A work written in cooperation by Peter Hamilton and Gareth Powell was bound to pique my curiosity, so as soon as this novella became available I had to read it: it was a strange experience – in a good way, of course – because it offered many tantalizing glimpses into what might have been a broader, much more layered narrative, while telling a compact, circumscribed story whose arc encompasses only a handful of pages.
The titular Light Chaser is Amahle, a lone traveler who is almost immortal: genetic modifications and the time-dilation factor of her ship’s near-lightspeed velocity allowed her to live for millennia as she completes her unchanging circuit through a number of planets where her visits are hailed as extraordinary events. Her employers, Ever Life, are the alien creatures called the Exalted and living on Glisten, the final port of call of each circuit: in the course of her stopovers Amahle retrieves her employers’ memory collars from the planets’ dwellers and leaves new ones for the next generations – these are artifacts that record a person’s life experiences for the vicarious enjoyment of the Exalted and are considered a great honor for the individuals so entrusted, who pass them on as precious heirlooms to the family’s various members.
Amahle herself experiences these lives as a form of pastime during the long journeys from one planet to the other, when her only companionship on the Mnemosyne comes from the highly advanced ship’s AI. Someday though, a man addresses the Light Chaser directly in one of those recordings, stating that his real name is Carloman, that they share a common history and – more important – that she should not trust the onboard AI. I prefer to leave the synopsis at that, because the story is so short that more details would certainly spoil your enjoyment…
Memory is indeed the front and center theme in Light Chaser – and the ship’s name is certainly not a random choice, given that in Greek mythology Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory: the concept of the memory collars is an intriguing one, at first looking like a way of monitoring the evolutionary situation on the many planets in Amahle’s circuit – places that range from medieval societies to more technologically advanced ones – but then taking on a sinister connotation as the Light Chaser is made aware of the reality behind the clever smokescreen. This change in perspective transforms the story into a puzzle-solving quest first and a history-changing mission later, with Amahle having to literally find herself again thanks to the mysterious Carloman’s clues scattered throughout other people’s memories and encounters she searches for in her collection of collars.
Given the novella’s shortness and its strong reliance on plot, characters are somehow left by the wayside, particularly where Amahle is concerned: I could never fully connect with her even though I was invested in her journey, but I guess this depends on the fact that she is detached from herself as well. In order to fulfill her ages-long mission, and to keep experiencing those vicarious memories, she must purge her own from time to time, in a way discarding the old to make room for the new: this entails losing pieces of herself and of her past, something that she struggles to reconnect with thanks to Carloman’s influence and the clues offered through his various appearances in the stored memories.
In the end, I came to understand that my lack of connection with Amahle was the result of her lack of connection with herself, of her loss of everything that made her the person she originally was: giving up the memories of her own past (and at some point we understand the reason she would choose to take that path, either consciously or not) she let herself drift aimlessly through space and time losing any power of choice – at some point Amahle likens herself to a comet:
A frozen wanderer sidling in from the darkness to briefly warm myself by the light of the sun, before being flung back out on the next lap of my long, solitary orbit.
It’s only with the appearance of the enigmatic Carloman that she is able to regain that power as she reconnects piece by piece with the memories of who she was and who Carloman was to her. And to finally choose to break out of the unending cycle that kept her prisoner for so long while she believed she was the one in control…
If I have to find any fault in this story it might be in the way many details are left vague and incomplete: we get short peeks at those planetary societies Amahle visits and as soon as we become invested in their peculiar layout we are taken away by the Mnemosyne as it departs for another station of its circuit; or again we are kept wondering how Carloman – once his real identity is revealed – was able to do what he did (apologies for the ambiguity but I want to avoid spoilers here) time and again.
On hindsight, this novella looks like a trailer for a much longer, much more layered novel that could have taken on the scope of a sweeping space opera – still, for all its shortness, Light Chaser works well offering an intriguing, and often suspenseful, story and some food for thought about identity and memory and the meaning of life.
It will be interesting to see if these two authors team up again and what they might come up with next…