Review: “The Luminous Dead”, by Caitlin Starling

When I studied screenwriting in university, I wrote a full-length science fiction screenplay set entirely in a tiny quarantine facility. Why? After several projects indulging myself in alien planets or neon-soaked futuristic cities, I wanted to remove the genre crutch of elaborate settings. Caitlin Starling’s novel The Luminous Dead hooked me on that premise. The entire story takes place in a cave. Horror-house sci-fi isn’t new—being trapped on a spaceship with a monster has almost become cliché—but it usually compensates for the small stage with an ensemble cast. Excepting a few flashbacks, this book features only two main characters. That takes guts. I read the opening page out of authorial respect for that concept…

…And found myself crawling through a passageway with ambitious spelunker Gyre. She immediately piqued my curiosity. What compelled her to get surgically fitted into a high-tech exosuit and spend weeks exploring a dangerous cave system alone? Well, not entirely alone: Gyre’s employer, Em, provides guidance via a remote chat connection. At least she’s supposed to, but her standoffish support suggests a hidden agenda. Tension crackles through the comlink. Both women have clearly misled one another, and perhaps themselves.

Each twist of the tunnels reveals a little more about the characters’ histories and motives. Did I say there were only two? Perhaps it should be three. The treacherous cave qualifies as an antagonist, but its dangers go beyond the archetypal Human vs. Nature conflict. Something is playing tricks on Gyre: is it the cave, her own mind, or Em, the one person who can get her out alive? Following the routes of disastrous prior missions, Gyre begins to question the expedition’s true nature, and even her own sanity. Her evolving-but-fractious relationship with Em keeps the narrative engaging, even when the exploration gets a little dull.

For the first three quarters of the book, I read briskly out of eagerness. But my impatience turned peevish in the last act as the story’s narrow scope revealed its limitations. Spelunking mechanics get repetitive, and the Gyre-Em duet flirts with melodrama. (I wondered if Starling padded latter chapters a bit to meet the publishing industry’s arbitrary word counts.) The uneven climax delivers a predictable but satisfactory conclusion. My main complaint is that the cave’s mysterious elements aren’t sufficiently explained, but as a “hard” sci-fi writer, I admit I’m fussy about that.

Despite those minor shortfalls, Starling capably turns classic sci-fi elements into a claustrophobic survival story. Intense first-person narration puts the reader inside the suit with Gyre, grasping for every desperate handhold in the rock (her adventure could make a terrific video game). High stakes and heavy baggage make it hard to put this book down until you see where the dark tunnel ends. Spooky and spare, The Luminous Dead proves that a small-scale story can deliver depths of drama.

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