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by M John Harrison

(Gollancz, 335 pages, published 31 October 2002; hardback, 17.99, ISBN 0575070250; trade paperback, 10.99, ISBN 057507026.)

Who writes better than M John Harrison? Of the, let's say, four hundred writers of cover scanEnglish prose alive today worthy of serious and sustained critical attention, the answer is: very few. Perhaps Updike, or Toni Morrison, or Jim Crace have written better passages of descriptive prose, but none of those writers have the range of reference, the grounded yet estranging vividness, the plotting and world-building imaginative muscle that Harrison possesses. Perhaps DeLillo does better dialogue, and is on a par at capturing the strange mixture of beauty, banality and menace in everyday life, but he doesn't expand the mind the way Harrison does. Perhaps later Roth captures the wrenching and violent undercurrents of the quotidian better, but Harrison does it without limiting himself to Roth's monomaniacal single-mindedness of aesthetic vision. Light is the real thing. It is not a comfortable read, it is sometimes ugly and it is often startling, but throughout it declares itself a golden novel in an age, and a genre, of many imitative and reductive exercises in silver fiction.

The book divides itself between two narratives. One is set in contemporary London and North America: Michael Kearney, a brilliant computer theorist and a serial killer, moves randomly about our world. Kearney is trying to escape his personal demon, a haunting presence called the Shrander, a nightmare creature with a head like the skull of a horse. Kearney throws a strange pair of dice that have come into his possession, and interprets the symbols that result as instructions to travel here or there. He is also a brilliant computer scientist, working with a colleague to invent a quantum computer.

The second of the novel's two environments is a far future, deep-space one. Near the Galactic core is a dazzling and mysterious array of stars called the Kefahuchi tract. Two characters' storylines work themselves out in this place: Seria Mau, a human girl who exists in symbiosis with her K-ship White Cat, skimming through deep space; and the likeable, slightly feckless Chinese Ed (or Ed Chianese), who is dragged from his sex-game Virtual Reality to become entangled in a cyberpunkish series of escapades on a planet near the tract. There is a link between Ed and Seria Mau although we don't know it at the beginning of the book, and their mutual secrets are expertly and unobtrusively worked into the story. The connection between the Kefahuchi tract, and turn-of-our-millennium Michael Kearney is weirder, but is also worked out effectively by the novel's ending. The whole mix makes for a simply extraordinary SF novel. I'll stick my neck out: if this book doesn't win next year's Clarke then I'll be a Dutchman, and I'll have to change my name to Adam Van Hoogenroberts.

Passage after passage in this novel astonishes the reader; beautiful, striking, imaginative by turns. There are also certain flaws, I think, but it is hard to talk about these without appearing to diminish the novel. Even labelling such reservations 'flaws' gives, perhaps, the wrong impression, because it is possible and even likely that they are all deliberately intended components in the whole. For instance, the huge yellow duck that intrudes into Ed Chianese's VR-fantasy to tell him his time's up seemed to me a faux-pas. I never believed in the character of Kearney's partner, his fellow computing-researcher Brian Tate, who seems sketched-in, two-dimensional in the otherwise 3D environment. I assumed that the shadow operators (holographic projections of the K-ship's mind that undertook various jobs on Seria Mau's ship) were supposed to be unheimlich, weird, faerie, but I found them mostly ordinary and indeed irritating. But in each case, this was perhaps what Harrison wanted me to feel; undercutting my expectations at every turn. Light, as a novel, is expert at not doing the expected thing.

If there is a bigger problem with the novel, it might be put in this rather reductive manner: Light is not a likeable book. The throwaway treatment of much of the violence in it, and especially blasé representation of Kearney's career as a serial killer, is very unsettling, or at least this reviewer found it so. The fact that Kearney kills only women seems to pick out a larger misogynistic aspect of the novel, expressed chiefly in scenes in which violence is directed towards women. This is an unappealing theme unfortunately reinforced by the number of violent, dangerous female characters in the book. This is, I think, more than just a politically correct hand-wringing objection to the gender politics of the whole. When it is made plain that life is so grotesquely cheap in this world, it becomes harder to make anything but token empathetic gestures towards any of the characters, even the three main characters -- especially when all of them (even Ed Chianese) kill women, and two of them kill a great many people.

What I am saying, I think, is that Light is a cruel book. That cruelty is an aspect of life, and that an artist is as justified in exploring it in his or her art hardly needs saying; but including so much cruelty makes Harrison's novel rather ugly. I don't mean this word in a pejorative sense. Light is ugly in the sense that some of Picasso's most striking pictures are ugly, and to similar aesthetic effect. The psychologically deformed characters, the often grim environments, the casual brutality of much of the action, all contribute to this. The many masturbations references in the novel, for instance, are unlikely to endear it to many middle-of-the-road readers (although as long as the core fandom of SF remains adolescent boys, it's going to be something with particular relevance to the readership). Presumably the publishers had good commercial reasons for preferring the title Light to, say, Nasty People and Spooky Aliens Wanking.

To a certain extent I found the cruelty, the ugliness, rather wearing -- even exhausting -- howsoever brilliantly rendered. There is in the whole novel really only one expression of genuine tenderness, when Ed hooks up with the giantess Annie Glyph who works as a rickshaw runner. Apart from this, and with an almost wilful single-mindedness, Harrison exposes every one of his characters to the most unflattering and penetrating illumination. All the characters' petty, venal, revolting private habits are all exposed. Characters who think they are acting in a grand, heroic or significant way are all shown that their acts are small and irrelevant. It bears saying, perhaps, that there is a place, even in so humanist and (often) sentimental a mode as the Novel for works that are anti-humanist, unsentimental, even distressing and unpleasant. It just doesn't make for particularly likeable fiction.

