on 11 September 2006
Interesting how this book polarises opinion. I loved it. I fail to see how some reviewers view it as "infantile" or "puerile", referencing the few sex scenes and the character name Billy Anker. Playful and honest, but not puerile. And I can see how the opening is a bit disorientating: it does take a fair while before you can tell what's going on, and even longer before the threads start weaving together. But that's part of the manic pleasure it provides as you're carried along through one atmospheric environment after another. I thought the writing was absolutely extraordinary in places, tight, precise, evocative. Yes, it is a bit overwrought in places, overwritten, too stylish for its own good. But overall, it's stunning. The characters aren't particularly sympathetic, but one of the strands (Seria Mau) concerning a human in a symbiotic relationship with a starship, is superbly imagined and moving; as another reviewer noted, it captures actual sensation of N-dimensional space fantastically (comparable in quality to Christopher Priest's capturing of the perception of infinite width in Inverted World). Read it, unless you only like thick books which come in series and have swords on the front.
on 4 October 2012
Having read this, I found the blurb on the back of the book to be the most misleading I think I have ever come across. Not necessarily in a bad way, merely in that the three mysterious objects is suggests are the heart of the book, are not the central narrative drive or quest of the characters at all and are only almost incidentally explained in the very ending. Though the book has plenty of wonder, imagination and creativity in its world building, it is actually about its main characters, which can be quite refreshing in science fiction books where often the characters are dwarfed by the science.
Having said that, the characters are troubling. Humans craving to surrender their bodies to merge with quantum infinities, clones, holograms, virtual projections, artificially created lifeforms, all questing to be human, to have a real body. Yet a relative immateriality doesn't seem to prevent any of them having sex, which happens a lot. Some of them are trying to fill their personal psychological voids, some seek after love and others just wish to have a physical sensation. So in part the book is an exploration of the struggle to be human.
The book is described as space opera, a genre label I've never understood the meaning of to be honest. The space bit I get and accede as far as this book is concerned. But operatic too me suggests not only a wide sweep, which again this book effortlessly meets, but a heightened sense of emotion. Now while Harrison deals with emotion a plenty as suggested in the characters' various quests for identity and to take the form of something other than themselves, the emotional pitch is a curiously flat one. This is largely because even though Harrison's builds an immense universe, most of these characters seem to be each other in various guises, so that the total population seems only to be about five people. A character has a single emotional register in one guise, yearns to be be something different and then achieves it either by taking on a new persona and physicality, or in death. And that's that, easy peasy lemony squeezy...
Moving between two temporal eras, our own and a far future one, yet the characters are all brought together by the end and their links to one another revealed, in a rather unsatisfying manner to my mind. For a book about quantum probabilities and improbablities, the narrative structure was too hidebound to facilitate this I felt.
There are some fine writing and insights to be gleaned from this book: "Every so often her eyes went across tate with the calm contempt of one neurotic for another", but the sum of the parts add up to considerably less than the whole.
on 18 November 2012
I've read in numerous places, which I'm far too lazy to reference here, that M. John Harrison's 2002 novel Light does for Space Opera what his Viriconium sequence did for Fantasy back in the 1980s. This is quite the claim, as Viriconium towers over the landscape of postmodern fantasy literature as a definite and unchallenged Olympus; the book that finally did-away with the literary naivety of the field by drawing direct attention to the problematic artificiality of secondary-world High Fantasy, all the while remaining deeply enamoured of the tropes, traditions and history of the genre; a genre with which Harrison is clearly well-versed and much in love.
