The brand new space opera novel Lightless is a fast-paced, gripping read, and like all good science fiction, explores the human side of cutting-edge scientific concepts. We talked to debut author C.A. Higgins about using real physics in her story.
In Lightless, a prototype spaceship on its maiden voyage on behalf of a totalitarian regime is infiltrated by escaped terrorists. And it’s up to Althea, a socially awkward computer scientist who prefers the company of the Ananke’s disturbingly sentient electronic system to that of her crewmates, to save the day as her well-ordered world begins to unravel.
While Higgins cites multiple cultural influences on her writing—name-checking Battlestar Galactica, The Usual Suspects, Alien, Event Horizon, 1970s British space opera Blake’s 7, Sartre’s No Exit, and George Orwell’s 1984—she also found inspiration in thermodynamics, most notably the concept of entropy. Higgins majored in physics at Cornell, and wrote Lightless while still in school. And she finds nothing unusual about straddling the traditional divide between science and the humanities.
We caught up with Higgins to find out more.
Lightless kind of defies traditional genre boundaries: it’s an entertaining mashup of science fiction, mystery and thriller. Did you set out to bring all those elements to the book?
I intended Lightless to be in the science fiction genre originally, but as I wrote it became clear to me that there was a lot of tension to get out of questions like what Ivan knows or doesn’t know, who the Mallt-y-Nos is, and what’s going on with the ship. I also found that I really enjoyed the thriller-like dynamic between, for instance, Ivan and Ida. Science fiction and fantasy are my favorite genres, but I will read just about any genre if I hear that the book is good. This goes triply if the novel was written in the 1800s. I love the Victorians.
What drives Althea to bond so strongly with the ship’s electronic systems instead of her fellow humans? She says it’s because it matches her analytical mind, but it’s as much an emotional bond as an intellectual one.
Althea’s connection to the Ananke is very emotional. To her, the ship is her home, her work, her hobby, and her creation, and she comes to see it as a sort of child. Because of this, she is a bridge between the very human world of the other characters and the more mythical world of the Ananke. There are a few pairs of characters in the novel who—wittingly or unwittingly—create something together, the way parents would create a child. And each time, that child is something extraordinary—or something terrible, depending on how you look at it.
Althea is one of those parents.
You divided the three sections of Lightless according to the three laws of thermodynamics, which can be summed up as: you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game. How did physics in general—and thermodynamics in particular—inform the book?
That’s a great way to sum them up! The whole book was inspired by a moment when I looked at a problem about ideal gas particles in a box and thought, “They’re just like little people.” If you freeze them, they huddle together for warmth. If you make their box smaller, they panic and start running into the walls. And with everything they do, the system becomes a little more chaotic. I thought it would be interesting to trap a few people in an isolated, unstable setting and watch their own fears and conflicting motivations drive them all over the edge.
The laws of thermodynamics, especially as you just described them, have this great, claustrophobic, doomed feel to them. If you extrapolate them out to the end of the universe they describe this existentially terrifying end where everything is disordered and it is literally impossible to do anything about it. Nothing can ever happen again. It’s called “heat death”, because of the connection between heat and entropy, and that really captured my imagination. I tried to infuse the situation on the Ananke with something of that frightening, claustrophobic sense of moving forward inexorably to an inescapable state of extreme chaos.
You thank one college professor in particular in your acknowledgements— the one who taught your thermodynamics class. Why do you credit him with inspiring Ananke’s existence? And why is thermodynamics such a bitch to learn?
I got the idea for Ananke while staring in mute horror at the aforementioned “particles-in-a-box” problem he was putting on the board, so he deserves the credit. I think thermodynamics is such a bitch because in order to actually understand why what you’re doing works, you have to understand statistical mechanics, which I don’t.
You’ve said that you see no divide between art and math. Do you think we might finally be moving past the “two cultures” mentality inflicted upon us decades ago by author C.P. Snow?
Sciences and the humanities are taught differently, and although I’ve always had more ease with the humanities, I strongly prefer the way the sciences are taught and often wished that my humanities classes were stricter. Many of my friends in the physics major were artistic, also; most of them did theatre to some extent. But people do think very differently. I have extremely intelligent friends who are primarily artistic and whose brains flatline when it comes to math, and vice versa. It is beyond me to say exactly why that is, but I do think that some people’s thought processes correspond more readily with one “culture” or the other.
I do wish there was less of an expectation that if you were good at one of the “two cultures,” you would be bad at the other. Especially when I was younger it felt like the world was giving me an out to pick one and not bother trying with the other.
Lightless is the first book in a planned trilogy. Any hints about what we might expect in the sequel, Supernova?
Supernova will pick up where Lightless left off, and follow several of the characters as they’re drawn deeper and deeper into the chaos resulting from the events at the end of Lightless. Let’s just say a lot of quotes by Robespierre made their way into the outline for Supernova.
You have an undergraduate degree in physics, and a fictional trilogy in progress. Any plans to go on to graduate school in physics, or is writing ultimately your first love?
Maybe one day I’ll want to go to graduate school for physics, but for the moment, writing and I are in an exclusive relationship.