In Far from the Light of Heaven, Tade Thompson, author of the Wormwood Trilogy, constructs a fine murder mystery on board a colony space ship in methodical detail. Step by step he introduces characters and settings, with just enough detail to bring each person to life and give each of their worlds its full reality. Thompson refers to his story as a locked room murder mystery in space, but the fast pacing opens a complex world of compelling history that is much more than that.
Every character deepens the story of Far from the Light of Heaven and brings into play a new dimension of life in an interstellar future. First we meet Shell Campion, who signs on with a private space company, MaxGalactix, to serve as second in command on a colony space ship, Ragtime. Daughter of a heroic space-farer, she is nervous about her first interplanetary mission but is assured that the AI running the ship will take care of everything. The AI’s never fail. Of course, we can be sure that this AI, referred to as Ragtime, will do just that.
After ten years in hibernation mode, Shell is awakened to find all the warning lights blaring red. When she talks to Ragtime, which should know everything all the time, she encounters only a dumbed down version that can’t answer most of her questions. That makes her the captain. When checking on the status of the 1000 sleeping passengers, she finds 31 are missing. Their grisly fates begin the murder mystery, and Shell, once she can repair the communications problems, beams out a coded distress call to the planet below, called Bloodroot.
That brings in the detective, Rasheed Fin, a suspended investigator who has done all his work on Bloodroot “repatriating” aliens and has never been in space before. He and his assistant, an Artificial named Salvo, fly a shuttle to Ragtime and manage to form a prickly working relationship with Shell to set about solving the murder mystery.
They soon have company because the distress signal was picked up also on the station/world called Lagos, a place settled by people mostly of Nigerian descent. Its ceremonial Governor, Lawrence Biz, whose presence is barely tolerated by the real power of the Yoruba-speaking world of Lagos, the Secretary Beko. When he hears of the distress call, he secretly arranges to take his own ship to find out what’s going on because he was close friends with Shell’s father and also wants an excuse to get away from the tedium on his figure-head role. He takes his daughter Joké, who happens to be half alien, a Lamber, who has the ability from time to time to disappear into other dimensions. She brings a strange form of spirituality and the wisdom of an ancient race to the story.
This strange band of outsiders soon runs into a lot of trouble. The real AI on Ragtime seems to have gone rogue and sets one trap after another for the five as they try at once to repair multiple problems with the ship and solve the mystery of 31 dead bodies. They are attacked by a robotic wolf, set upon by murderous bots and ward off mysterious fungal moulds that seep out of an off-limits experimental lab.
It’s late in the story before another key character is introduced, a man of the Tehani people named Brisbane. The Tehani lived on a colonized world ruthlessly exploited by the richest man in the settled worlds, Yan Maxwell, head of MaxGalactix and a passenger on board the Ragtime. The entire population was slowly being poisoned by mining. Tehani leaders send Brisbane along on the Ragtime to avenge his people, all of whom will have died by the time the ship reaches its destination.
How all this plays together is brilliantly worked out, making Far from the Light of Heaven one of the most intriguing space mysteries I’ve yet encountered. Woven through the story are entrancing ideas of good, virtue, spirituality, on the one hand, and, on the other, colonialism, economic exploitation and power dynamics. There are also a lot of ideas about artificial intelligence and personhood, the bonding of humans and AIs and the legal status of androids.
It’s a high-spirited book that hits a tone carefully balancing grimmer elements with a light, almost romantic touch. It’s full of surprises and always engaging. It’s also a story that stays with me, unlike so many novels these days that may be enjoyable to read but quickly fade from memory. I keep looking back through the story and finding things I missed. Thompson has a wonderful gift that way, of making you think twice about a narrative you may try to hurry through for its surface fun. His imagination goes deeper, even while keeping you entertained with a fast-moving story.
My thanks to Orbit Books and NetGalley for letting me have an advance review copy for this review.