War of Images, Images of War: Technology and Labor in Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead
Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead (TLD) is a novel set entirely within a cave. Published in 2019, the science fiction and horror novel trails a gig worker, Gyre, as she follows the directives of her employer deep into a cave on a colonized planet. The passage and the job grows deadlier with each step Gyre takes into the cave; ghosts, monsters, malice, and betrayals continually threaten her. It is this mysterious passage, made for money and on her employer’s whims, that forms the narrative of TLD. Everything outside the cave in TLD exists only as images—clips of videos and references to memories—and everything within requires the abdication of perception.
Caves are structures and systems of their own, dragging us into their own cartography of accidents, breeding their own myths and monsters. A maze is a logical and precise puzzle, guaranteeing an exit at the end; caves are irrational, calamitous, entropic. Caves are ancient and full of earthly material(s). In an interview, Starling even calls her cave an “entity in itself.“
We learn of it late, but the cave in the novel is called Lethe. As readers of fantasy and legal documents, we know the power of names. Lethe belongs to Greek myth, a river whose waters effect a forgetting of the past; in Christian retellings, it is where Dante washes his earthly sins. For philosophers, the name carries the weight of a related word: alethia, or truth. Lethe is concealment, and truth is an encounter with what is no longer concealed.
This cave is an appropriate topos for horror, and TLD has enough ethereal ghosts to be shelved within this genre—it was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award in 2019. However, the novel is set in an indeterminate future, a distance that readers note not in terms of time but through an apparent technological advancement. We learn that interplanetary travel from one planet to another is expensive for those living on colony planets, but it is common enough. We learn that body-modifying suits are so intricate that they can invasively replace organs. The protagonist of TLD is Gyre, a young woman from the colony who is promised a significant sum to explore Lethe while wearing one of these exo-suits. In a limited third-person narrative, Gyre takes the readers into the cave through crevices, falls, and underwater crags. What she sees through the algorithmically-encoded helmet of her suit is all that we have access to.
Since the novel deals with images in terms of algorithmic data—all Gyre’s perceptions are provided by this data—I prefer to see it as technological horror. This genre is also known as “technophobic,” a name that tellingly diagnoses concerns about technology as an individual tic. Canonically, technological horror deals in themes like alienation, erosion of a stable humanity, or the encroachment of a senseless and immoral evil; the horror is associated with the technological machine or its paraphernalia.
The technological apparatus in the novel is apparent, but I’m not sure what makes this novel horror. It could be the disembodied voice that is tethering Gyre or the control it exercises over her; it could be the ghosts that flicker and fragment like bits of remnant code or the debris of previous expeditions. Does it have a singular source, or is it varied? Can a reader locate the horror in the usual conventions, or does it veer strangely off-course? I must qualify this classification of genre: what is it that induces the “shudder” a canny reader may ask?
The rest of this essay dips in and out of the cave to answer this.
“Not when there are a hundred other kids as desperate as I am.”
Follow Ariadne’s thread into the commodity supply chain as far as it goes, stopping only at the colonies, where mines and sweatshops hide in plain sight. This tether is inconspicuous, and every other year the giant-like tech companies are either in the news or on the trigger-end of an ethical lawsuit. In 2019, Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla were asked to explain their involvement with Glencore, a UK-based mining company that employed children in their cobalt mines. More than 70 per cent of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), used to mass-produce lithium batteries; worker and human rights abuse, coerced child labor, political corruption, and environmental destruction is linked to this extraction.
Gyre, the protagonist of TLD, lives on a planetary colony, Cassandra IV, which is ravaged and devastated by mining companies and technological tycoons. She has no illusions about the job she is offered by a shadowy company to conduct preliminary explorations into Lethe. Caving is one the most lucrative jobs on her planet. But Gyre knows that many other cavers are more skilled and experienced than her—she is replaceable, bought for a price that is paltry compared to the wealth of her employers, and has little other opportunities for employment.
Occupational hazards are common enough to be calculated into the cost of mining explorations—a quantifiable number is all that Gyre’s life will amount to if she doesn’t make it out alive. Technological advancement affords her some safety: an impenetrable suit that feeds and nourishes her with relative ease, and a support and maintenance team that guides her through the circuitry of her suit. But the technology is invasive, causes dissociation, and is optimized to make the most of her labor. Gyre is trapped within a suit that is physically controlled by her employers: she is moved at will and injected with serotonin, adrenaline, and poison. Her ears register the disembodied voice of her employer, goading and manipulating her to finish the job she set out to do.
