We all know the future of Joe Space Opera – starships, planet colonizations, yadda yadda – but not many works pay attention to the details, especially the ones that underneath the surface. Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead, however, literally drops its characters underneath a planetary crust to explore the underworld. Gyre, a young woman searching for the mother who abandoned her, agrees to finance her quest by working for Em, a reclusive voice in a computer with a knowledge of caving, without really being told she’s exploring. Gyre’s spelunking expedition takes place within the confines of a high-tech exosuit that can go underwater, attaches to climbing lines and contains a feeding tube so that she doesn’t have to eat. Em remains in her ear giving directions the entire time. Novels with really only two characters are pretty refreshing to begin with, but one that allows a character total control over the other in a tiny space feels downright creepy.
I cannot help but associate this book with video games. Gyre wanders a puzzle-solving, claustrophobic atmosphere reminiscent of Metroid or a good Zelda temple. The frustrations Gyre feels toward can seem childish at first, but the tension and Em becomes as understandably annoying as any NPC who doesn’t actually help with missions, beyond hints. Though Em remains behind a computer, Gyre travel through a maze of caves, sumps, lakes, and shafts. It doesn’t take her long to realize that she’s not alone – nor is she the first person Em has sent into the caves. However, through aliens, near drownings, and hallucinatory fungus, Em and Gyre eventually develop a rapport which leads to a strange kind of intimacy that only comes from total reliance on one another.
The suit that serves as Gyre’s skin is pretty rad, with it’s breathing systems, enhanced strength, and best of all, a head’s-up display that allows Em access to Gyre’s view. It also allows Gyre to watch videos to relieve that plot from Em’s dialogue sometimes. The suit solves the practical problem that most planets would not have an atmosphere people can breath, but Gyre removes it late in the book, which felt mildly disappointing. Em directs Gyre around the cave system, mostly, but her directions also serve as the main compass for the reader as well. The darkness of the cave allows Gyre to flex her senses of taste, touch, and smell, when sight fails her. The use of all senses – even smell – to explore the cave makes an unknown world feel terrifyingly close.
A very creepy summer read and an alternative take both on survival-adventure stories and science fiction. The Luminous Dead explores that depths of the universe in a time when humanity has explored the stars. It presents a puzzle as a novel while Gyre attempts to navigate a labyrinth for reasons even she doesn’t understand. Perfect for shutting out the world with the turn of a page, The Luminous Dead should hold any reader’s attention from start to finish.
Author Caitlin Starling’s website features not only The Luminous Dead but also images of her work as a narrative designer, in addition to information about her next chilling novel.
Three stars out of five
Page count: 411
Favorite quote: “She was deeper and she was in a suit, but she was still just fundamentally in a cave on her own, and she’d spent far more of her life in those circumstances than she had attached to Em.”