Relativity can be awful sometimes. You get in your spaceship, leave a planet, and you come back a few months later only to find that years have passed and your family is old or dead and all your plants died because YOU COULDN'T WATER THEM LIKE I ASKED, KEVIN?
Anyway, most science fiction stories use a trope, like faster-than-light travel, to avoid dealing with relativity. Not so R.W.W. Greene. In The Light Years, the time dilation effect is embraced as a principle plot device. I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley and Angry Robot in exchange for a review.
Adem Sadiq needs a wife. Well, he doesn’t need one. But his mother, captain of the Hajj, wants him to get one who is knowledgeable in the physics of an extinct culture, the United Americas. So he contracts with a couple who will have a child, and then when the Hajj returns to that planet in 20 or so years relative, the child will be old enough to marry him. It’s very creepy, and if it were a straight-up romance I might have to throw my Kindle across the room. Fortunately and unfortunately, The Light Years is more of a time-dilated thriller with a hint of odd-couple comedy thrown in, and I guess that’s ok.
My major issue with the book is that the main characters take so long to bake I felt like I’d aged 20 years. Adem has very few defining qualities for the first half of the book. We just kind of … exist alongside him. Eventually we learn he likes playing music and he has an overly-developed conscience. Yay for defining characteristics! Other than that, however, he’s just so bland. Hisako is a little better—we literally see her grow up from a baby to a young woman, so she kind of has to have character development—but the snapshot effect means we seldom see her grapple with issues on that micro level. And since, as I said before, the whole “I arranged for your creation” thing is extremely creepy, I’m glad the romance angle doesn’t actually land hard, because that would make things worse.
Similarly, the principal antagonist is very one-note in his moral development. We get it: he’s a profit-driven bad guy who doesn’t respect human rights, whereas Adem and most of his family are upstanding, moral people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this dynamic, but like Adem himself, it’s just a little bland. The tension created by the structure of the Hajj’s shareholders isn’t sufficient by itself to keep me interested.
The Light Years is at its most interesting when Greene pulls back the curtain on the wider universe he’s designed and invites us to consider the side effects of relativistic inter-system travel. The cycle of political unrest on various planets and the social inequity is very fascinating. I dig the amount of thought Greene has put into this world, as well as the time taken to craft the story itself. However, the actual style in which the story gets told? Doesn’t work great for me.