To think that the same writer could reinvigorate not just one, but two distinct genres both of which, let's be honest, suffer from more than their fair share of cliché, repetition and imaginative exhaustion is difficult to believe, but having read the frankly staggering (and not to mention extraordinarily beautiful) Light, I'm definitely coming round to the idea. It's 30-odd years since Harrison seemingly abandoned New Wave sci-fi with his early (and criminally underrated) novel The Centauri Device, but his forays into the lands of Fantasy and (later) Literary Fiction were obviously time well spent, as Light meshes a keen commitment to psychological realism with a penchant for inventive, stripped-back imagist prose. The book toys with and deconstructs many of the familiar tenets of science fiction, but in a joyous and celebratory way, never sneering. Harrison's frame of reference is galaxy-spanning, and Light is replete with subtle (and not-so-subtle) tributes to the canon of famous (and not-so-famous) science fiction literature, T.V. and film. Please don't think the book is just some big party of self-indulgent genre references, it most certainly isn't: the narrative is dominated by an unflinching and unsympathetic portrayal of horrific violence, manipulative sex and mental illness, but underpinning this grit is a definite comic treatment of the vagaries of space opera. The satire is tender, and the commitment to sensawunda is genuine.
Light focuses on three larger-than-life characters; the theoretical physicist and serial killer Michael Kearney; Seria Mau Genlicher, a woman who's been (voluntarily) cybernetically mutilated and encased in a vat of protein fluids from which she pilots a strange alien craft - an artefact from some long-extinct race of star-moving galactic engineers; and Ed Chianese (/Chinese Ed), a Virtual Reality addict enlisted in what can only be described as a... er... space circus. Michael's story takes place in 1999, the latter two narratives (Seria's and Ed's) transpire around 2400 AD, with chapters alternately flitting between each character.
All three protagonists are haunted by different manifestations of `The Shrander', an ungraspable and incarnately weird creature that variously functions as terrifying apparition of death, anti-hero, malcontent, surgeon, seer and sage. The Shrander's most memorable form is that which haunts Michael Kearney in the guise of a be-robed and spritely stalker with a horse's skull in place of a head. Not only is this a clear aesthetic reference to the Celtic Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd (and a knowing wink to fans of Viriconium with a suggestion of a shared universe), but the horse skull-headed version of the Shrander also acts as microcosm for one of the book's major themes: the estrangement of the familiar. By tradition the Mari Lwyd is a luck-bringing and festive Celtic ritual, and while The Shrander definitely contains elements of this festivity, it is by turns a much more terrifying and grotesque presence: it's the Mari Lwyd uprooted from its traditional contexts and placed, instead, within a weird and defamiliarising alien landscape. Removed from its place as a curio of Celtic festive and musical history, the writer imbues the image of the horse skull-headed puppet-creature with more sinister connotations - death, madness, murder. This is largely achieved by a fixation with the anatomical otherness of the Mari Lwyd. In general the image of a skull is inseparable from the concept of death, and Harrison manipulates this to truly horror fiction-esque scales. A big part of Lights' aesthetic is a making-strange of otherwise common place or traditional objects.
Outside of The Shrander's haunting, much of the plotting is concerned with explaining how the three protagonists found themselves in their current situations. Seria Mau's life before her cybernetic implantation into an alien ship is told through a series of disjointed and cryptic dream sequences that, though initially baffling, come together in a way that rewards patience and is immensely satisfying. The disorganized memories of her troubled childhood gradually expose the awful circumstances that led her to make the irreversible choice to be implanted into her ship, and I expect the visceral scenes of techno-surgery to stick with me for some time. It's a testament to Harrison's skill as a writer that something so physical and disturbed can also be so moving. Seria Mau is mutilated, trapped and profoundly alone, but these are truths the reader has to parse out from prose dense with scientific jargon as she concerns herself not with pitying introspection, but with the everyday mechanisations of her FTL alien ship and the technical demands of operating in nano-second time frames stretched out by mind-altering drugs to last, for her, for subjective minutes. The tragedy of Seria Mau isn't her present circumstance, but that the universe organised itself in such a way that she made the choice to live like this.
Choices made and not-made, then, form the thematic heart of the novel. This is re-iterated by Michael Kearney's work as a quantum physicist exploring the various theories surrounding probabilities, quantum states and branching, possible universes. Driven half-mad by the stalking Shrander and his failure to devise a useful system of quantum computing, Kearney defers all of his choices to a strange set of dice that he stole from the Shrander in some un-written prologue to the novel. The dice are loaded (... I apologise in advance for this...) with symbolism... with connotations that range from choice theory and quantum mechanics to the world that could have been if only different choices were made. Of course "dice stuff" is a big cliché of post-modern fiction, but here the beauty and pitch-perfect tone of Harrison's prose and the playful morality of his ideas stop Light from ever seeming trite or disingenuous. Also there are cats (two cats - one black, one white) that manifest in all three timelines and that play a significant part in the choices and directions of the characters' lives, both literally and figuratively.
