Book review: Light Chaser by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

One of the great appealing aspects of any science fiction worth it’s slave planet-mined salt is the imaginative audacity of the premise on which it sits.

Time and again if you read or otherwise consume brilliant sci-fi, it’s hard not to sit back and gasp in wonder at the ideas that writers come up with, at the worlds they seemingly conjure up from nothing, the peoples whose cultures spring forth fully formed and vitally alive, and comprehensively alien characters, and not so alien too, who feel as real as the people around you, often more so.

One writer who has always shown a preternatural gift for coming up with the worldbuilding and character goods, and then some, is Peter F. Hamilton who has teamed with the talented Gareth L. Powell to craft Light Chaser, a novella that packs a punch, both narratively and emotionally, way beyond its masterfully-used, relatively brief page count.

In this exquisitely well-told story that begins at the end, and spends the rest of its time explaining why the evocatively immersive finish line exists in the first place, we are taken on a millennia long loop around the universe in the company of a woman called Amahle, who it soon begins clear has been doing what she does best for thousands upon thousands of years.

In that time, she has progressed on the same route, from medieval planets to more advanced ones, from water planets to more agrarian ones, her task each time to collect stories collected over a thousand of years in collection devices that hang around the necks of users, recording everything they and their descendants say and do.

“Amahle sighed. She’d wanted the chance for a bit of a look around before announcing herself at the palace. After all, these people had been waiting a thousand years for her to come back; she’d thought another couple of hours wouldn’t hurt. But now, once everyone knew she was there, they’d start acting on their best behaviour, trying to impress her or to curry favour, and she’d lose the opportunity to experience the culture through her own eyes. Though culture might be stretching it … (P. 25)

Like a galactic minstrel in reverse, Amahle is the collector and keeper of what might seem at first to be insignificant stories of day-to-day life but which to those with whom they end up, are precious beyond measure, providing insight and escape to lives that are a far cry from those who willingly give over their life stories.

Given the fact that she only visits each planet once a millennia, the Light Chaser often has the air of a god coming to earth or a mythological being descending from on high, wrapped in so much enigma, mystery and copious riddles that for all her humanity, she is often seen as the ultimate in Otherdom.

So skilled as Hamilton and Powell at crafting her story that you very quickly feel as if you know Amahle intimately, made privy as you are to her various thoughts, feelings and memories, the last of which feel scant to non-existent at times since a multi-millennia mind can only remember so much.

What begins to trouble Amahle, whose silver teardrop spaceship is a thing of a great presence, power and beauty, given life, if you can call it that, by a fearsomely in control AI, is that she begins to hear the same voice over and over in stories from various planets, separated by place and time to such an extent that it can’t be the same person trying to catch her attention and bring an urgent issue to her attention.

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

It seems that something is rotten in the disparate and vastly well spread planetary realm of humanity with the long since departed earth species in danger in a way that shakes everything Amahle knows to her core.

Full to the pleasing brim with worlds and culture that burst forth from the page with vivacity and life, but which also speak to the stagnation of people too used to the same old same old, Light Chaser is tour de force of impacting but nuanced storytelling that slowly but powerfully reveals what it is Amahle is hearing and what it could mean, not just for her but all humanity.

The masterfulness of this story, which goes for just as long as it needs to, and not a word more, is that in 173 well-used pages, we are introduced to a vividly-realised protagonist, a carefully-unfolded mystery that becomes ever more sinister the more it is explained, and a civilisational galaxy that seems to be the apex of human achievement but may not be anything of the sort.

If you think Matrix meets space opera meets political thriller, then you will be somewhat close to what an entertaining and thoughtful story is told in the beguiling pages of Light Chaser which never once feels like the stuck together efforts of two authors but the work of a singularly tuned mind.

“Amahle smiled. Her nerves were gone now. The memory has brought with it an unexpected strength, as if she remembered who she used to be, before the artificial stability of this long interment.” (P. 115)

The novella is one of the best sci-fi stories this reviewer has read all year, not only because it tells a compelling tale but because it does so with an economy of delivery paired a breathlessly expansive imaginative scope that shines a chilling light on what happens to people when they discover that what they thought to be true is anything but.

It can either crush you to the ground in an effective pulp or embolden you, and once Amahle begins to realise that the threat is real, the person articulating it even more so, and that she will likely need to sacrifice everything to set it right, she is emboldened in a way that sets your skin on fire and wakes you up in ways that makes you feel the most alive you’ve felt in ages.

While Amahle’s life is changed beyond all recognition, it’s what might happen to humanity to a whole that really enthralls you, and how she might be the only one capable of fixing some grievous wrongs that have been done.

Light Chaser is a superlative piece of writing, a thrilling piece of sci-fi that elevates character, premise, worldbuilding and mystery to an overwhelmingly exciting degree while keeping its feet very much grounded in the humanity of one person facing up to the once-unknowable and mow unmissable, a realisation which will shake her reality to the core, but which in doing so, could prove liberating to others in ways to audaciously powerful to fully comprehend, the effects of which will reverberate long after Amahle has shuffled off her too-long-occupied mortal coil.

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