Book review: At the Speed of Light, by Simon Morden

6 08 2017

Simon Morden is a British SF writer whose ‘Metrozone’ series of novels, set in post-apocalyptic London, has won the Philip K Dick Award.

AtTheSpeedOfLight

In the novella At the Speed of Light, much of the action takes place on a rogue exploration vessel crewed by an AI known as Corbyn, whose ship matches pace with a derelict. The book starts, however, with an entity, also identified as Corbyn, finding itself newly awakened in a rudimentary homunculus on what appears to be a spaceship, with a set of ultimately-unachievable instructions to follow. It then segues to a mental-health consulation between a client, also named Corbyn, and a psychiatrist Wu Yu, which doesn’t end very well. If this sounds somewhat confusing, there’s probably a reason for this. I should say that the story does settle down after that, and the introductory material does ultimately become integrated with the story.

At the Speed of Light is presented more-or-less as a classic SF puzzle story, and there’s a lot of problem-solving embedded within it, to do with trajectories, motives, and material resource limitations. While the story’s central conundrum is, in itself, intrinsically interesting, there is perhaps a little too much priority assigned to respect for the laws of physics, and not enough to the requirements of narrative fiction: the prose, while admirably clear (it is, after all, an AI who, for the most part, is serving as a viewpoint character), does read rather stolidly in patches. This isn’t helped, either, by the sheer solitude of much of the story: though contact is established between Corbyn and the derelict, it’s a rather pallid transaction, with no real heat or spark to the exchanges. That said, the story does achieve what I assess it sets out to do, which is to craft a solid work of old-style SF with some overall poignancy and mystery, and readers who maintain an ongoing interest in that subgenre should find the story worthwhile.