Book Review: The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher

3 Apr

Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland is a hero, but he certainly doesn’t feel like one. His gambit at Tau Retore to defeat an immense Spider ship was, charitably, a pyrrhic victory. Worse, he has a bum mechanical knee from the experience. Also, in keeping with tradition, instead of being immediately cashiered out of the Fleet, he has been given one final mission. There’s a space station around a mysterious star that radiates an almost evil, alien sort of light. It’s being decommissioned, and ‘Ida’ has been given the task, the privilege of overseeing that decommission.  But why does no one on the station know that he is a hero? And why are people disappearing or just acting strangely?  And most importantly, who and what is that signal Ida is getting in a forbidden radio band on his homemade radio set?

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The Burning Dark is Adam Christopher’s entry to and his own perspective on a genre new to his writing talents — space opera. While the novel is set in space, on a distant space station, featuring FTL ships, a war against a machine intelligence and subspace communications, there is a domesticity, of sorts, to Christopher’s 30th century universe. Rather than a nearly incomprehensible high technological future a la Hannu Rajaniemi, Alastair Reynolds or Karl Schroeder, the foregrounded universe, technology and the feel of Christopher’s Spider Wars universe is much more akin to the writing of Jack McDevitt. It feels like a familiar, midline universe without a Vingean singularity in terms of technological achievement. And yet, the familiar human side of Christopher’s worldbuilding is contrasted with the alien Spiders, a Machine intelligence species that humanity faces and fights across the endless gulf and dark of space.

This foregrounded universe, though, provides a solid foundation for the story and the mode in which Christopher is writing. As one might thus expect, the novel is not Hard SF at all; rather, it is a SF story that partakes rather heavily in horror and ghost stories. From the slowly but inexorably ratcheting tension, the clockwork playing out of the terrible scenario, and even jump scares, the novel uses the tools of horror and fear to put the screws to the characters and, by extension, the reader. Christopher has used the tools of horror, fear and dark fantasy before, and those skills do translate rather well into a SF space and story.

Ida Cleveland provides an appealing protagonist, even as things grow weirder and weirder around him. His attempts to figure out why his story has been hidden and just what is happening on the station around him makes this book a page-turner. Although the remainder of the secondary characters range in their appeal and how well they are drawn, I also particularly liked the station psychologist Izanami, a character with secrets of her own that are revealed in the course of the novel.

While the novel doesn’t go to its splatterpunk aesthetic, the work that Burning Dark kept referencing in my mind as I read it is Event Horizon. Although the plots are only tangentially connected in a way that would be spoilery to detail, both works use outer space and the horror and dread of being caught on a vessel, far from any help, with something terribly evil lurking just out of the corner of the eye, and with an existential sense that things are moving toward a horrible and inexorable conclusion. Just like wanting the right mood to watch that movie, I wished for a stormy night, for the proper environment to enjoy this novel properly. More idiosyncratically, The Burning Dark also reminded me of the old Infocom games Planetfall and especially Stationfall, as the main character explores a seemingly deserted space station, with very strange things going on just beneath the surface. And if anyone could have used the help of Floyd, it would be Ida.

Even without such an environmental advantage as a dark and stormy night to read it, The Burning Dark hits the notes of horror and ghostly dread well. I devoured the book quickly and eagerly. The Burning Dark works both as a marker and milestone in Christopher’s writing oeuvre as well as an excellent place to try his work.

For more about Adam and his work, check out our podcast interview with Adam, episode 194 of the podcast.

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