Supernova (Lightless #2) by C. A. Higgins Review
The very best SF novels of old were often social allegories for their time. There’s something to be said for SF which not only effectively explores genre tropes, but which also holds a strong social connotation too. What Higgins does here is less crafting an allegory and is more a deep and brave exploration of the delicate subject which plagues our time: terrorism.
Our world is beset by terrorist actions almost on a daily basis and it creates both fear and anger in our populace. Higgins takes the idea of terrorism (violent revolution to overthrow key powers) and explores it from both sides of the table. The narrative ricochet’s back and forth between the point of view of Althea, who is alone aboard the now sentient Ananke, and Constance Harper – the Mallt-y-Nos; the Huntress – as she leads her terror-laden revolution to overthrow The System once and for all. Below you will find our spoiler-heavy review of Supernova.
Where her first novel in this trilogy, Lightless, was a boxed in study of interrogation and deception, Supernova opens up the playing field immensely by spreading the narrative out into the greater world. It’s a smart move from Higgins, as it removes the restrictions of her first novel, while still allowing her to retain the Ananke’s claustrophobic atmosphere for half of this new narrative. Truly, this second instalment is Higgins kick starting the narrative into motion, making you feel like it has only just begun here and that Lightless had just been some long dreamy preface, designed only to set up the characters.
It is the addition of Constance’s point of view that excited us the most when we started this novel. It’s something that we simply didn’t expect to be provided with and we love Higgins allowing us inside the mind of this intriguing villain. We are also shown the origin of Constance’s hatred for The System, in an insightful vision of her Mother being torn away from her by System men and Constance only remembering the hands of her kidnappers.
Throwing herself eagerly into battle and lines like “f*ck your Earth” and “those bombs are justice” are staple for Constance’s persona as the Mallt-y-Nos, but far more interesting are the little insights into Constance’s true feelings. For example, how Constance finds herself at a loss once The System has been destroyed, forcing her to ponder how she only ever knew how to destroy things rather than create. Or when he hear how Constance rationalises murder: “Ivan was too focused on the details,” she explains – referring to his reluctance to murder – “he never could see the bigger picture.” Hearing other characters’ views of Constance also reveals a lot about her; one character towards the end of the book says of her: “at least The System knew when to stop,” which foreshadows and plays into this novel’s closing moments.
Ivan, although dead, still plays a role in this book through narrative flashbacks concerning Constance. These chapters are not always easy to recognise as flashback immediately and sometimes we found ourselves a little lost for a moment. The discerning signifiers of a flashback chapters are often simply Ivan’s presence, or the preface ‘before the fall of Earth’, which do add clarity once you learn to look out for these. Ivan is also used a somewhat of the moral crux of this novel (which is interesting, given his position in Lightless) and through flashback we see his true stance on the revolution and on Constance’s actions.
The best of these moments is when Ivan pleads with Constance to stop what she is doing. He tells her that she’s only ever looked for the fast solution and that “if you do this then you will be doing the exact same thing to The System’s people as The System did to yours. There is no difference. Do you understand that?” Higgins hits on the harsh truth of the exponential ability of retaliatory terrorism – you may avenge your people, through murder, but then you become the monster that you hate and this is a cycle that spirals out of control.
As we progressed through the book, it was interesting to note the similarities between Constance and Althea, who are made to appear as dichotomous at a first glance, but who, in reality, are all too similar. Both are possessive in the extreme, for example. Constance states: “welcome to my war” and Althea calls the Ananke “my daughter” very quickly and with ease, despite the Ananke being a ship. Both Constance and Althea have also begun something dangerous that is now well outside of their control (the revolution and the Ananke). On the surface you might find that one key difference between these characters is how Constance embraces her dangerous creation, while Althea is keen to dispose of hers, to prevent further harm being caused by her (“I wish I had never made you!” she at one point screams). However, by the novel’s close, you will find that both characters make a very similar choice.
