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Light Chaser by Peter F. Hamilton & Gareth L. Powell3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIf a collaboration between Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell sounds like the ultimate match made in space opera heaven, you’ll be happy to know that Light Chaser lives up to those expectations pretty well. If I had any gripes about it, it’s that I wish it could have been a little longer, which is ironic, since one of the most impressive things about it is the way Hamilton in particular has managed to rein in his default preference for writing books so massive they have to be split into two volumes, without compromising the scope of the story’s creative vision. Maybe that’s Powell’s influence — who knows?

In some ways a quietly subversive riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey (which a lot of readers seem to be missing), Light Chaser is a compelling saga set more than 26,000 years in the future, when humanity has spread throughout the cosmos in a diaspora called the Great Dispersal. Amahle is a Light Chaser, genetically modified for a lifespan so long that, combined with traveling at relativistic speeds throughout all the colonized worlds in the galaxy, she’s practically immortal. Her vessel is the Mnemosyne, named after the Greek goddess of memory, and Amahle’s job is literally collecting the recorded memories of countless people on countless worlds. Her voyage is a thousand-year circuit, and her arrivals give her the prestige of anything from a dignitary to an outright goddess, depending on the level of cultural sophistication each world she visits has developed.

While checking out the most recent set of memory collars she has collected from a medieval, agrarian world, Amahle comes across a personal message from someone identifying himself as Carloman, who claims to have known her many centuries before. It seems perfectly impossible, but as she collects more recordings, she finds more messages, guiding her towards even more messages. It’s clear that she and Carloman have a history, and it all makes Amahle aware of just how unaware she is of her own history. And what of the things he’s telling Amahle about the planets and people she’s visiting, about how their civilizations remain completely static no matter how many millennia pass, and how this might be due to intentional and malicious interference?

At its heart, Light Chaser is the story of a woman on a 26,000-year voyage of discovery who, in the end, finally discovers herself. Our memories, the collective experience of our lives, make us who we are, but Amahle has lived so long she can’t remember most of it, even with her enhancements. And what can we say about the people Amahle works for? To them, the memories she gathers serve no historical or educational purpose, but are simply entertainment for a post-scarcity society so indolent and decadent that they need vicarious struggle and hardship to avoid total boredom, because they have nothing they need to strive for, nothing in their own lives worth remembering.

It’s easy to see the elements of the story each writer is most likely to have contributed. From Powell, we get the intimate moments of human warmth and wit. (The way in which the story cleverly spoofs one of science fiction’s silliest tropes, that of the Single Purpose Planet, feels very much like a Gareth Powell touch.) From Hamilton, we get the expansive vision, the notion of events taking place on a galactic scale across eons of time. (And, in a nod to his own Night’s Dawn trilogy, from dark realms outside the known universe.) It meshes beautifully. If anything, I would have loved to see more passages making the relationship between Amahle and Carloman deeper, for even greater emotional investment. But in its way, this story is every bit as immersive as Hamilton’s Commonwealth duologies or Powell’s Trouble Dog trilogy. It’s a journey that takes us to the ends of the universe and the depths of the human heart. And there’s a cat.