April 11, 2019
(+++) THE FAR-AWAY FAMILIAR
The Luminous Dead. By Caitlin Starling. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Call it The ISP Phenomenon. The survival against long odds of an Irredeemably Stupid Protagonist is part and parcel of adventure stories of all kinds. That includes not-really-science-fictional ones such as Caitlin Starling’s debut novel, The Luminous Dead.
Superficially science fiction, the novel is really an old-fashioned thriller with at most a veneer of SF. Yes, it is set on another world a couple of hundred years in the future, with easy space travel and all sorts of high-tech equipment available to the population. But Starling makes a classic error of novice SF writers: she plucks technology advancements out of her authorial hat but leaves nonessential (to her) elements of the story in undisguised 21st-century form. Thus, while complex full-body ultra-manipulative protective suits allow cave explorers in Starling’s imagined world to accomplish far more than they otherwise could, there has apparently been absolutely no medical advancement for centuries, since the various stimulants, anxiolytics and sleep aids in use by the super-well-equipped cavers are exactly like current ones, with identical effects, side effects, and aftereffects. Um, not likely.
Starling also, in her rush to set up what she really wants to write – a thriller pitting two very different people against each other in the service of a more-or-less common cause, resulting in both of them being forced to delve deeply into their emotional and psychological beings – sets up a creaky “framing tale” to explain why only a single caver, wearing one of those high-tech suits, can handle highly dangerous belowground explorations. It seems that there are hyper-powerful, hyper-dangerous “Tunnelers” beneath the ground – a direct ripoff from, or tribute to, the sandworms of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune – and they destroy any human group larger than one, because…well, just because Starling wants it that way. There is really no reason for this, and no suitable explanatory setup. If a single 250-pound person can explore safely, for example, how about two 125-pound people? How exactly do these terrifying and enormously powerful creatures count the humans belowground, and to what do the Tunnelers respond or fail to respond? For Starling, these are side issues and therefore ones she passes over lightly – but SF readers will surely focus on them and find them more intriguing than the author does. (And apparently human/animal ethics have not evolved any more in this “future” than medical science has: the Tunnelers, which are natural inhabitants of the cave system and have evolved to fit their ecological niche, are deemed deeply evil, their wanton destruction not only worthy but also to be celebrated by humans.)
Starling cares primarily about the ISP. Her name is Gyre Price, who as a girl enjoyed doing some informal, amateur cave exploration. Then her mother, to whom Gyre was not particularly close, up and left, and since then Gyre wants nothing more than to find her mother – pretty thin motivation, all in all. So Gyre falsifies her cave-exploration credentials to get herself hired for a super-lucrative and super-dangerous job that will pay enough so Gyre can start the search for her mom. The job comes with the most-up-to-date exploration suit available, with bells and whistles on its bells and whistles. So Gyre, being an ISP, does not learn about the suit’s functions before putting it on and therefore repeatedly runs into self-caused life-threatening problems. And this super-high-tech suit happens to have an all-communications kill switch that, in the silliest part of a decidedly un-silly book, Gyre just happens to throw and just happens to be unable to switch back (since she never, you know, studied the suit’s workings), so she is completely cut off from her surface “handler” at a number of crucial junctures.
Oh, and the “handler,” who turns out to run the super-successful company that made Gyre’s suit, actually tracks down Gyre’s mother while Gyre is belowground, and downloads the information to Gyre’s suit – and Gyre, so desperate for this material for so long, decides not to look at it. This has been her 100% obsession, remember, so when she gets what she wants, she turns her back on it. Perfect ISP behavior. Furthermore, as circumstances deteriorate around her, when Gyre desperately needs something to cling to, such as her adult-life-long obsession, she again decides not to look at what she has wanted for so many years. Even when she believes, quite reasonably, that she is about to die, she decides not to look. This level of unbelievability would be laughable if Starling paused to think about it, but she is too busy with the next plot twist to bother.
