(Gollancz, £6.99, 424 pages, paperback, published 5 December
I'm one of those people -- those few, few people -- Queen City Jazz. In view of the critical acclaim
she's received since then, I felt it was my duty to give Goonan another
go, and while I finished this one, I still found it a struggle. The
thing is, Light Music isn't bad -- far from it -- it's just overwritten.
Unnecessarily wordy, prone to digression, reminiscent of the early excesses
of Stephen King. Nothing that couldn't be remedied by having an editor
go through and take out roughly every fourth word, but the upshot was
that I found it all too easy to put the book down and walk away every
30 pages or so, which made for somewhat disjointed reading. It also
follows the literary vogue of using nanotechnology as the New Magic,
something that tends to irk me, if not actually annoy me. I hope Goonan's
legions of fans will therefore forgive me if it appears that I've Missed
readily admits to having tried, and failed, to read Kathleen Ann Goonan's
Thankfully for novice Goonan readers, Light Music requires no
prior knowledge of the Crescent City set-up, which is detailed in the
early part of the book. This self-sufficient and possibly intelligent
floating city, brimming with the wonders of nanotech, is preparing to
uproot itself and fly off into space, towards the source of the Signal,
which has made radio communications on Earth impossible. Before it can
launch, however, it's attacked by a coalition of pirates, and the navigational
data is corrupted. This leaves Engineer Jason Peabody with one month,
the time it'll take Crescent City to recover from the attack, to get
to Houston and steal the information again from the derelict NASA Space
Center. Unfortunately, before he can get out of the door the City dumps
a load of fugitive data about the Wild West into his head and leaves
him in custody of Dania, a woman who's no longer sure of her identity.
Thus begins the Ballad of the Radio Cowboy and his Trans-American Road
Movie of Doom.
Travel is a prominent feature of Light Music, what with two
pairs of major characters and two minor pairs all striving to get to
Crescent City before it embarks on its own journey, to the stars and
the next stage of human evolution. They strive separately, however;
while the minor plots intersect with the majors, none of these viewpoint
groups actually meet up until about fifty pages from the end of the
story, and by then the focus has pretty well shifted onto the City.
The overall feel is of two arc-related novellas stitched together with
a variety of short-lived narrative threads, although all four main groups
have a key role to play (as luck would have it) in the story's resolution.
Of the major threads, I found myself enjoying the tale of South American
ranch-owner Angelina and Chester, the sentient doll who becomes her
companion on her journey, far more than that of Cowboy and Dania. It's
the more coherent of the two: Cowboy and Dania's faltering quest across
the wild frontier, hampered by their personality crises, swiftly off-roads
into a string of set pieces and random encounters with the post-nanotech
inhabitants of mainland America. This may seem like energetic plotting
to some, but to me it seemed uncomfortably like the author hurrying
to empty out the last few unused arc ideas from her notebooks. It's
admittedly entertaining, but in a short-attention-span kind of way--throwaway
ideas walk on, advance or obstruct the plot, and disappear from view.
By contrast, consistent narrative structure and a real sense of personal
and physical progress serve the Angelina story very well. The tale of
Angelina's loss, as she tries to reclaim the tatters of her life, and
Chester's gain, as he tries to realise his Pinocchioid aspirations,
is rich and moving. I suspect the minor threads of being reprises from
earlier books; it seems to be a given that I should understand the lesser
characters therein with only a minimum of background and development,
but in the isolated context of this book, they're not much more than
plot devices with voices.
The characters may vary from sketchy to absorbing, but really it's
all about the ideas. More than anything, Light Music is an ideas
book, and such big ideas they are too. Here I can't fault Goonan, who
cannily extrapolates her notions of music, evolution, story-telling,
consciousness, of existence itself, and really makes the reader grasp
those themes and understand them. If only she could do it more concisely.
Beyond the titular pun and the frequent likening of consciousness to
jazz -- which I'm assured is a recurring motif -- we find a vision of
human evolution so grand that it practically nudges 2001: A Space
Odyssey in the ribs and asks that it shift up a bit. When characters
and plot mesh with this vision, Light Music is engrossing and
rewarding. When the characters start explaining this vision, as they
do several times, the prose begins to stall, and when the story goes
wandering off on its own ... well, Houston, we have a problem.
So I probably won't be tracking down Kathleen Ann Goonan's back catalogue,
but I can see why she's so widely regarded in SF circles. She's great
on ideas, and good on characters, but she's just a little too freeform
Review by John Toon.
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