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Stealing Light by Gary Gibson
Review by John Berlyne
Tor Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780230700406
Date: 5th October 2007 /

Uncorrected Proof Copy: Gary Gibson's third hard SF novel sees Tor UK publish him in hardcover for the first time - which is, I always think, a show of faith and confidence in an author. Following the fine critical reaction to Gibson's previous works, Angel Stations and Against Gravity, we now have Stealing Light published this month and reviewed this issue.

"In the 25th century, only the Shoal possess the secret of faster-than-light travel, giving them absolute control over all trade and exploration throughout the galaxy.

Former military pilot Dakota Merrick has witnessed the atrocities for which this alien race is responsible. Now she is piloting a civilian cargo ship on an exploration to a star system containing a derelict ship, from which her passengers hope to salvage a faster-than-light travel drive of mysteriously non-Shoal origin. But the Shoal are not yet ready to relinquish their monopoly over a technology they acquired through ancient genocide."

Gary Gibson is part of the extraordinarily creative wave of Scottish genre writing that is enjoying so much critical (and one hopes, commercial) success right now. Joining the ranks of established figures like Iain M. Banks and Ken Macleod, authors such as Hal Duncan, Alan Campbell, Neil Williamson, Deborah J. Miller, Michael Cobley and Gibson have all been making a name for themselves with inventive and highly energised quality genre works. Some on this list produce work that lies in the cross-over areas that exist between SF, fantasy and horror, but Gibson – so far at least – has aligned himself with the recognised traditions of Scottish science fiction as exemplified by particularly by Banks. In his new book Stealing Light, there is nothing that could be considered uniquely Scottish, but there is much that could be considered Banksian. This comparison is definitely most valid as homage, rather than rip-off - Gibson is not trying to write a Culture novel here, but certain thematic similarities are present.

Dakota Merrick is a "machine-head", an ex-military pilot with wiring in her brain that allows her a particular affinity with machines and links her to others of her kind via a kind of wireless neural network. Gibson introduces his feisty female protagonist at a point of high drama in her life – we meet her at the heart of a massacre in which she appears to be the prime mover. From this insertion point, Gibson then jumps the reader to a later timeline, and refers back to this event, eventually revealing to us the causes and reasons behind it. It's a little disorientating in narrative terms, but actually turns out to work rather well by the time all is revealed.

Having met Dakota, Gibson then begins to map out the universe of his space opera thus – an alien race, The Shoal, are the sole possessors of the Faster-Than-Light drive, a technology they jealously guard. The Shoal are the controlling force in the settled galaxy, their main motive appearing to be that of trade. However, we learn that they also have on their home world, elders who are able to look into the murky depths of the future and they predict something… bad. And that something involves Dakota. If the Shoal can manipulate events, the bad thing they predict just might be avoided and so through the actions of an agent, they begin to put a chain of events into motion.

Dakota in the meantime, aboard her ship (which has a very Banksian AI running the show) is hired to haul some cargo of unknown origin to an asteroid which is the home of a shadowy gangster, all very hush hush. She needs the work and is perhaps a little too desperate to consider the basic precautions of her trade. Consequently she is blamed (and framed) when things spiral out of control and finds herself in even more desperate straights. At this point (after dipping back in the timeline once again) we enter act two of Gibson's novel, as Dakota – literally on the run for her life – is hired as a pilot for particularly secret mission.

Gibson gives us an excellent set up – his universe is dynamic, the aliens (as aliens go) plausible and the human factions neither over-complicated nor over-simplistic. It is one of these factions, The Freehold, that have hired Dakota as a pilot – but their reasons for doing so are far more involved than at first appear. The Freehold is a militaristic society, a human faction, like all the others, very much in thrall of The Shoal. However, Freehold scientists have apparently discovered an ancient derelict ship containing an FTL drive not of Shoal origin, and if the Freehold can get hold of it, and find a pilot capable of plugging into its systems, the political ramifications would be profound.

Act two takes us on the journey towards the derelict and, of course, act three tells of what transpires once this goal is reached. For the most part, Gibson does well in keeping the momentum of this large scale story together, though I did feel that the plotting became progressively looser as the climax of the novel approached, with the pacing becoming a little unstable. Nonetheless, Tor UK, having previously published two of Gibson's SF novels are touting Stealing Light as his "breakout book" and I think they may well be right about this. It's a tight and engaging piece of Science Fiction, and sets up the very interesting and tantalising possibility of any number of novels and stories in Gibson's universe. Two further novels in this immediate sequence have been bought by Tor UK, and the future looks deservedly bright for this star of the Scottish school.

Be sure to pay a visit to Gibson's web blog, the wonderfully titled White Screen of Despair.

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