We’ve seen many stories and theories about artificial intelligence, enough to know that it’s likely computers will gain some sort of sentience one day. But how will that happen? How will humans respond to it? And, perhaps most importantly, what will an artificial intelligence (AI) think of the human race?
These are the difficult questions that C.A. Higgins tackles in her provocative “Lightless” trilogy. The first book in the series, “Lightless” (2015), is set in a future in which humans have spread across space, and Earth and its solar system are controlled by an interstellar organization called the System. The Ananke is an experimental ship that’s taken over by terrorists, and it’s up to Althea, an engineer with a special bond with the ship, to resist them. That’s an interesting plot on the surface, for sure, but it’s the story of Ananke, the ship, as it gains consciousness and awakens to its potential that is the crux of this trilogy. Higgins continued Althea and the Ananke’s journey through the series’ second novel, “Supernova” (2016), and concludes the trilogy in “Radiate,” released last month.
Again and again, Ananke finds itself in mortal peril, with only the being it considers its mother, Althea, to guide it. It would be easy to make a mother–child comparison in their relationship, yet in any traditional relationship between parents and children the power resides overwhelmingly in the hands of the parents. If children don’t learn and obey, they are punished. How then do you handle a situation where the roles are flipped so completely? Althea has no control over what Ananke does, and as an artificial intelligence, the ship’s power is almost immeasurable. The damage it can do is, quite simply, catastrophic.
Its desires are understandable: to know the people who created it; to find companionship, another being like it.
Althea does her best to guide the ship through its tumultuous awakening and adolescence, but the journey is rough. Ananke’s desires are understandable: to know the people who created it; to find companionship, another being like it. These childlike, and yet very adult, requests are heartbreaking. Higgins is able to make an all-powerful ship surprisingly sympathetic; Ananke may hurt others in its frustration, but it also does not understand the consequences of its actions. It’s wholly sad and utterly frightening, given the ship’s capabilities.
Ananke’s actions and journey of self-discovery are all the more fraught given the complicated political situation. The man that Ananke considers its father, Matthew, is a member of a terrorist organization that has launched a devastating attack on the organization that controls Earth. The solar system is in chaos, and Ananke is adding to it through a determined search for Matthew, with a reluctant Althea along for the ride.
It’s clear from the beginning of “Radiate” that the book is leading to an explosive ending. But what does explosive mean in this context? Sometimes the quietest story lines can make for the most earth-shattering revelations, as each character in this book goes on their own journey of self-discovery. They must each decide what matters to them — and what they’ll risk — in order to do what they believe is right.
Although “Radiate” can be confusing as it jumps back and forth in time, fleshing out the past while pushing the thrust of the narrative forward, it is rewarding for readers who stick with it. After a stellar first outing in “Lightless” and an uneven and somewhat bleak sequel in “Supernova,” Higgins is in fine form closing out her space opera.
For more than science-fiction fans, the “Lightless” trilogy is great for those who have little experience with the genre because of its narrative style. It’s a perfect sci-fi entry point that matches a rich, character-driven story with fundamental questions about who we are and why we’re here.
Krishna writes for Paste Magazine and Syfy Wire and is one-half of the podcast Desi Geek Girls. She’s on Twitter @skrishna
Del Rey: 336 pp., $27