Dark Star is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting books published in 2015, for many reasons: it’s SF, yet built with the pace and the style of a crime-story. It’s noir and cyberpunk with a touch of mythology. And, yes, it’s written in verses, like an epic novel. Aren’t you drawn to it yet? You should. Because it’s refreshing to see a new take on some well-trodden topics in contemporary SF.
The story is set on a future world called Vox, where the parent star doesn’t give out light. It’s dark out there, and only the wealthy and powerful can afford light. The story follows on these lines:
“Hearts that bring power to the light-deprived citizens of the city of Vox whilst ghosts haunt the streets, clawing at headlights. Prometheus, liquid light, is the drug of choice. The body of young Vivian North, her blood shining brightly with unnatural light, has no place on the streets. When Cancer is stolen, the weaponisation of its raw power threatens to throw Vox into chaos. Vox needs a hero, and it falls to cop Virgil Yorke to investigate. But Virgil has had a long cycle and he doesn’t feel like a hero. With the ghosts of his last case still haunting his thoughts, he craves justice for the young woman found dead with veins full of glowing. Aided by his partner Dante, Virgil begins to shed light on the dark city’s even darker secrets. Haunted by the ghosts of his past and chased by his addictions, which will crack first, Virgil or the case?”
If that sounds dark as hell, and scary, and borderline horror, it is because those are the feelings you experience going through the novel’s stanzas. You might like the epic pace or not: I’m personally not a fan (I had more than a fair share in my high school classical studies) but the good thing is that after a while you don’t pay attention any longer. The story flows effortlessly, and the power of its images makes it up for whatever hindrance the form might bear.
References abound here, and you don’t need to have read Dante’s Comedy from A to Z to find them out (and enjoy them). I especially liked Langmead’s worldbuilding, and Vox is a version of Earth particularly dystopian, but not for this less captivating, with some pages that reminded me Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali. For a movie reference, Blade Runner is the most obvious, but not the only one.
But original, Dark Star truly is, and critics have been, unsurprisingly, divided about it. This might be a reason why, as the zine Sabotage wrote about this novel, some readers have been puzzled: “One of the most important things that genre writing does is embody mythological truths, psychological scenarios, that cannot be realistically depicted in middle-class living rooms. There is an aversion to genre in certain literary circles, I think, because it can take the reader to places where a lot of people don’t want to go. It takes a certain type of person to want to plunge into a violent, noir-ish space-adventure that might lead to at least a little self-discovery. These readers aren’t usually thought of as the same group of people who purchase books of poetry, and so not very many publishers are willing to try to coax a little overlap.”
The Guardian was a bit harsher, and not for the format (“Those heavily stressed iambs, that strong rhyme of “shows” and “pros”, that promise of sleaze – they all threaten leaden footed, self-consciously bizarre posturing“) only: “While the author should be applauded for taking on such an unusual project, Dark Star often falls flat because he doesn’t take things far enough. It can sometimes feel as if there’s been a failure of imagination, as well as a noble effort to think big.”
While this can be discussed with some merit, I believe the judgement itself is too severe. It takes courage and imagination for writing something like Dark Star, and even more courage (and vision) to publish it.
I would rather share Strange Horizons’ evaluation: “The poetry is at its most powerful in these final few scenes, their unrelenting ticking rhythm adding to the sense of urgency that will wrap everything up before the end. It finishes, however, with several questions left unanswered (who, for example, are the ghosts haunting Vox?), with Vox’s history and fate still ripe for further exploration. If Langmead does write another epic, poem, novel, or song about this astonishing city, I’ll be more than happy to revisit Vox.” I concur, and I hope the author gives a sequel anytime soon.
Dark Star by Oliver Langmead, 2015, published by: Unsung Stories. Where I got it: from the publisher, in exchange for a honest review (thank you!)