Review: Stealing Light by Gary Gibson (Tor UK)


Stealing Light by Gary Gibson
Published by Tor UK and Out Now

Sci-fi has for quite a while has been, or so it seems to me, been loosing its excitement factor. Yes, there are a few shinning stars but no where near that of fantasy, which at times seems almost galaxy filling. I wonder if it’s more about attracting readers, the nature of the work, or the level of knowledge and skill needed in order to pull off a wide-audience reaching novel?

One of the things that gets in the way for me, and I’m a lifelong science fiction fan, is accessibility. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is probably one of the most sci-fi friendly stories out there and one of the best sellers. So why aren’t there more people writing accessible sci-fi?

I’m giving a bit of a false argument really because I want to say that Stealing Light is accessible sci-fi. And the more I think about the more doubt I have. Gibson is just a little too idea driven to be an easy entry into a world of sea monster aliens, machine-head humans with their own implants, and mogs (half humans and half dogs), those being three things that come to mind on the top of several dozen more.

What Stealing Light is clever, intelligent, thoughtful, and gripping.

It’s clever as the story itself is the main focus, everything is shaped in order to bring about the journey of Dakota Merrick, a machine head, as her life changes from being a military operative to working in the black economy transporting unopened containers across the galaxy.

It’s intelligent as his ideas feel real. The idea of Ghosts, the software in the implants and their implementations, make sense and the reason why in his view computers and AIs haven’t yet taken over the world unlike in the stories of Neal Asher, another great star of sci-fi.

It’s thoughtful because it is about the journey of two people. The other being Lucas Corso as he’s forced to work for the people that he hates, not because they need him but because he is doing it to save his family.

And it’s gripping as that I really needed to find out what Gibson had planned as he’s setting everything up from the get-go to all come together in the end. An ending that leaves you wanting more.

That isn’t to say that Stealing Light is perfect, some of the withholding of certain information is so blatant that you can see the gaps, but after a while you realise that it’s going to make sense later on and that he’s doing it not to frustrate but more to keep you interested. And it works. But hopefully he’ll be a bit more subtle in future books.

There are a couple more moments where the balance isn’t quite right. The members of the Freehold, who both Merrick and Corso are in essence prisoners of, don’t always seem to be as honour driven as they are made out to but if they didn’t the story would quite work out right.

Their mission is one of honour. They are trying to recover a derelict that may contain the secrets to give humans faster than light travel so they can win the war on the Freeholders home planet. The problem is that the only species with faster than light travel is the Shaol, the sea monster aliens mentioned earlier. And if they are discovered they could at best get killed or at worst start a war that humanity can’t win. I suppose the Freeholders honour system can explain some of the oddities of characterisation and then some are down to practise and skill.

But those are minor, if notable, flaws in the opening book of a trilogy. The whole book speeds along as Merrick keeps getting herself deeper and deeper into trouble that she can’t escape from even the ending shows the her story is far from over and the battle is only just beginning.

And that’s why I have a feeling that Gibson is going to be a quick rising star in sci-fi. He has the level of knowledge and skill to construct a story, he can twists these ideas around a cast of well conceptualised and constructed characters – human and non-human. And anyone who makes me want to find out what happens next is always going to get my vote. I’ve just started Nova War and Gibson is opening the whole universe up and I can’t wait to see what surprises he’s got planned.

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