This is all well and good, but where Light really (again, I'm sorry...) shines... is in its examination of the ways these characters' choices affect the lives of the people close to them. The supporting cast is a lowly and agency-less collection of tragically damaged individuals tossed around like ragdolls by the selfish and often misguided decisions of the three protagonists. Michael Kearney's ex-wife Anna, for example, is a mentally unstable woman in thrall to Michael's every movement. The beautifully constructed, psychologically piercing and eloquent exchanges between the two are a stylistic highlight of the novel, albeit harrowing and difficult to "enjoy" in the usual sense of the word:
"I try to help you - only you won't let me"
"Anna" he said quickly, "I help you. You're a drunk. You're anorexic. You're ill most days, and on a good day you can barely walk down the pavement. You're always in a panic. You barely live in the world we know."
But in terms of its style, Light is a book of many shades (... just take my apologies as a given from now on...). Several long passages of esoteric technobabble (much of which I suspect is more nonsense than science) are almost David Foster Wallace-esque in their challenge to the reader to actually look up the words you don't understand (only to find that a percentage of them actually are nonsense). While some may argue that this renders the "science" part of "science fiction" arbitrary and spurious, I think the real point is a playful fixation on the glorious sounds and tones of jargon, absent their content, to become a kind of poetry. It doesn't have to make sense, as the narrator puts it: this is "a place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out".
Light is a challenging, oftentimes abstract novel that, in spite of (or maybe in complement to) it's title, contains a lot of dark. The novel's dénouement ties the three narratives together in unexpected yet fulfilling ways, and the book's examination of senseless cruelty and selfishness only lend the ending greater poignancy. It's a book of clichés turned in on themselves, of constant references to a saturated history of science fiction that Harrison neither attempts to ignore nor to revolutionise, but to celebrate. I'm not sure if Light is the Viriconium of Space Opera, simply because I don't think Space Opera suffers from the same institutionalised problems as modern Fantasy literature. It is, however, an incredible novel; perfectly balanced, relentlessly beautiful; puzzling but always fascinating.
on 21 October 2004
I was not aware of any of the hype surrounding this book until after I had read it - so my views were not influenced by propaganda - I also have no author bias. I find the comparisons to Iain M Banks very interesting. To be honest, Banks is one of the few SF writers I read consistently, but I struggled with 'Look to Windward' and had to give up half way through. This was something completely different. I found Harrison's style dark, harrowing, brutal but always stylish and compelling - to the extent that I wanted to re-read it immediately after finishing it. Some of the other SF authors get bogged down in overtly technical aspects of science or they give descriptive text which while sometimes impressive, detracts from the characters themselves. Harrison does the descriptive bit but ignores the waffle - he achieves in 50 clear, harsh and vivid words what takes others 5000. The only way I can compare it is to the first time you see Pulp Fiction - it was shocking, unreal and awesome in equal measures. For me it was a masterpiece, like nothing that was seen before it - with style and content you won't forget - ever. The comparisons get more similar when you look at the characters; they are also unpleasant and more importantly human. The story deals with humanity, darkness, internal conflict and ultimately character progression in a way that I feel is completely new and uncharted. If you haven't read the book yet, please do so, but do it with an open mind. I really feel that this is a book that many SF writers would have loved to have written and even if they had the abilities to do so, they may not have had Harrison's bravery to publish it. It has taken the game to a new and exciting level.
on 23 September 2012
If I could, I would simultaneously give this 5 stars and 1 star.
Five stars because - the story moves along at a fast clip, delivering plenty of entertainment. A scientist involved in work that will probably lead to a warp drive is pursued both by his own strange obsessions and by a strange creature. A cyborg spaceship has absconded and gone mercenary, and is on the run from two rival military forces, while trying to solve the mystery of a strange alien package. A burned-out space pilot's VR addiction is forcibly interrupted when gangsters start chasing him. As you see, plenty goes on. Stylistically, some of the writing is brilliant.