The Ananke is truly one of the most fascinating components within Higgins’ trilogy – who, it should be pointed out, holds a a degree in physics – which will no doubt prove the constant that runs through all three books, even if the human characters themselves don’t survive. One of the most fascinating moments is when the Ananke mulls on the existence of God. “God is a computer,” the Ananke states. “Who made the computer?” Althea asks. “It made itself,” the Ananke concludes, going on to explain that people can only make things out of other things, while Gods can create something out of nothing at all. Althea and the Ananke ponder on whether the universe is a simulation (which is a very cool notion), and the Ananke states that she doesn’t think it would take an infinite amount of time to make a simulation of that kind.
Another of the most fascinating points in the book is when Althea mulls on how Ananke might exist in many years to come. Firstly, the Ananke offers to prolong Althea’s human life by incorporating her into her system, which Althea grows angry at, stating that this is unnatural. Then Althea mulls on a vision of the Ananke alone in millions of years to come, with monstrous results. She describes the ship as “not truly alive but semi-autonomous,” having created her own companion ships which are “puppets of Ananke.” Althea then envisions: “Ananke flying through the solar system, unchecked, unfettered, uncontrolled, dragging with her a fleet of ships.” Ultimately she concludes that: “the war that Constance Harper had begun would be nothing compared to what Althea’s wild daughter could do,” which places the Ananke as this trilogy’s primary villain, if you choose to classify this by who is more dangerous.
SF is no stranger to advanced artificial intelligence turning malicious, but we like the way that Higgins handles this. Althea plays the Mothering role for a child that she never planned on, trying to teach and berate her “daughter” along the way, and the Ananke plays the role of unruly child, who seeks only her own satisfaction and only obeys her own logic. The Ananke even knows how to play her “Mother”, when she states: “Am I not your daughter? Am I not your little girl? Am I not a person?”
The book’s title comes from the Ananke’s desire to witness a supernova occur, which is described as “the most violent single act in the universe… the greatest stars have the shortest lives.” We knew upon reading this line that it was no doubt a foreshadowing of the death of a main character (a warning to stop reading now if you don’t want the meatiest of spoilers). The “greatest star” could be any of: Constance, Althea or the Ananke, we assumed, and the “shortest lives” no doubt indicated their approaching demise. By the novel’s close we were proved right, both in Constance’s demise and also partly in Althea’s transformation.
Both fatal endings we found to be utterly beautiful. Althea’s integration into Ananke was horrific yet full of a fascinating eloquence. Higgins uses language like “skin pealed off like petals” and describes the blood being soaked up by the Ananke as fast as it could spill. The “unspeakable terror”, as Althea puts it, is wonderfully communicated by Higgins and the scene concludes in further wonderment: not only does Althea witness Ida, smiling at her, but Althea also offers a heartfelt apology (of whom she begs this forgiveness, she does not know). Once part of the Ananke, Althea can see out of the ship’s cameras and can “feel the curvature of space.” Given the Ananke’s talk earlier on in the novel about how the ship wanted to manipulate entropy and time, we’re very excited indeed to see where the third and final novel in this trilogy takes us.
Even more poetic and elegant was Constance’s demise, which gave us physical chills by its close. After Constance is captured and marched for her execution, a supernova-like event occurs in the sky, which provides Constance with a window in which she could easily sway her executioners back to her side, if she chose to try. Constance, remembering Ivan’s words and knowing what further bloodshed would follow if she did this, decides not to take this avenue and instead welcomes her own death (ending her own creation that is the Mallt-y-Nos, much like Althea tried to end the Ananke). Her final line beckons the executioners to “fire!” and the novel closes out here, veering sharply into nothingness, just like Constance’s life.
Supernova not only vastly surpasses the quality of Lightless, but it is also our favourite release this year to date. It’s not easy to improve upon a strong debut novel, but Higgins achieves this in spades. What results is socially relevant and deeply inventive SF, which combines to make one hell of a read. For those who haven’t tried Higgins yet, we recommend that you go back and start from Lightless. Those who, like us, are going into this second instalment as Higgins fans are certain to come out very impressed indeed, as well as even bigger fans of this trilogy, by the novel’s close.
Supernova is available to buy now on Amazon and on Audible. We recommend the audiobook, due to Fiona Hardingham’s exceptional delivery of the narrative and its characters.
Image credits: Del Rey