There’s nothing I love more than a good locked-room murder mystery, an eternally beloved subgenre of crime writing that embodies humanity’s dogged need to know. But these can also be, more often than not, one-dimensional narrative dioramas that stick to the basic formula without distinction. This is, unsurprisingly, not the case with Far From the Light of Heaven, Tade Thompson’s newest novel which marries shades of gothic horror with a sleuthing mystery and hard sci-fi rooted in real astronauts’ accounts of living in space.
Translating a complex murder from a conventional terrestrial setting into the rigidly-controlled environment of space comes with its own risks, namely when it comes to balancing the dry technological foundations of the story’s reality—the minutiae of astronaut training, space travel and so forth—with suitably gripping momentum. The novel unfolds a bold vision of Afrofuturistic space in the form of the Lagos system where Earth is mostly a distant bureaucratic presence. Even when you edge closer toward the third act, Thompson’s light touch and subtle misdirections mostly steer Heaven away from getting overly mired in heavy-handed cliches and formulaic wrap-ups.
But Heaven is a slow burn, taking its time to build emotional connections between a tight ensemble cast: acting spaceship captain Michelle “Shell” Campion, disgraced “repatriator” Fin and his Artificial companion Salvo, veteran astronaut Lawrence Biz and his too-cool-for-school half-alien daughter, Joké. Then of course there are the AIs who go by their given ship names—the interstellar spaceship Ragtime which holds the scene(s) of the crime, surrounded by a small constellation of lesser AIs that loosely follow a familiar rubric of Asimov-like rules.
Shell, assigned to her first spaceflight as first mate on the Ragtime, wakes from sleep to find that the ship’s AI has gone rogue, along with a pile of dead body parts. The Ragtime isn’t just any old ship, either—it’s carrying the richest man in known space, a cornucopia of unknown biological experiments, and an elusive killer. Shell, who has been sculpted for this role from birth thanks to her high-profile spacefaring family, has to bring all her training to bear for a situation that theoretically shouldn’t be possible. Enter Fin, a law enforcement “repatriator” from the planet Bloodroot who shunts stray Lambers—mostly docile alien entities who offer humans drug-like comforts—back into their dimension. He, Lawrence, and Joké join Shell on the Ragtime and inadvertently get roped into solving the murders, with chaotic results.
The premise invokes one part Event Horizon, one part “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (which Thompson explicitly names as an inspiration in the afterword) with a touch of HAL 9000 and Hellraiser—there are no interdimensional portals to hell realms, but a pointed look zealotry and morality and what happens when both human and AI transcend those limits. Thompson, who has a knack for bending assorted genres to his will, borrows from the supernatural. There’s a good chunk of ominous build-up and a rather Gothic portrait of internal torture and struggle woven into mostly economical, businesslike scenes of people trying to stay alive on a malfunctioning spaceship. There’s an unintentional touch of Hitchcockian humor in Fin’s story, too, and one can’t help but think that Thompson flavors some of his more macabre snippets with his professional experience as a psychiatrist.
But Heaven doesn’t fully show its hand until well past the halfway mark when we’re introduced to the other side of population—an indentured community of miners who “belong” to MaxGalactix, an omnipotent, seemingly omnipresent mega-corporation founded by aforementioned quintillionaire Yan Maxwell.
Due to their vocation, the Tehani’s bodies are riddled with toxins (nebulously referred to as “Exotics”) so they must stay away from the rest of the world, forced to dig, and generally keep their existence as unremarkable as possible under MaxGalactix’s watchful eye. Their chosen champion is named after a Biblical prophet, and they serve mostly as a stand-in for the multitude of oppressed indigenous communities in our current reality, as well as those that will inevitably fuel the future wave of space colonization with their bones and blood.
Over the course of the novel, Thompson breaks down the lone genius detective trope into a haphazard group effort where everyone is very clearly flying by the seat of their respective pants. And for the most part it works, thanks to Thompson’s “less is more” approach to exposition and worldbuilding—for the first chunk of the novel, for instance, we’re mostly left to fill in the blanks about Lambers and their role on Bloodroot. Heaven’s well-oiled narrative is very much founded upon this small ecosystem of characters working together, but if given more time on their own, Fin and Joké, and to an extent Lawrence, might have benefited from a little more conceptual flesh on their individual bones.
The real meat of Heaven coalesces around a very distinct strain of slow, seething justice that comes at a tremendous cost. It’s the sort of justice that has the potential to bring clarity and strength to others before it’s too late. Thompson preys on contemporary fears to devise grisly but familiar scenes of machine-driven devastation, possibly because so much of modern life is pop culture living rent-free in our collective consciousness. That aside, Heaven offers refreshing perspectives on both terrestrial and space colonialism, the impact of multiculturalism and Blackness in a realm historically dominated by white capitalism; it’s a meticulously-crafted slice of Yoruba culture brought to the stars.
The most compelling thing about Heaven, though, is the way it positions Lagos at the very end of the book—cut off from Earth but bristling with a galvanized sense of solidarity that overrides its internal differences. It’s a big beautiful explodey fuck-you to the space capitalism as we know it, and perhaps a message that we should hear more often.
Far From the Light of Heaven is published by Orbit.
Alexis Ong is a freelance culture journalist with weak ankles who mainly writes about games, tech, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The Verge, Polygon, Kotaku, Rock Paper Shotgun, VICE, Dazed Digital, and more; soft spots include science fiction, internet archaeology, comics, boxing, and old games. You can find her at her website or on Twitter.