Eternal Light is a science-fiction epic that has received high praise from reviewers. The novel won the Philip K. Dick Award, a major award for science-fiction novels first published in paperback. The book greatly expands the story that McAuley began in Four Hundred Billion Stars, also a winner of the Philip K. Dick Award. McAuley has produced a remarkable novel that is pure science fiction but also examines social issues that confront contemporary society.
In portions of his novel, McAuley shows a strong background in science as he explains the theories behind the events in his novel. For example, he provides details of concepts behind traveling through wormholes and the devices the Marauders have constructed to draw power through the black hole in the galactic core. Although the explanations are complex, McAuley is careful not to render them incomprehensible for readers who do not have strong backgrounds in science. This ability to present technical and scientific explanations in an understandable manner is one of the strengths of McAuley’s writing.
This novel does not, however, depend solely on its scientific component for its strength. It also examines several social issues. One issue that arises is racism. This comes into play when McAuley portrays how humans feel about the Alea. Most of the human characters, especially those in the Navy, consider the Alea to be enemies. They make no attempt to understand the aliens. The only woman who comes close to understanding that the enmity between humans and the Alea is a mistake is Dorthy, who forms a strong connection with them. The hatred that most humans feel for the Alea jeopardizes the mission in the galactic core several times.
Not all humans hate the Alea. The Witnesses, a fanatical religious sect, are as bad as the Navy in their misinterpretation of the aliens. They believe that the Alea, even the Marauders, are gods. This mistaken belief nearly leads to disaster during the mission. In his presentation of the Witnesses, McAuley also comments on the dangers of fanaticism. The Witnesses’ single-minded pursuit of their belief blinds them to the threat of the Marauders and also leads Earth into a new dark age when they take over the planet.