Feature: Living Without Light

Dark StarOliver Langmead’s debut novel Dark Star is one of the more unusual books to come out so far this year, a combination of science fantasy and hardboiled crime with epic poetry. In this short feature, Langmead, who combines writing with being part of industrial electronica outfit, Surgyn, explains the thought processes behind his world-building…



When I started thinking about writing Dark Star, I thought what I had was quite a simple idea.

As it turns out, I was wrong. It took a lot of careful thought to get right.

The basic premise behind Dark Star is that it’s set on a world that orbits a dark star. The idea was to put together a book that could explore a society living in perpetual darkness because of that. How something like it would affect the population, a city, and what would eventually be a detective story. In the end, I think I took about a year just considering how the world would work, how society and technology would be focused, and to what end I could gear the speculative fiction towards delivering the gloomy and oppressive atmosphere of a detective noir.

The result is a careful balancing of elements.

First and foremost, I wanted my city to be dark. In order to make it work I decided to make society heavily capitalist, weighted towards the wealthy, and to use light as a currency. So, most people would be living in the dark and struggling to afford things like light bulbs, which would be scarce. This paved the way for the use of districts: most without something as simple as street lamps, and others with vague flickering bulbs lining footpaths as a sign of wealth. Think of it like light poverty, with a lot of extremes in order to properly highlight the divide. On the one hand, the city is plagued by light-starved “ghosts” living in perpetual darkness and forgotten by the rest of the light-greedy population. And on the other, the city is ruled by what amount to light-barons living under the perpetual glow of bright bulbs.

All of this made for the right atmosphere filled with oppression, apathy and huge class divides. But there was an immediate problem.

What about local fuels?

Being able to burn things like wood, gas or fossil fuel, creates light, and thus makes it abundant. The way I solved this issue was to make local fuels burn on a non-visible spectrum as well, just like the local sun. And in doing so, it created a rather wonderful conceit, which you can see in the language of the book. Cigarettes are “ignited” instead of lit, because they don’t glow. Fire is invisible and so are things like muzzle flashes, which make them even more dangerous. The reason why there’s any light at all, and why it’s so scarce, was also born from this set of ideas. But that is something that sits at the core of the book that you should discover for yourself.

Most interesting, perhaps, is psychological result of making a city so dark. Thankfully, this is something that has actually been studied, at least to a certain degree.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is something that affects a lot of people during long winter months, where there isn’t much daylight. Heck, if you live in any place where the nights draw in quite close, you’ve probably felt something of the gloom caused by living without much light. To put it basically: humans need daylight, and without it things like morale and general demeanour drop. We get gloomy and depressed. One of the best treatments for it, used in the worst of cases, is light therapy. From what I gathered my population, being as human as they were, would be a gloomy lot; quite bitter, and depressed. Because that’s what living without light does to the human mind.

Perfect for detective noir.

I also found something really interesting, which, while it is in the book, never really found a place to be fully explained. So here’s something you might pick up on while reading. Studies done on humans living without a visible day/night cycle, or any external measures of time, tend to gradually move away from a 24-hour cycle. Thus, because my dark city lives without a day/night cycle, I removed all instances of those words, and altered the idea of a single cycle being more than 24 hours. In Dark Star, there are no days or nights. There are simply cycles, which are the same length of time as those found in early “cave studies” as they’re called. A cycle in the city of Vox is 25 hours long, because that’s the amount of time people’s internal clocks shifted to naturally in those studies, without any external signals for them to use.

Peculiar, right?

All in all, the result of putting a lot of time and thought into the speculative elements of Dark Star were invaluable. But best of all were those bits that, through the conceit, I discovered along the way. Maybe you’ll be as surprised as I was.


Dark Star blog tour skyscraperClick here to order Dark Star from Amazon.co.uk

Unsung Stories, the publishers of Dark Star, also release free fortnightly short stories. For more details, click here


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