Murder, She Float: a review of Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson
Reviewed by Katie McIvor
I’ll admit, I didn’t have particularly high expectations for my first science-fiction read of 2022. The bright pink writing and wobbly blue wolf on the front cover made it look suspiciously like a Twilight knock-off, and I found the title kind of un-catchy (it’s from Paradise Lost). To be completely honest, I only picked it up because it was the one book on the tiny Science Fiction shelf in my local bookshop which wasn’t by George R. R. Martin. However, I’m pleased to report that Far from the Light of Heaven is a gripping, fast-paced thriller. Conceptually, as British-Nigerian author Tade Thompson notes in his afterword, it’s a “Locked Room Murder, but in space”. In terms of its imaginative range and fresh take on the genre, it’s also a lot more than that.
Waking up ten years into her first interstellar flight, Shell Campion, first mate of the Ragtime, finds herself responsible for dealing with a crisis. The Ragtime has reached its destination – the planet Bloodroot in the Lagos system – but the AI captaining the ship has almost completely shut down, and 31 of the 1000 sleeping passengers have been killed, their bodies chopped up and thrown into the waste disposal unit. Shell is the only person awake, and it’s her job to keep the remaining passengers alive and deliver them safely to the planet below. The AI won’t, or can’t, cooperate.
Taking control of the ship, Shell manages to contact Bloodroot for help. Rasheed Fin and his Artificial assistant, Salvo, are sent up to assess the situation. Fin is a disgraced investigator who previously had a reputation for successfully finding and ‘repatriating’ Lambers, apparently a type of alien found on Bloodroot, although there might be more to them than meets the eye. Together, Shell and Fin try to figure out what has happened on board the Ragtime. They are soon joined by Shell’s godfather, now governor of the Space Station Lagos, and his wise-cracking, half-Lamber daughter, Joké, who flirts cheerfully with both Shell and Fin. Faced with one life-threatening set-back after another, the team quickly bonds, becoming “a found crew, like a found family”.
The novel’s pacing is masterful. The story blitzes along, but the characterization never feels rushed or forced. Shell Campion is wonderfully pragmatic, in a way that reminded me of Ripley from Alien. She is impossibly cool under pressure, even when fighting off murderous bots in zero gravity. She is devoted to her career as an astronaut – while growing up, she used to read the telemetry from the Apollo missions for fun – but she also has endearingly human qualities, such as an over-reliance on her worry beads, and an inability to hold back from saying exactly what she thinks. Her friendship with Fin and the others blossoms out of adversity and provides the emotional heart of the novel. There are plenty of engaging supporting characters, too, most notably Jeremiah Brisbane, a jaded do-gooder on a mission to avenge an exploited mining community, and Carmilla, the psychotic ‘Advanced Interface Agent’ lodged inside Brisbane’s head, who likes to fantasize about having sex with demons in her spare time.
Like all the best science fiction stories, Far from the Light of Heaven is bursting with ideas: fast-growing experimental plant life getting loose inside a spaceship, artificial Wireframe mothers, humans addicted to aliens, and (my personal favourite) an actual wolf roaming around the Ragtime. It’s also refreshing to see a largely de-militarized take on space exploration, emphasizing Thompson’s central point that there are plenty of ways to die up there without adding weapons to the mix: as Thompson puts it, “Space is the Brink of Death”. If you’re looking for an imaginative, action-packed novel full of big ideas and great characters, look no further!
Far from the Light of Heaven can be purchased from Amazon and all good bookstores
Follow Katie on Twitter at @_McKatie_