One star because - Stop and think a bit about the plot and holes become all too apparent. So at points, the story becomes incredible in a bad way. The sex scenes are tedious and (with some exceptions) unnecessary to the plot. Stylistically, some of the writing is garbage; a jumble of ideas hurled into the gap between a capital letter and a full-stop. I recently read the idea "that what makes a story great...is a climax that's 'surprising yet inevitable'" Light fails that test: the various plot lines eventually converge as the hugest possible conspiracy is revealed. It's certainly surprising, but too Deus Ex Machina for me: the author needed to prepare me some more for to manage the 'inevitable' bit.
So it is more than a bit frustrating - for me the story is too thoughtful to just be read as agreeable action nonsense, but not thoughtful enough to carry off being thoughful. My dilemma is not that I'd quite like to read the rest of the trilogy, but fully expect it to be a similar tease...
on 13 December 2006
I'm not surprised that this book has polarized opinions, don't read this if you think it's going to be another formulaic space opera. Light is a book that asks more questions than it answers and certainly isn't from the Clarke or Asimov branch of "science" fiction. Instead you get something a lot like the film Pi, an exploration of madness and obsession mingled with the strangeness that is pure math and quantum theory. Nothing much is explained, it's just left for the reader to piece together in whatever way they want.
This is a challenging read, but if you're tired of the same old formula of derivative fiction try this guy out. It is a truly intense book that might not be on everyone else's wavelength but is all the better for that. I've been devouring his work since rediscovering him a while back. I had read the Virconium books a long time ago but had lost them (and his name wouldn't come to me) until I found Light.
Reading Harrison's work you begin to see his influence refracted through all that is good in SF/Fantasy at the moment, from Iain Banks to China Mieville. His strength, apart from some wonderful prose, is his ability to transcend genres; moving through the full spectrum of pastiche, science fiction and literature, sometimes in the same paragraph.
Highly recomended if you like to think about what you're reading.
on 31 January 2015
Having been brought up on H.G Wells, Asimov, Wyndham etc.
this book left me cold. Whatever is the opposite of page turner (book closer?) this was it! Highly imaginative, certainly but unconstrained over the top imagination. Long, interminably tedious descriptions punctuated by pseudo scientific obscurantist gobledegook are padded out with boring dream sequences. A fragmentary story with unsympathetic characters searching for a worthwhile, interesting plot.
on 12 November 2003
I have never read a better imagining of the future - of how it would feel to perceive in eleven dimensions; what the come-down from a period of artificially accelerated consciousness would be like; what kind of person would choose to sacrifice their bodily persona to enter cybernetic communion with a space-ship. One memorable scene has the holographic avatar projection of an orbiting cyborg ship (which manifests itself as a cat) saying a remorseful farewell to the man she loved and then dumped on an isolated planet, where an epidemic of rogue software from who knows where is progressively re-engineering his body's molecules into stone. Harrison has the improbable ability to make this situation real, to make you care. Here, the 25th century is no great advance on our own: technological magic turned to trinkets and whimsy, alienated, deracinated populations, faith only in a distant, unknowable cloud in space. It is an exhilarating read, holding on to three strands of the story with their widely different perspectives - panic-attack materialism, epic tragedy, and likeable yarn, with internal echoes and pastiche passages - with the continual pleasures of Harrison's shape-shifting prose. To leaven all this praise, I would say that I was never quite convinced that, or perhaps why, the main character in the 20th-century strand would have been driven to his career as a murderer, and I will have to re-read it before I make my mind up as to the overall coherence of the book: it ends well, but I was left wondering what both light and 'Light' is all about. Despite that, very exciting, very funny, very frightening and very beautiful.
I'm going to join the naysayers on this review. I bought the book after the glowing praise from Iain M Banks, but soon lost the plot - well, more accurate to say I never found it.