Optimization is still a novel buzzword, but labor under capitalism has always been organized to enable faster speeds and technical efficiency. Its coalition with big data has produced novel forms to control and command workers. But in the DRC, workers use primitive tools, even digging for raw materials by hand. Every anecdotal report from the cobalt mines records unmistakable horror. In the greener parts of the supply chain, Amazon exercises control over its underpaid delivery workers—gig workers—with or without the whip of technology. Labor under capitalism exploits, alienates, and kills.
What is the source of horror for Gyre? Is it technology or informal wage-labor?
“Em was just her type.”
There are two monsters within the cave, one named as such, the other insulted with this epithet. The Tunneler is a creature that bores through the cave, creating new paths and killing everything in its wake. This monster is organic and ancient, with many eyes and an uncanny ability to sense other forms of life. It represents natural disasters, an occupational hazard that all cavers deal with.
On the other hand, Gyre’s employer, Emogene or Em, is a disembodied voice in Gyre’s ear. Em is always there, always watching, surveilling Gyre as her sole handler. She speaks in terse and colourless instructions when she deems it necessary. She moves and guides Gyre’s body like a puppeteer. Within the isolation of the cave, it is her voice that booms, her absence that is spectral, her demands that are given form like an eidolon.
Em’s demands have precedence due to a contractual agreement—within its bounds, she has impunity to do as she likes. This agreement, between an employer and a hired hand, structures Gyre and Em’s relationship. It offers Gyre a limited weapon to negotiate with, while it provides Em with the force of an imperative. The contract is evoked when the bounds of their relationship twist and turn—from partnership to grudging understanding and, finally, co-dependency. When Gyre begins to lose her sense of reality in the consuming isolation of the cave, it is the contract that reiterates her connection to Em.
In the novel, the contract is a palpable link between the two individuals, as real as the circuitry that allows their conversation. It is both sanctum and solipsism. It is the site that authorizes and codifies Em’s monstrosity as a selfish means to a selfish end. Unlike the Tunneler, Em’s will is not incomprehensible and insensible. The deaths she causes are accidents of technicality, and her only fault may be that the deaths are additive. Gyre understands her better than she would like to.
Em is trapped and motivated by grief and the gnawing of her traumas, shape-shifting things that take all kinds of forms: “Gyre couldn’t fight the feeling of Em’s grief being a living thing, as inexorable as a Tunneler.”
“Without Em to help manage the flow of data, would she keep seeing the impossible?”
Data beget ghosts. Old code, caches of information left unattended, glitches, remnants of a virtual life, perpetual self-replication. As Gyre goes deeper into the cave, she has more encounters with history. She meets Em’s long lost-family, a bereaved mother, and cavers who have died before her. She reads their files and watches videos of them to keep her isolation at bay, and they begin to float at the edges of her vision.
Enter: Gyre’s descent into madness. This is not a madness where the edges between the real and the perceived blur. Gyre may be corporeal, but her suit converts her existence into virtual data, keeping her safe from the Tunneler and linked to Em. For Gyre, within the exo-suit everything is perceived at a remove from her senses. It displaces her surroundings into data and shows her a rendered outcome. A repetition of images and representations bombard the cave, creating a feedback loop. Gyre may be seeing ghosts, but it is more likely that she is producing them herself. She fears not that Em is controlling her but that she may need this control to survive. How horrifying when a job becomes your only option.
It is part of Gyre’s job to produce knowledge of the cave, mediated by her handler (Em) and the algorithm written into the suit. The knowledge is mechanically determined according to a metric that is already encoded. She performs the same jobs that a researcher would on behalf of the company: mapping, collating, documenting, and classifying the resources within the cave. The actual extraction of material and its commodification are not at the heart of the novel; instead, the focus is on the production of a repository of data or an archive. Information, too, is a valuable resource. The Luminous Deadis a fictional account of the production of a colonial field of knowledge, and it does not take too long for Gyre to declare that no ‘body’ should be in this cave, that nobody should have access to this knowledge in any form.
The violence and horrors that Gyre experiences are both epistemic and archival. The history of the cave haunts Gyre. Elusive references to a past knowledge lead to Gyre losing her way. The continued persistence of Lethe, demanding that she forget the earthly things, makes her desire corporeality instead. Towards the end of the novel, Gyre is digging into the entrails of a corpse before following the figural images in her line of vision.