On the other hand, Harrison provides many consolations for his reader, many reasons to pick the book up and not put it down again. The plot is constructed superbly, details falling into place with increasing but never clunking regularity as we move towards the arresting conclusion. And throughout, passage after passage is so wonderfully written, so precise in its depiction of certain sorts of damaged and controlling personalities, so evocative of certain atmospheres and certain possibilities, that you forgive the writer everything else.

One thing Harrison does that very few contemporary writers have the skill, or courage, to do is to deploy cliché. Martin Amis's insistence that every writer must wage 'the war against cliché' has, of course, much to recommend it in a world where too much popular fiction simply rehashes plot, character, stock-situation and stock-turns-of-phrase. But a writer who entirely purges his novel of cliché may produce a text with little relevance to the actual lives of his or her readership. We all of us, to one degree of another, inhabit the little clichés of living and speaking in our day-to-day lives. Harrison's writing is so luminous that he is able to stitch-in a quantity of ordinary phrase to the superbly worked fabric of his writing. Here's an example: Michael Kearney revisits the house in Kilburn in which lives the alarming, possibly magical Sprake.

Inside nothing had changed. Nothing had changed since the 1970s, and nothing ever would. The walls were papered a yellowish colour like the soles of feet. Low wattage bulbs on timers allowed you twenty seconds of light before they plunged the stairs back into darkness. There was a smell of gas outside the bathroom, stale boiled food from the second floor rooms. Then aniseed everywhere, coating the membranes of the nose. Near the top of the stairwell a skylight let in the angry orange glare of the London night. [193]

This is nicely run-down-atmospheric, but it also manages a prosaic balancing act that only the best writers could pull off. So, for instance, it is on the edge of cliché to say that a lightbulb going out 'plunged the stairs into darkness'; we don't, as readers, feel the force of 'plunged' because it's the conventionalised phrase. But the walls with their yellow paper 'like the soles of feet' is a beautifully vivid image, in a horrible sort of way. Similarly, to walk into a seedy house and remark the smell of old boiled vegetables is to invoke the cliché of seedy houses from a thousand noir novels, but to follow it up with the ubiquitous scent of aniseed ('coating the membranes of the nose' is also marvellously, unpleasantly, vivid) nicely twists the conventions.

This strategy works especially well throughout the space-opera, Kefahuchi tract half of the book. Seria Mau Genlicher, melded with her K-ship and scooting through the unimaginable complexities of FTL dimensions, is a cliché figure from many pulp space operas. But the unobtrusive stress that Harrison is able to place on her withered and revolting body, on her dissociated psychopathia, on the unavoidable anchor of physical reality that nags, splinter-like, in her yearning, star-spanning mind is rendered with exquisite and -- ultimately -- moving skill. Like John Clute's wonderful Appleseed (2001) we read these hard-SF sections always oriented by our knowledge of the conventions of the genre, and always startled and delighted by the sparks Harrison's imagination strikes off that particular generic anvil. I especially liked the way that, rather than plump for one of the usual SF conventions regarding faster-than-light travel, he creates a universe in which every single one of them works.

Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another's basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything. [144].

This is a special case of a more general state of affairs for Harrison's imagined cosmos:

You could see every strange thing out there on the Beach, ideas washed up a million years ago, modified to trick out tubby little ships like these. In the end the bottom line was this: everything worked. Wherever you looked, you found. That was everyone's worst nightmare. That was the excitement of it all. [10]

This is a brilliant notion. It is how a writer of Harrison's talent deals with the potentially constipating backlog of forty million ideas accumulated over the last century-and-a-half by the many thousands of often brilliantly inventive, speculative writers inventing, and speculating, and assembling the formal logics of thousands of possible future histories. This is our heritage, of course, as readers and fans; the wonderful and colossal backlist of SF. But it is, in many ways, a monstrously oppressive weight to SF authors. How to deal with it? If you ignore it then your intriguing new twist, your hyper-drive, your alien race will almost certainly turn out to be an inadvertent retread of some other SF's author's twist, drive or alien. But if you plunge in, trying to eliminate those ideas that have been worked through already, you could lose yourself for a lifetime. Harrison's attitude to it is gloriously inclusive; bung it all in. It all has a place (sometimes a small, obliquely referenced place, but a place nonetheless). Everything works.

It's only at the end of the novel that we realise how many ironies Harrison has packed into his title. His prose throughout the book is especially alert to the poetic, descriptive possibilities of light in our everyday 2002 London lives. In his imagined future it relates to the way light carries spiritual freight (Seria Mau likes the 'thousand lights out of the galactic core' that stream across the sky of the Kefahuchi Tract, we are told: 'she liked the halo'); to the way light is a necessary correlative of darkness (and there is a great deal of darkness, literal and metaphorical, in the book). But we also close the book understanding a more basic irony than this. M John's Harrison's novel, always challenging, often ugly, usually brilliant, rarely comfortable, is a serious work. Light, we might say, is heavy.

Review by Adam Roberts.
Light is also reviewed in Adam Roberts' feature on the 2003 Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist.

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