Every now and again, I come across a book that I admire more than enjoy. Nisi Shawl's 'Everfair' is the obvious example of that here at the Nameless Zine because, while I absolutely hated that novel, it's stayed with me for a couple of years now because I admire a lot of what she did with it and why. I have a feeling that 'Radiate' is one more for that category and, by extension, the entire trilogy which it completes isn't far off too.
It's an unusual trilogy in a lot of ways and, while I neither understand nor appreciate some of the approaches the author took, I have a lot of respect for some of the others.
For a start, each of the three books is completely different from the other two.
The first one, 'Lightless', is rather claustrophobic, a novel spent almost entirely on a vast but nearly unpopulated ship way out there in the far reaches of our solar system. It has a tiny cast, which spends the majority of its time talking, whether it be the software engineer conversing with her ship's newly sentient computer or the System agent interrogating her terrorist suspect. It's a talky, very contained thriller.
The second, by comparison, 'Supernova' by name, is something else entirely. That suspect does indeed turn out to be a terrorist and he's now done his part to blow up the planet Earth in an attempt to destroy the dystopian surveillance state that runs everything and so free the colonies on other planets from its yoke. We follow the leader of this revolution as she flits from colony to colony discovering that she has no idea how to handle things on a grand scale. It's a stubborn character study that would probably prefer to be a space opera.
This last book in the trilogy is something else again, playing out almost like characters in search of a plot, set as it is against the grand backdrop that steals our attention even as it rarely finds a focus, the common people who were either on board with the revolution or in sympathy with it but who now find that they can't rely on it after the fact to keep them alive. I'm really not sure what it wants to be, but it succeeds best at being a distraction, the story that aches to be told happening just off camera.
Part of the problem stems from each of the three books having a different lead, none of which are traditional in the slightest and almost none of which have our sympathy.
If there's a lead in the first book, it's Althea Bastet, the engineer on board the Ananke, who spends the majority of the book trying to remove a virus from her computer only to end it as the thing's mother. She's an interesting character but she fades with the trilogy because the most interesting character was always the Ananke herself, a sentient computer phrased as a little girl who's just been born but has to deal with having amazing power.
The lead in the second book is Constance Harper, better known to most as the Mallt-y-Nos. Again, she's clearly an interesting character, but she's that rare creature: a successful terrorist. She's interesting because of what she plans to do and, by the time Higgins focuses on her in 'Supernova', she's done what she planned to do and so peaked as a character of interest. She tries to become the saviour too but she fails and she's thankfully absent here.
We sympathise a lot more with the people she freed and that's even more the case in this third book, where the leads are Mattie Gale and Leontos Ivanov. That's Constance's brother and lover respectively, as well as her key lieutenants. Arguably they're coming to terms with what they've done, as they flit around the solar system to see first hand the chaos that they wrought. Frankly, I found them both acutely annoying and pretty much irrelevant. They're hardly ever recognised and that's oddly appropriate. They were always shadows in the darkness, which is where I think they should have stayed.
The Cliff Notes version of this is that the background is far more interesting than the foreground. C. A. Higgins has, with this trilogy, given us three unusual views of a revolution that spans our entire solar system: the secrets that set it up, the struggle to translate victory into a sustainable future and the fracturing of that future into internecine scraps for power. From this perspective, the entire trilogy is admirable. I can't think of anything else out there that better explores the confusion that follows a terrorist act, the slap in the face that success can become and the danger that is getting what you wished for and finding that it isn't what you thought it would be.
The question, of course, is whether that's what the point is and I'm still trying to figure that out.
Are we here to watch a revolution unfold? If so, we seem to have missed the key parts of it, even though we get thrown back and forth in time like a yoyo in this book to see how some of it came about. And hey, without any real attempt to show us how the System, the supposed villain of the piece, oppresses everyone, the revolution to topple it has precious little context. It's the biggest MacGuffin ever written. Why should a solar system scale revolution spark into existence? Bad guys. Fight the System, man. Who cares what they do; they're the System.
Are we here to see the evolution of the Ananke, a vastly powerful sentient machine? If so, I was disappointed to a large degree. The beginning of that story in 'Lightless' is fantastic and I compared that book to 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' for good reason. The continuation in 'Supernova' is fair but hardly the point of the book and the ending here is acutely underwhelming. Frankly, the Ananke has become just a bogeyman and how she's treated at the end of a three book story arc is unworthy and dismissive. She's a focal point until she's an afterthought.
Are we here to get into the minds of people who find the status quo so bad that they buy into the mass murder of billions of people? Maybe, but we never really do that, even with all the to and fro we get in this book. I see why the lieutenants do what they do, those who split off from the Mallt-y-Nos during the last book and again in this one. They want power or justice or revenge. But what do Mattie and Ivan want? I really couldn't tell you.
I have no regrets finishing this trilogy. I got a lot out of it, honestly. It just doesn't appear to be what the author intended her readers to get out of it. So, while I admire some of what she achieved in 'Radiate', in particular her depiction of a solar system hurled into chaos, struggling desperately to find stability and failing consistently in the lack of communication and leadership, I can't truthfully say that I enjoyed much of it. I got a kick out of the first book in the trilogy but it's fair to say that I've liked each succeeding volume less and my happy ending is the sure knowledge that a trilogy ends after three books. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles by C A Higgins click here
For the review of Nisi Shawl's Everfair click here