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Light from Other Stars

Review

Light from Other Stars

If you’re a person of a certain age, you can likely remember exactly where you were during the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. If you’re near the age I am, the answer to “where you were” is probably watching the event unfold on live television from your elementary school classroom. This kind of shared media consumption --- during the school day, no less --- was still novel at the time, and soon became tinged with horror as millions of children watched a tragedy unfold in real time.

That’s the starting point of Erika Swyler’s beautiful, horrifying second novel, LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS. Her protagonist, Nedda Papas --- who is exactly the same age I was in 1986 --- is especially hard hit by the Challenger tragedy, not only because she lives in a small Florida citrus-growing town only miles away from Cape Canaveral, but also because she has a bit of an obsession with the space program.

"LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS is full of tenderly written, emotionally wrenching passages...and is an exquisite example of science fiction’s capacity not only to make readers think but also to feel."

Nedda doesn’t have much time to grieve over the loss of her heroine, shuttle engineer Judy Resnik. Shortly after the explosion, something strange starts happening with the device --- nicknamed the Crucible --- that her dad has been developing. The Crucible is meant to slow time by halting the process of entropy. Nedda believes that his impetus to develop the Crucible is to halt his own aging, specifically the progress of the arthritis that plagues his hands. But she doesn’t know that her parents lost an infant son, Michael, and are still grieving his absence in their own ways. Theo’s way is to embark on a project that might slow down Nedda’s aging so that he can cherish his one remaining kid’s childhood.

Nedda has always idolized her father and been sort of dismissive of her mother. Betheen is an accomplished baker who, unbeknownst to Nedda, bases her innovative recipes on her own quite extensive scientific background. But when something goes horribly awry with the Crucible, and their town --- with Theo at the epicenter --- seems stuck in a sort of time sinkhole, Nedda must forge new connections with her mother.

This narrative plays out in chapters that alternate with scenes from Nedda’s adulthood, as she travels on an interstellar, international mission that --- she and her colleagues soon realize --- may be set up to fail. The prospect of losing everything she’s worked for her entire life, not to mention her very life itself, prompts Nedda to cast her mind to another time when she learned about the extent of loss. “Here’s a secret,” Nedda’s mother tells her in one particularly affecting scene. “You’ll be stronger. Not at first…. At first, you’ll walk around and wonder where a piece of your heart went. You’ll think maybe you died. But you didn’t, and you won’t. You’ll learn how to live when you’re hurt, how to work when you feel broken, and how to do better than everyone else even though you’re suffering.”

LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS is full of tenderly written, emotionally wrenching passages like this one --- moments that will stop readers in their tracks to remember, or cry, or simply marvel --- and is an exquisite example of science fiction’s capacity not only to make readers think but also to feel.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 24, 2019

Light from Other Stars
by Erika Swyler

  • Publication Date: May 7, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1635573165
  • ISBN-13: 9781635573169