Welcome to Diversity in Sci-Fi! Today we are reviewing The Luminous Dead, a creepy futuristic book about a caver who lies her way into a dangerous mission with the promise of enough money to make it off world.
Title/Author: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
Summary: Gyre didn’t know that lying about her experience would have such grave consequences. She was lured by the sheer amount of money that the expedition offered, enough to get her off this planet. Now she is alone in a cave, descending towards an unknown objective, worried about running out of battery power and the ever-present threat of the Tunneler… and her sole backup is Em. Em will do anything for the sake of the mission, even control Gyre’s suit or dose her with drugs…
Book Format: Paper
Length: 414 pages
In last month’s post, I mentioned my concern about how race would be handled within the book. I was worried it would be left up to the reader’s interpretation. Em, at least, is explicitly portrayed as mixed race. When we first see her via camera, she is described as a “dark-skinned, very tired woman” with “thick, pure black hair, haloing around her face in a mess of tight curls.” We also see videos of her parents, a man “with a rich, lilting accent [and …] nearly black skin” and a woman who is “pale-skinned [with] her blond hair curling gently against her cheeks.” Gyre is more ambiguous. When she describes her own mother to Em, she says her mother looked just like she does, with “light brown skin, freckles, red hair.” If Caitlin Starling intended her to be Afro-Latina like Tessa Thompson, she could have clearly shown that, instead of giving the reader leeway to read her as a very tan redhead. I was disappointed with Gyre’s lack of physical description overall, but I can understand the reason for that. She was locked in an environmental suit. I will add that there was also diversity in the few background characters, the cavers that came before Gyre. Jensen Liao, Yao Hanmei, Halian Foster, and so on.
I am an absolute sucker for a good enemies-to-lovers to story. The relationship between Gyre and Em is fascinating to watch as it develops over the course of the book. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that they end up together (in her interview, Caitlin Starling markets it as “angry, traumatized lesbians in caves.”). Getting there is an interesting process, given that Em drugs and controls Gyre without her consent. Part of me wonders if maybe they feel a little too strongly about each other by the end of the novel, but part of me thinks they’re justified in falling fast and hard: the two of them are clinging to each other through a very traumatic experience. They are both each other’s lifelines. Gyre needs Em to keep her alive, literally, and Em needs Gyre to keep her from being a monster.
The women in this book, Gyre and Em are wonderful. They both feel like fully fleshed out characters. They have flaws, they make mistakes (Em, obviously, given her very grey morals, but Gyre isn’t perfect either: I was literally yelling at her for something she did at the end of the book). But they have wonderful qualities too: vivacity, intelligence, loyalty. Honestly, I’ve always enjoyed villains, so I was anticipating liking Em as a character regardless, but it does set you up to hate her for what she does to Gyre. I commend the book for changing my mindset from “hate to love” to pure love. Will it change yours?
I loved this book! I thought it was creepy and very well written for a debut novel. I could feel the mental strain Gyre went through, isolated in a cave with naught but a voice in her head (and sometimes not even that!) and an environmental suit to protect her from the dangers that lurked within. There’s a reason that the legality of solitary confinement has been challenged within the justice system. Humans aren’t meant to be trapped in their own heads, devoid from human contact, and away from the sun or any kind of natural light. It was fascinating to see the toll it took on Gyre, especially given the things she encountered over the course of the book. The story was very heavy on the details of the caving itself, especially in the beginning, but I didn’t mind. I thought it heightened the suspense. I hung on to every word!
Finally, in honor of The 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing, I’d like to share with you a few more science fiction books about people who go to extraordinary lengths to see other planets.
July 20, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing! Celebrate by reading one of these fascinating science fiction books about desperate and determined individuals who go to extraordinary lengths for the chance to leave their home planet.