When I was100 pages through this 300 page book I still wasn't sure why I was reading it. There didn't seem to be a plot. There are three characters in moderately interesting universes, but they're not massively likeable and I don't really understand what they're all doing. The writing is flowery but good, apart from the slight oversight that is failing to convince me why I should read this book, care about the characters or what they are doing.
There's a murdering physicist who uses dice. There's two people in the far future. One of them has a spaceship and isn't quite real. I don't know why either of them are doing what they're doing.
By page two hundred you think you're found out why one of the characters is doing what she's doing. But you haven't - it's just a trick of the light. I still don't really know much or care much about the other two, and there's only a hundred pages left to go.
I finished it and everything tied together but I wasn't really sure what it all meant. I'm a big fan of science fiction, but I still have no idea what the plot really was, what happened or why I spent money on this book. It certainly sweeps you along through some interesting places in a different way, but that's usually what I tell myself about the night bus when we're going through Peckham and Camberwell. And at least the night bus gets me somewhere useful.
on 4 December 2015
Some deep dreams are so immersive they almost leave a musky aftertaste - the flavour of durian or absinthe, perhaps some faint odour of scorched metal or polystyrene. In those first moments of waking your dawn is tainted by their ominous afterglow. Mike Harrison's remarkable novel Light has that oneiric power, the stained light of a sustained hallucination, a glowering illumination from the night-side.
Ostensibly it's an sf genre novel in galactic space-opera mode, involving star-ships, alien civilisations, hobo spacemen and multidimensional cat and dog fights. But Harrison has as much to do with the likes of old Ike Asimov as Philip Glass does to John Philip Sousa . He warps the genre through a dark worm hole into a highly personal hyperspace.
Yet this book hasn't created itself from nowhere like some random fluctuation of a quantum wave function. Harrison has been experimenting with the forms and metaphors of sf since the late sixties, when he contributed fiction and criticism to Michael Moorcock's seminal magazine New Worlds, a space where writers like J.G Ballard could challenge the complacency of the genre by tackling apocalyptic themes and exploring modernist narrative techniques.
Harrison's early book The Committed Men (1971) is in some ways a typical disaster-novel foray through a post-industrial Britscape of irradiated mutants but there's a very distinctive (and poetically bleak) sense of urban grotesque and horror. Characters move like damaged insects to the fractured rhythms of their memories. Short stories like Running Down (1975) embody the concept of entropy in the aberrations of an accident-prone sociopath against a wider backdrop of social - and even geological - decay, a disaster story in which the narrator himself colludes to provoke the catastrophe.
Harrison has always strived to expand the stylistic horizons of speculative fiction and explore exotic zones of consciousness. During the 1980s in the Viriconium series of novellas and short stories, he created a doomed alternative world of consumptive minor aesthetes "eating gooseberries steeped in gin" , endless Byzantine intrigue, obscure but barbarous rites. "Wherever you live in the city you can see the fireworks in the dark and hear the shouts on the wind..." The language is allusive, the tone elegiac but sinister, almost Huysmanesque. Ian Miller's drawings for his graphic-novel treatment of The Luck in the Head reflect this vision of menace and melancholy.
Yet Harrison's writing also keeps a tight grip on consensus reality and the material world. His mainstream novel Climbers (1989) won an award for its powerful evocation of the ordeals of rock-climbing, the neural charge of vertigo and danger. And throughout the body of his work there's a drive to confront the roots of the mythopoeic urge and redefine the function of speculative fiction. "We learn to run away from fantasy and into the world, write fantasies at the heart of which by some twist lies the very thing we fantasize - against..." (The Profession of Fiction, 1989)
Light deploys many standard-issue fantasy-kit devices as its raw material. In grubby dystopian modern London a mentally disturbed physicist develops the math that will eventually make interstellar travel possible. In the distant galaxies of the twenty-fifth century a young woman's body is bionically merged with a star ship. In a seedy twenty-fifth century spaceport a burned-out space pilot lets his life drift away in a virtual reality tank.