On the other hand, Em’s persistence to her own end perpetuates endlessly. Through grief and trauma, the archive remakes itself as many times as necessary. There is always something to extract, and this very circuitous lack of closure means that no one ever escapes the cave.
“Finish the story, witness the dead, then climb back out.”
Within a cave full of ghosts is the debris of a history of corporate profit, negligence, and technological progress. All Em wants is to witness the dead bodies of her family and perform a burial for those who are preserved as images on video clips.
History truly is a nightmare.
The garden colonies and worlds that Gyre has been promised linger outside of the novel’s perspectival reach. Its eye is trained on the cave. The blurb on the jacket copy likens this limited topography to Andy Weir’s The Martian, a novel where a space exploration turns deadly, ensuring a game of survival against the odds. But Gyre has been trapped in a survivalist narrative—in a landscape with no jobs, a ruthless economy, scarcity, and constant threat—long before she descended into the cave and its specific madness.
When Starling does write about labor, it is an embodied practice as much as it is a social relationship. The suit Gyre is fitted with offers her employer a chance at better resource extraction from a dying colony; here, novel technology only augments necessary human labor. It does not rescue its workers from the demands of time, efficiency, and authority. Instead, the laboring body can be controlled by the employer’s will—stopped and moved, injected and manipulated from afar. Starling imagines a future of work which is closer to Gavin Mueller’s persuasive argument that technology and its optimization serve as a “political tool to subvert worker power” and undermine an already limited agency within the workplace. In TLD, technological determinism offers no escape from the crises of capital. The mining companies require technology, which in turn leads to Gyre and Em depending on each other to fuel a nightmarish obsession.
NASA may have marketed the film based on The Martian, but mining monopolies like Glencore or BHP are unlikely to ever sponsor Starling.
The contours of horror in the novel are uncanny valleys, figural resemblances that arouse unease in the protagonist. Monsters of technology, technology that belongs to the monsters. There’s a tautology to the representations within these reaches; a repetitive insistence. A traumatic memory, as it must, repeats itself. In each iteration, it is a horrific representation that makes Em/Gyre anew. Sometimes it is ghostly in its presence, sometimes it haunts through absences. Sometimes it keeps each iteration bound within their contractual agreement, within law.
Each repetition leaves behind its own history—a series of bright and blinding bodies, computer code, graphic glitches, scratchy feedback. Luminous and ethereal. But the ghosts and hauntings within the cave are the feedback loops crafted by the uncanny technology, and replicated endlessly through the intervention of humans. The screens that we see, whether that of the camera or the suit, keeps the reader in a mediated relationship with the uncanny. However, their reach extends far beyond the cave and time; these ghosts are only as sinister as their history. This results in elements of horror that are canonical to the genre, like the dissolution of Gyre’s self. Other elements explore the horrors of wage labor and colonialism. Technology births monsters, leaves traces, and takes us deeper into an ugly history of scientific and colonial development.
Is technology a tool of history or its product on the long march to advanced civilization? Is this terror less horrifying than the straightforward story of colonial exploitation and oppressive desire simply through the machinations of computer and code?
Gyre’s questions are much the same: how much of this is memory and how much machine? How many have had to die for her to end this, and how few have escaped? What does she have left—with a voice trailing in her ear, betraying her constantly, and an aspiration that seems insignificant now?
The tangible over the intangible—but with so many proliferating screens and their own agendas, Gyre feels like the ghosts themselves are more tangible than she is. Whether survivor’s guilt or an inherited obsession, she returns to the corpses strewn about the cave.
Blood is finally drawn. The horror attains a physical element. Gyre resorts to physical violence—cutting off her own arm, tearing sinew as she breaks another’s suit—and there is little distinction between self-inflicted violence and institutionalized coercion at this point. Despite the many forces that horrify and wreck Gyre, there is hope in the tangible and material reality of a body.
There is hope in the body. Even when its guts are twisted and full of toxins, even when it is broken irredeemably, even when it is maimed.
Shinjini Dey works as a freelance editor and writer. Find her at @shinjini_dey.
This review was commissioned by editor Sabrina Mittermeier in December 2020. The author and editor were not previously acquainted No review copy was arranged by ARB.