Autistic Book Party, Episode 74: The Luminous Dead

Today’s Book: “The Luminous Dead” by Caitlin Starling

The Plot: Gyre is a cave explorer on an alien planet, where cavers have to go to extreme lengths and wear specially modified suits to hide the signs of their biological presence from a monster called the Tunneller. They’re guided by controllers at the surface who can remotely communicate with them and modify the suit’s workings from a distance if necessary. But as Gyre gets deeper and deeper into the cave, her controller, Em, is beginning to seem increasingly untrustworthy…

Autistic Character(s): The author!

When I first read this book a few years ago, Starling wasn’t publicly out as autistic, but she has since begun to discuss it publicly while promoting her second novel, The Death of Jane Lawrence. That’s a book I’m looking forward to reading but haven’t gotten to yet – so in the meantime, I thought I’d tell you all about how I loved The Luminous Dead instead.

This is a very creepy book!! Caving is creepy!! The level of physical control Em has over Gyre, as well as emotional control thanks to Gyre’s sheer isolation – alone in the darkness for weeks on end with only Em to talk to – is also creepy! It’s a sci-fi horror and Starling knows how to milk the creep factor for all it’s worth. You can expect underwater scenes, malfunctioning and missing equipment, injuries sustained when there’s no one to come fix them, involuntary drugging, betrayal, manipulation, and growing uncertainty about what is and isn’t even real down here. As well as the Tunneller itself, a constant ominous lurking presence. I found myself turning the pages compulsively out of a sheer dread-fueled need to see what happened next, finishing the book almost faster than I could help myself.

The heart of the book, though, is the dynamic between Gyre and Em – a sort of constantly shifting, mutually mistrusting trauma-bond that never quite settles into easily digestible shape. It’s also queer. (I remember Starling quipping on social media, somewhere, that this was a book for people who had a crush on GLaDoS.) Em manipulates Gyre in ways that can’t be met with something as simple as forgiveness – especially when Gyre is still down there in the cave, under her control. As her secrets begin to come out, they serve both to humanize her and to underscore the monstrousness of the things she’s done before and is willing to do again. Yet it could just be that, if Gyre wants to survive and Em wants what she’s looking for down in the caves, they might just have to treat themselves as being on the same side – and to find some scrap of empathy for each other, somewhere.

Anyway, if you like creepy books and caves then you should check this one out. That’s all I have to say.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

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