Light Chaser by Peter F. Hamilton & Gareth L. Powell
2021’s Light Chaser novella is a collaboration between Gareth Powell and Peter F. Hamilton. This fast-paced story actually spans centuries, featuring a functionally-immortal woman, Amahle. The sole occupant of her AI controlled lightship, Amahle, the titular Light Chaser, is one of many of her kind, who travel a “circuit” of human-occupied planets, collecting the memory collars selected families wear for generations. In return, Amahle provides carefully chosen wealth and trinkets, careful never to provide something that might allow the stable (or stagnant) societies on these worlds to make any kind of leap forward in technology or political thinking.
Amahle works for EverLast, a company within the Dominion. Humans fled an uninhabitable earth and took to the stars, but once the original terraforming of planets was completed, each world settled into a rut. Even if some are technologically advanced, they don’t advance any further than where they are now. The memory collars provide hours of entertainment for the wealthy, powerful and high-tech people of the Dominion—and for Amahle herself, who often wiles away the days/weeks/years between planets by binge-watching the memories of people on different planets. To her shock, a visitor to one of the collar-wearers seems to be speaking directly to her. And then, in another lifetime on another planet, another collar-wearer gets a different visitor who does the same thing. Amahle’s first message is, “You must not trust your AI.”
Amahle has trusted the AI who is her ship for millennia, literally. She herself is genetically altered with “eight-letter DNA” as well as various biological and hardware enhancements. Along the way, the AI has made adjustments to her memory as it’s deemed necessary—removing the imprint of traumatic events when a planetfall hasn’t gone well, for instance. Now Amahle has to wonder what other memories the ship has altered. And the strange tattoo the multi-planet visit has nags at her—what do the numbers 10102021 mean? As her mystery planet-jumper, Carloman, explains more and more to each planetary local he visits (aiming his words at Amahle) she learns that the stagnation of human civilization is not accidental or “natural,” but planned—and Carloman is counting on her to help him undo it completely.
The high-tech parts of this story sparkled; the ships, the memory collars, the various degrees of technological advancement on various planets. A steam train is an exciting as a starship. Hamilton and Powell have good fun with Amahle’s various wardrobe changes. Through Carloman, always seen in the memory of another person, we get a larger view of the various human societies. I love that part of the book, and I really enjoyed the puzzle aspect. Who is Carloman and how can be on different planets, centuries apart? The excitement spikes when Amahle confronts her supercilious AI, leading to a physical altercation—human versus ship. As a reader who knows slightly more than zero about quantum physics, I found the inclusion of the “strangelet” particle plausible and convincing.
The relationship between Carloman and Amahle is more glorified, romanticized, and less believable. There is a lot of early-days sexual infatuation on Amahle’s part as she gazes into his gorgeous eyes and so on, but theoretically, they were together for a long time. (And of course, they’ve been apart for millennia.) I didn’t buy the mutual “you’re still so beautiful,” vibe, but your mileage may vary. And frankly, the rest of the tale is exciting enough that I can let that go.
I don’t read a lot of space-based SF, but I’m glad I read this one. It carried me right along. The imagery was fun and inventive, and I liked our smart, feisty, sarcastic protagonist. Light Chaser is a great way to spend a few enjoyable hours.