Stealing Light is the first book in the “Shoal Sequence” space opera trilogy by Gary Gibson. Though part of a series, Stealing Light also works very well as a self-contained story. Gibson is an author who is, unfortunately, all but unknown in the United States; I became aware of him by sheer chance and had to track down the British versions of his books. Happily, it was worth it.
Five centuries from now, humanity has begun to spread among the stars with the help of the Shoal, an ancient race of aquatic aliens with a monopoly on faster-than-light travel. Their vast interstellar vessels have made an interstellar human civilization possible- but one utterly dependent on the Shoal. Humans are only allowed passage through a small portion of the vast expanses of space under the Shoal's dominion. Our contact with- or even knowledge of- other sentient species is strictly controlled and filtered by the Shoal, and our technological development is restricted to ensure that we can never become their equals.
The main character is Dakota Merrick, a pilot and former soldier turned smuggler. Merrick is one of a small number of surviving “machine-heads”- products of a disastrous and now abandoned military project to create soldiers with implants that allow their minds to directly interface with machines. On one of the more marginal human-settled worlds two groups of settlers, the Uchidans and the militaristic Freeholders, wage war for control of the planet. The war is going badly for the Freehold, but its agents make a momentous discovery- an unimaginably ancient alien spacecraft, older even than the Shoal, with technology that could put whoever possessed it on an equal footing with them. Successfully unlocking the knowledge in the ship's vast databanks and taking control of the vessel is beyond their abilities- but it may not be beyond a machine-head's.
Machine-heads have been hard to come by since the tragedy that led to the abandonment of the technology, but when Merrick finds herself in need of work and a way to lie low after a job goes awry she becomes an ideal candidate. She accepts employment with the freehold accompanying an expedition to the Nova Arctis system for what she has been told is an expedition scouting possible locations for the freehold to relocate if it loses the war. There, buried, the ship that the freeholders stumbled upon awaits. With her is Senator Arbenz,an ambitious Freeholder politician, and Lucas Corso, a freehold specialist in alien programming languages who Arbenz has blackmailed into coming along.
Their mission could radically change a state of affairs that has persisted in this region of the galaxy for tens of thousands of years. Meanwhile, an agent of the Shoal who calls himself Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals is about to become a player in these events. The Deep Dreamers, huge genetically engineered Shoal that can perceive the vast web of possibilities shaping the near future and predict probable future events, have seen a catastrophe unfolding in the near future that would mean the destruction of countless species, and perhaps even the Shoal. Trader has dedicated his millennia-long life to protecting his people, no matter the cost to other species- and his mission will soon bring him into contact with Dakota Merrick.
I liked Stealing Light quite a bit. There's a lot of excitement, excellent pacing, and some very impressive action sequences. The central conflict held my interest, and the revelations about the questions raised earlier in the book- the motives of the Shoal, the nature of the disaster predicted by the Deep Dreamers, the reason the machine-head project was abandoned- are interesting and well-done.
The book has a tighter focus than many large-scale space operas- the great majority of the book directly follows Dakota Merrick, rather than a large number of different plot threads and characters in the manner of stories like Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth series or Alastair Reynolds. In Stealing Light's case this works out quite well- Dakota Merrick is an interesting protagonist, and the focus helps the book keep up its momentum.
I greatly enjoyed the setting, which had a nice sense of eeriness and successfully created an impressive sense of scale. This starts off early, with the revelation that humans had recently detected a massive series of supernovae in the Large Magellanic Cloud. In addition to creating a sense of foreboding and mystery, it drives home the inhumanly vast scope of events, in both time and space- it took 160,000 years for the light from this catastrophe to reach human territory. The later revelations about both the Shoal and the mysterious race that built the ship abandoned Nova Arctis add to this.
I also especially like the briefly glimpsed Shoal home planet, a world intentionally set adrift from its parent star and propelled into interstellar space by the Shoal's unimaginable technology and sustained by the light and heat of the miniature artificial fusion “suns” orbiting it. The entire surface is covered by ocean, and in the complete darkness of ts lowest depths lie the Deep Dreamers- vast expanses of genetically engineered nerves and flesh the size of mountains, peering into possible futures. At times Stealing Light it put me in mind of Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series, though Stealing Light's tone is less bleak and gothic.
Stealing Light by Gary Gibson is recommended for any fan of modern space opera in the vein of authors like Hamilton, Reynolds, or Neal Asher. If you like it, you can continue the story in Nova War, followed by Empire of Light.