, Dropship Publishing,
£12.61 / US$14.99, trdpbk, pp295, ISBN 978-1-954-38605-1


The story begins with a familiar set-up: the motley crew of a long-haul spaceship are forced to interrupt their mission when they encounter another craft, adrift. In this scenario the mission is to scoop helium from Jupiter’s atmosphere and haul it back to a resource-depleted Earth where it can be used as a much-needed energy source. The crew is small, consisting only of Commander Feng Chau, Engineer Tris Beckert, Pilot Charlette ‘Sledgehammer’ Boz, Doctor Ciarin Kilkenny – whose Irish accent is annoyingly reproduced with ‘de’ instead of ‘the’, plus a fair smattering of ‘fecks’, ‘boyos’ and even the occasional ‘eejit’ – and, crucially, Counselor Sarah Douglas. In true troubled hero style, she has mum and dad issues, but in this case, her parents happen to own the mega-corporation running the mission. Overseeing our intrepid little group is Dona, the ship’s A.I., who has been given considerable autonomy – so much so that she can’t actually be commanded or ordered to do something, only reasoned with and persuaded. As for the drifting craft, that turns out to be an escape pod from a long-lost previous spaceflight, containing one Captain Kara Psomas, who should be over one hundred years old but, astonishingly and bizarrely, appears to be only fifteen.

Both Kara’s surname and the name of Chau’s ship – Paralus, so-called after a messenger trireme of the Athenian navy – give heavy hints as to the source of the mystery because what Worthington then stages against this deep-space backdrop is nothing less than a Greek tragedy. Once aboard, and safely quarantined, Psomas starts ranting about the Titans – pre-Olympian gods – and their seeding of the universe with life. Even more vehemently, she demands to be released so she can complete her task and save humanity before ‘the Fulcrum’ happens. Of course, no-one can understand how she can even be who she says she is, much less what she’s on about with her talk of the six fundamental consciousnesses, one of whom – Nyx – is not so benign and appears to be manifesting out of the shadows. Consequently, frustration builds on both sides, with the tension ratcheted up further by the progressive deterioration of Kara’s body.

The focus then shifts to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, which holds the possibility of life existing in its seas under a thick crust of ice. Sat on top of this unstable surface is a research station, occupied by another small team that is investigating that very possibility. This includes Luan Nkosi, a world-leading South African biologist, who is called upon to help explain how a long-dead woman could somehow be reincarnated as a teenager. However, as he is about to be transported to the Paralus, his team discover something floating under the ice – something huge, which just happens to be coming to life as Kara’s raving about humanity’s impending doom becomes even more frantic.

Added to this already heady mix is a further twist represented by Commander Chau’s own hidden agenda which is alluded to early on in the novel but is finally revealed only as everything else kicks off. The upshot of the resultant melee is not perhaps what you might expect, having spent almost three hundred pages with these characters, and the ending might even incline to the nihilistic, were it not for the very final few lines.

So, there’s quite a lot going on throughout, with plenty of angst-driven emoting amongst all the action and drama. Structurally, the novel is set out according to the alternating viewpoints of Dallas, Chau, Psomas and Nkosi. Although this is useful as a way of giving us insight into the character’s origins and motivations it is perhaps not so successful as a plot device as switching from, say, Dallas’ perception of Chau and his actions, to the latter’s own inner thoughts drains the story of some of its tension. It also encourages a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ and there’s a fair amount of ‘info-dumping’, whether about the Big Bang or the nature of the Titans. And I’m really not sure that the polemic about panpsychism – according to which everything in the universe, including atoms and elementary particles, has consciousness in some form – is strictly necessary. It all distracts from what is otherwise an interestingly weird Alien-esque space drama with added Greek mythology, in which we get all the gritty mechanics involved in bringing two orbiting spacecraft into proximity while at the same time a massive Godzilla-like creature ‘undulates’ through the vacuum towards them. And if that’s not a compelling combination on its own, I don’t know what is!

Steven French


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