SFF Librarian Reviews
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s explore strange new worlds together!
Light Chaser. Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth Powell. Tordotcom, August 2021.
I’m continually impressed with the wonderful stories that Tordotcom is putting out these days. I certainly don’t want to come off as a shill for a particular publishing imprint, but on the other hand I suppose I could do worse than to do it for Tordot.com. It’s a lovely forum for introducing readers to all varieties of voices in the genres, both new and seasoned. In my next two pieces, I’d like to talk about two very different Tordotcom stories, dissimilar in author, in tone, and in narrative style, but both of which are excellent examples of the kinds of brilliantly imaginative work that Tordotcom is currently making possible.
Of late I’ve increasingly become a fan of those kinds of space operas that span not only vast dimensions of space but also vast amounts of time. Stories taking place across centuries and millennia, in which characters experience lives defined at their cores by incomprehensible stretches of distance, are intriguing not least because they reflect the true and sometimes frightening-in-its-scope nature of an infinite universe. Light Chaser, the new novella by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell, brings this limitless scope to bear on a story of emotionally charged, intimate, and very human relationships. In the best SF tradition, who we are as thinking and feeling beings is a constant across a bleak universe of deeply hostile space and across centuries that may see changes in our outward forms and technologies, but not in our fundamental natures. Alongside this, we note that the lives of people have real and objective meaning, independent of the vastness of space. Taking the long view, we may appear to have the lifespan, variety, and relevancy of dust motes, but to someone like Amahle, the novella’s titular light chaser, the record of our lives are important. They are their own sort of currency and have significant and lasting worth – whether to us or to people very much NOT like us.
Amahle travels (in the far-off 2900th Century) the settled universe (the Domain) aboard the Mnemosyne on circuits that last a millennium or more. She’s imbued with specialized DNA that extends her lifespan to make her virtually immortal—she’s considered so by the various civilizations she visits. She moves from world to world, trading various items for recorded memories, stored in electronic collars that pass down through generations and eventually come back to her. In her periodic returns to those worlds she takes on the image of a half-remembered legend. That passage of time holds continuing interest for Amahle.
She took lovers on many of the worlds she visited, and often wondered what became of them. Part of the delight of retracing her circuit was the prospect of being able to access the memories stored in their collars – assuming the collars had survived the intervening years; sometimes that got lost or damaged – and find out the missing portions of their stories. Did they marry, or pine endlessly for her return? Achieve greatness or live simple, unremarkable lives? It was a poignant experience, discovering what happened to them after she flew away, eternal and ageless, leaving them mired in the confines of whatever society had birthed them. Somehow, she felt such bittersweet knowledge kept her in touch with her humanity.
In an existence that might seem, at the best of times, tedious, Amahle thrives by living the lives of others, through ingesting the memories she harvests. As she notes,
She’d been forgotten, considered a myth, worshipped as a goddess, and forgotten again by the planets she visited on her eternal loop as their static civilizations carried on regardless. The lives of the planet-bound might have been nasty, brutish, and short by comparison, but the human experience she gained from the collars was uniquely enriching. So, she spent most of her time living vicariously through their recordings.
Human memory—not in the abstract, but its actual application to lived lives—is a precious currency out where astronomical distances make those lives seem so terribly small and unimportant. The memories Amahle collects are a way of shouting back to the cold and dark that we exist and have existed. However, this idea comes up against a crisis once Amahle starts realizing that from the vast pool of memories she is hearing a recurring voice appearing on different worlds, at different times, from seemingly different people.
To whom the voice belongs, and its motives, is a mystery that I won’t reveal here, nor will I give away the dark secret at the heart of Amahle’s journey. Suffice it to say, her quest to collect and archive human memories is not, as Hamilton and Powell reveal, entirely her own. More menacing forces (including her ship’s own AI) are at work, in fact. But leaving aside the nefariousness of other entities’ motives in the book, this revelation only reaffirms the book’s central thesis that, in the darkness of space, the lives we live and have lived are bright guiding lights to follow.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020; this entry was edited by Summer van Houten and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB did not arrange a review copy for this piece.