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Friday, October 5, 2007

"Stealing Light" by Gary Gibson

Order “Stealing LightHERE (UK) + HERE (US)

Sprawling, multi-volume fantasy series have always been a favorite of mine. What I like about them is the large cast of characters, the worldbuilding, the epic story—the more complicated the better—and the lengthy page count. What I’ve recently realized is that a space opera is much like an epic fantasy series with only a couple of obvious differences: the space setting and futuristic technology in place of a magic system. “Stealing Light” from author Gary Gibson—associated with the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer’s Circle (Hal Duncan)—is being hailed by the publisher as “the breakout novel from an exciting new talent in British science fiction” in the vein of Peter F. Hamilton, a master of the space opera. Now I haven’t read either of Mr. Gibson’s other novels (Angel Stations, Against Gravity) or his short fiction, and I’ve only just been introduced to Mr. Hamilton (The Dreaming Void reviewed HERE), but let me tell you, “Stealing Light” is one of those rare titles that is even better than advertised.

Welcome to the 2500s, a future where human civilization has expanded throughout the Milky Way galaxy thanks in large part to the Shoal, a technologically-advanced, aquatic alien species. In return for helping mankind colonize, establish interstellar trade, and receive alien technologies, humanity made a promise to abide by the Shoal’s rules. Namely, they could only colonize in a specified area; they would never try to replicate certain technologies, especially the transluminal drive (faster-than-light travel); they could only interact with certain alien species; and Clause Six. Setting the stage, Deep Dreamers—the Shoal’s equivalent of oracles—have glimpsed a terrifying future where the entire Shoal Hegemony is destroyed. To prevent this catastrophic outcome from happening, Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals, a sort of Shoal special agent, sets out to alter the course of the future which somehow involves Dakota Merrick, a former machine-head pilot for the Consortium and survivor of the Port Gabriel massacre. Life has been tough for Ms. Merrick ever since the ‘incident’ and it only gets worse when she gets on the bad side of gangster Alexander Bourdain. In order to avoid Bourdain’s wrath, Dakota agrees to join a colonial survey that will hopefully help resolve the Freehold-Uchidan conflict, one of the book’s many subplots. Ms. Merrick will eventually learn that the survey is just a cover for a discovery that holds tremendous ramifications for both humans & Shoal alike—a derelict starship with faster-than-light technology that predates the Shoal (supposedly they were the only race with that capability). From here, expect plenty of edge-of-your-seat thrills, riveting SF action, and startling revelations, the most shocking of which is not how the Shoal acquired faster-than-light technology, but what else it can do…

Unlike some space opera that I’ve read, Mr. Gibson’sStealing Light” hooks you from the get-go and keeps you hooked through all 489 of its pages. While the book features a fairly large-scale plot and is somewhat complex involving various subplots, “Stealing Light” is actually very accessible and easy to follow. Part of it has to do with the author’s decision to limit the narratives to a small number of characters—Dakota Merrick, xeno-data archaeologist Lucas Corso, Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals—which helps to give the book a more intimate feel despite its bulk. It also helps that the characters are well-written and likeable, especially Dakota who gets fleshed out the most, aided by numerous flashbacks that detail the Port Gabriel incident which plays an important role in current events. I did think Corso was a little underdeveloped, that Trader didn’t get enough face time, and that the villains—Moss, Senator Arbenz, the Mansell brothers—were a bit generic, but there’s plenty of time to learn more about Corso & Trader later and for Mr. Gibson to come up with even nastier bad guys :)

Another reason the book reads so easily is that the author does a wonderful job of pacing, balancing the story with a near-perfect mix of highly visual action sequences—an asteroid-planet disintegrating; deadly hand-to-hand combat including confrontations against hard-to-kill assassins; space battles; a supernova, et cetera—, detailed background information, and political-socio-religious intrigue, though to be honest, “Stealing Light” is not nearly as thought-provoking thematically as other SF. Stylistically, Mr. Gibson reminds me of Peter F. Hamilton. In other words, instead of being ornate or sophisticated, the prose is straight-forward and almost workmanlike, which is actually a plus in the book and yet another reason for “Stealing Light’s” accessibility.

Creatively, Mr. Gibson does employs a lot of familiar concepts in his book—faster-than-light space travel, semi-sentient spaceships, oracles, prophecy, holographic projections, bots, AIs, an archaic society where citizenship is earned through challenges—but he counters with such intriguing ideas as headless, S&M attired bead-zombies; the Uchidan religion which preaches salvation through technology; Giantkillers; weapons that can destroy stars; and a pretty interesting theory about a Maker race who sets out traps to destroy entire species. Personally, I thought Mr. Gibson did a fantastic job of introducing new applications and reinventing established ones (Ghost technology, the transluminal drives, coreships), and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with in the next two books.

Speaking of which, yes “Stealing Light” is the opening volume in a trilogy, but don’t let that scare you. While there’s a sort of mini-cliffhanger at the end of the book, Mr. Gibson actually does a pretty good job of wrapping up the story and resolving most of the immediate plotlines while leaving the major ones for the forthcoming sequels. So if you’re worried about being left unsatisfied, don’t be since “Stealing Light” reads like a standalone novel and if the publisher/author follow through on their plan, then we’ll be seeing “Stealing Fire” & “Stealing Time” soon in 2008 & 2009 respectively.

In conclusion, I’m extremely grateful to Pan MacMillan for sending me a copy of “Stealing Light”. Otherwise, I might never have been introduced to Gary Gibson who is definitely an author to keep an eye on. And, I might never have read “Stealing Light” which is easily one of the most enjoyable science fiction books that I’ve finished this year, and would make a great starting point for readers new to the genre…


Anonymous said...


What I think you shoul do, is give ratings to your books. You review so many books, many of which you like, personally I think it would be interesting if you rated them, like 8 out of 10. I do this myself as well. It gives us readers an idea which one of the books you've read you loved even more than the others.

Robert said...

Calibander, to be honest, I've never been a fan of the scoring system, at least not the way most reviews are done. I think too much stock is put on the score and not the actual review, so that's one reason I don't use them.

That said, I have been thinking about using a more comprehensive scoring system, kind of like what IGN does with their videogames. In other words, instead of a single rating, I would give individual scores to the prose, the plot, characterization, world-building, etc. That's a work-in-progress though, so it will be a while before you see anything like that...

What I do hope to do at the end of the year or early 2008, is break down my "Favorites" of 2007 according to such categories as genre, debuts, sequels, etc. Then, readers can get a better idea of what books I liked better than others...

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I myself used to use scores, and I've gone off of them too, for the very reasons you mentioned. Certain reviews speak for themselves; I now only score if the review had quite a few good and bad points, and the reader might be unsure.

I do find that people like to have something to compare to, so I also am trying to devise some way to do this! =D

I was thinking of having some kind of side-bar breaking the years best books for me into little sub-sections ... but that's precisely what you're doing! Bl*rgo! Oh, well... *re-thinks*

I liked this review, though. I've got a soft spot for space opera :)

The Book Swede

Robert said...

Chris, feel free to go ahead with your ideas! By no means am I trying to create a monopoly here, so if a few blogs do the same thing, it shouldn't be a big deal ;) Glad you like the review and hopefully you'll check out the book...

doug said...

This is the beginning of a trilogy? Interesting. As you said, the book is wrapped up quite neatly as a single volume. The conversations in the closing chapter or two of the book indicate that there is more to the story of Dakota and Corso, but it was written in the way that could have easily have been interpreted as things which the characters were going to do in the future, though not within the narrative scope of the author.


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