Harrison also uses the narratives of popular science as a starting point. Here quantum physics (and ancient alien technologies) provide the matrix of possibilities in which these three story-lines operate, allowing faster-than-light flight, surfing the rim of a black hole, skimming the event-horizon, infinite polymorphous perversions of space and time. The quantum foam is bubbling under, every little hubbly Hole is a Whole is a Hole. And there's always more of it... Reality duplicates itself fractally, quite madly, generating torsions, distortions, reflections, refractions of itself, yourself. "You can become anything you wannabe" as we tell ourselves on the telly.
It's the deep-end implications of this which Harrison explores, at an individual and at a cosmic level, transmuting his material in the process. He resists the tempting seduction of random narrative paths that fork off everywhere, whether they're the hyperfabulations of Robert Coover or the tasty worlds of Michael Moorcock where Jerry Cornelius copulates with a multiverse of mini-skirts. Harrison's three main narrative trajectories are all energised by characters with obsessive drives and haunted memories. To become what they wannabe they act; and their polyverse collapses into (pretty but often bad) shape around those choices.
Michael Kearney, physicist and serial killer, has been stalked since childhood by a presence he calls the Shrander, which seems to feed on his emotional isolation and sexual dysfunction. Four hundred years down the time-line Seria Mau Genlicher has irrevocably cut herself off from her abusive childhood (and her humanity) by choosing to merge her neurobiology with her K-ship "The White Cat," which she has stolen from her employers, Earth Military Contracts. She's bought some K-tech device from the gene-splicer Uncle Zip, and despite the pretty packaging, it doesn't seem to work. And after repeated sessions in the sensory immersion tanks of New Venusport, acting out C20 film noir heroics, Ed Chianese literally can't remember who he is/was any more.
The light that illumines these terminal survivors emanates from the Kefahuchi Tract, a stellar vortex of radiation and dark matter, surrounded by the wreckage of ancient civilisations that tried to penetrate its mysteries. The margins of the Tract form the Beach, where prospectors salvage exotic alien nano-technologies and artificial intelligence codes from the ruined worlds. Like Kearney playing on the beach as an infant (like Isaac Newton's famous self-description) they're half-comprehending children; and they're playing a dangerous game. The Tract eventually draws everything together, a node of psychic gravitation, like Rick's Bar in Casablanca....
That's not a totally frivolous comparison. Casablanca works as a film because of the tight integration of character development, plot structure and screen imagery; and Light works as a novel because of the poetic synergy of images and motifs that resonate between the different narrative strands. The substrate of the text is the substrate of quantum reality itself, so the traumas and ecstasies of Kearney, Seria Mau and Ed all finally wormhole into each other, but the clarity of the story always shines through.
Light illuminates everything in sharp detail, whether it's the biro-drawn tattoo on the hand of the satanic Valentine Sprake, who urges Kearney on his killing sprees, or the retro-fashion genetic engineering of the twenty-fourth century. The evocation of the Shrander, which slowly emerges throughout the book in an accumulation of surreal detail is one of the most disturbing creations I've read in years, on a par with Kneale or M.R James for its construction of sheer Otherness. "It swam with the little fishes in the shadow of the willow, just as it had sorted the stones on the beach when he was two. It informed every landscape. Its attentions had begun with dreams in which he walked on the flat green surface of canal water, or felt something horrible inhabiting a pile of Lego bricks. Dragons were expressed as the smoke from engines, while the mechanical parts of the engines themselves turned over with a kind of nauseous oily slowness, and Kearney awoke to find a rubber thing soaking in the bathroom sink. The Shrander was in all of that."
Light beams us into some dark spaces - the tatty rooms where Kearney and Sprake commit their atrocities, the chaotic warrens of the enslaved New Men on the corporate planets, the high vacuum where children's toys and body parts stream into the void after a K-ship skirmish. But there are also characters like Kearney's ex-wife Anna and Ed's companion Annie the Rickshaw Girl who, despite their own conflicts offer their partners some focal point beyond the solipsism of the technologically enhanced self. There are no easy redemptions or smart-weapon heroics. But there is at least an aperture to a new kind of self-knowledge, a new beginning.
"Mankind will become better and more evil" claimed Nietzsche. It is to Harrison's credit that he's been able to show us what this might involve as our techno-enriched future hurtles towards us and we stand transfixed in its glare.