Erika Swyler’s first novel, The Book of Speculation, mixed historical fiction and fantasy in an appealingly offbeat way, featuring a lonely librarian, circus mermaids and an old family curse. Like her debut, Swyler’s new novel, Light From Other Stars, bends genres as it explores how the past intrudes on the present. But that’s where the similarities end.
On a cold January morning in 1986, everything changes for Nedda Papas, an 11-year-old science geek and astronaut fangirl. Ten miles from Easter, their small Florida town, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off and explodes. Soon, strange things happen: Electricity surges and fails, ponds freeze and boil, the sky takes on a green glow. At first, Easter’s residents chalk up the weirdness to the Challenger explosion, but Nedda and her dad, Theo—a physicist who’s been laid off from NASA—begin to suspect otherwise. Theo and his wife, Betheen, both grieving a loss, have begun to live separate lives. Theo works obsessively on a project he calls his entropy machine, while Betheen, a frustrated scientist, has devoted herself to her baking business, cutting herself off emotionally from her husband and daughter.
The novel alternates the 11-year-old Nedda’s story with that of the grown Nedda, who’s narrating from aboard the spaceship Chawla. The adult Nedda is part of a crew of four on a long-term mission to an unnamed planet, and the crew has learned that power spikes have affected the ship’s generator. As Nedda and her crewmates work to head off disaster, so does the 11-year-old Nedda, along with Theo and Betheen.
Although Light From Other Stars includes plenty of science fiction elements, it’s also a coming-of-age story, as the young Nedda gains a new understanding of her parents and then works to rescue them and the rest of her town. Juggling dual timelines, wonderful mid-1980s period details and a large cast of secondary characters, Swyler has set herself an ambitious task. But the novel is well-paced, with a satisfying twist near the end that readers are subtly prepared for but that still feels surprising.