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Light Music

by Kathleen Ann Goonan

(Gollancz, £6.99, 424 pages, paperback, published 5 December 2002.)

I'm one of those people -- those few, few people -- cover scanwho readily admits to having tried, and failed, to read Kathleen Ann Goonan's debut novel, 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 The Point.

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 for me.

Review by John Toon.

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