Gyre’s handler, Em, has issues and obsessions of her own – part of the point of The Luminous Dead is that these two very different women are in many ways flip sides of each other, and there is both an emotional attraction between them and a physical one. Why Em’s super-sophisticated equipment contains a switch that an ISP can use to cut herself completely off from her handler, with neither of them able to reestablish contact, is just one of many plot contrivances never adequately explained. Or rather they are adequately explained, in a “meta” sense: they are there for the benefit of the author, not the characters and not plot consistency. Starling writes of Gyre at one point, quite seriously and with the intent to evoke readers’ emotions, “She was pathetic. They both were.” The fact is that this is quite true – just not in the emotionally trenchant way Starling means it. At another point, Gyre, in a fit of childish pique and to get back at Em for not being sufficiently emotionally available (!), deliberately smashes all the backup power sources for her suit except one, knowing for sure that she will not need more than one and determined, determined, to teach Em a lesson. Any reader with even a modicum of familiarity with thrillers will know exactly how dumb this is and exactly what is going to happen (if not precisely how it will happen). Indeed, it is only a few pages later that Gyre is saying, “This wasn’t supposed to happen!” Gyre: a perfect ISP.
It is a shame that Starling hews so closely to The ISP Phenomenon in The Luminous Dead, because the book is filled with genuinely tense, sometimes thrilling scenes, and the detail lavished on describing the dangerous elements of cave exploration is impressive. Em has Gyre follow dozens of previous cavers – most of whom died – into a terribly dangerous set of underground passages, not because she is seeking rich ore deposits, as is the norm on this ill-defined planet, but because she is seeking information on the fate of her parents, who went on an early multi-person exploratory journey and ended up dead. Maybe. There is a mystery about their fate. And there is an additional nicely sketched mystery here – another of the book’s strong points – when Gyre starts finding bodies of previous cavers sent in by Em (not a surprise) and then discovers supply caches missing or partly empty (yes a surprise). Unfortunately, as Starling herself becomes more wrapped up in the relationship between Gyre and Em, she seems to forget the way she has strewn the path with mysteries: most of them remain unexplained by book’s end, which is distinctly unfair to readers.
What Starling focuses on with increasing intensity as the book continues is Gyre’s mental state. Never particularly stable to begin with, it begins to deteriorate more and more quickly, and as Gyre’s nerves start to fray because of a multiplicity of her own ISP mistakes as well as the challenges inherent in the job she is doing, readers need to try to figure out whether Gyre is seeing genuine people or creatures living, impossibly, deep in the cave system; whether Gyre is hallucinating; or whether Em has knowledge far beyond anything she has disclosed to Gyre, to whom she has told quite a few lies already (with Gyre telling Em a number in return, although it is worth mentioning that Em discovered the phony elements in Gyre’s résumé but nevertheless decided she would be a good fit for this exploration – another plot place where “why?” is a question never adequately answered).
The usual elements of ISP Phenomenon thrillers are nicely handled by Starling, including the very-very-very-near-death experiences of the ISP, the motivational uncertainties of the characters, and the deft way in which the good-bad dichotomy between the principals rebalances and changes over time. Starling has a strongly cinematic writing pace, allowing only brief respite between perils as Gyre’s role as ISP brings her right to the verge of madness and/or oblivion time after time. The interaction between Gyre and Em, although somewhat formulaic, is also well-paced and well-handled. And the interweaving of real-world dangers with possible mental deterioration, another trope of the thriller genre, is managed with similar skill. It is unfortunate that Gyre never rises above the level of ISP and never seems a fully formed character, nor does Em go much beyond the formulaic antagonist-who-may-not-be-so-awful-after-all role. The Luminous Dead is in many ways a strong debut novel, but it has enough rough edges to show that Starling’s abilities require some honing if she wants to rise above ISP-focused genre potboilers in future books – although, to be fair, genre potboilers using The ISP Phenomenon can be a very profitable authorial niche.