12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent literary SF novel
Decades in the future, the world has been revolutionised by the introduction of photosynthetic hair. The poor now no longer need to be fed, as they can live off sunlight alone, whilst the rich flaunt their wealth and power by their unnecessary consumption of food and cutting their hair. Supermodels are now immensely fat and the rich very bald. A well-off family undertakes...
Published on 30 Aug 2011 by A. Whitehead
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars By Light Alone
You know zombie movies, yeah? Zombie movies? Okay so you know how in zombie movies there's often a protracted period in the opening act during which the characters have no idea that the world has gone to hell and that the zombie horde is almost at their front door, and the only way that the viewer has any idea about the zombies is because she's given glimpses of...
Published 6 months ago by TomCat
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent literary SF novel,
By Light Alone is Adam Roberts' eleventh novel. On the surface it's the story of a young girl who is kidnapped, returns home, and whose return serves as the catalyst for significant changes in her family life. But this is only a very shallow reading of the text. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that there are a lot of different things going on, and periodically the text switches to a new POV and rewinds in time to provide a fresh perspective on events we have already seen. The main characters - Leah and her parents, George and Marie - are all somewhat unreliable narrators and finding the inconsistencies between their accounts of the same event is a fascinating exercise in itself.
The central SF element - the photosynthetic hair - is a Maguffin that sets up a world in which poor people no longer need to work to eat, resulting in a mounting overpopulation and unemployment crisis that threatens the lives of the rich and powerful. Roberts explores the ramifications of this well-meaning development through its impact on society and how that affects the central characters. The rich are now more self-absorbed than ever before, treating skinny people with long hair as social lepers and disdaining anyone who works for a living, whilst avoiding watching the news (which they regard as beneath them). However, their lives are also portrayed as empty, with little to galvanise or interest them outside of a few hobbies. Leah's kidnapping forces her father, George, into contact with ordinary people and her subsequent return catalyses him into seeing the world in a different way. The way that the characters, world and story drive each other relentlessly onwards is particularly impressive and accomplished.
However, an even more successful move is when Roberts executes a narrative shift in the second half of the novel, dropping us into the lives of the poor, whose freedom from having to find food has simply plunged them even deeper into abject poverty and desperation, raising the spectre of revolution and violence. This is a dark, grubby and distasteful world of sexual violence and petty crime, out of which emerges the prospect of change, though whether that is for the better remains unclear at the novel's close.
By Light Alone is an accomplished novel, with expertly-crafted prose, well-developed thematic elements and engaging characters combining to form an intricate, satisfying narrative which concludes by posing hard questions and not offering easy answers (out of the four Roberts novels I've read, this has by far the strongest ending). The problems are relatively minor: there is an idiosyncratic sense of humour in George's chapters which is occasionally tonally jarring, and the limits of the hair technology are not really explained. People not needing money for food is one thing, but presumably they still need it for shelter, clothes and water, so the apparent willingness of some of the hair-using majority to ditch their jobs and loll around on the beach all day doesn't entirely track. However, given that the explanations for much of this come from the rich cats whose views are inherently biased, this incongruity can be seen as part of the effect, rather than a problem in itself.
By Light Alone (****½) is an intelligent and well-written SF novel with real literary ambitions that it comes close to fulfilling. This may not be the modern SF masterpiece I am fully confident that Roberts is capable of producing, but it is not far off. The novel is available now in the UK and on import in the USA.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nil By Mouth,
By this simple invention (and a single act of 'suspension of disbelief') Roberts recasts our contemporary world. The rich are even richer; a super-rich 'stateless elite' who have less and less in common, have less and less empathy with, the vast bulk of humanity. Just maintaining an interest in current affairs is considered rather distasteful. Those in the squeezed middle are yet more stressed and terrified of falling - made up of an increasingly obsequious professional class, a hard-pressed and terrified bourgeoisie ('jobsuckers' as they are disdainfully referred to by the super-rich) . The poor are truly, absolutely poor. Previously, it was necessary to give the poor some few pennies to keep body and soul together. Now, there's no need to even do this. A little water, a few grubs and insects and a sunny day is all this lumpenproletariat needs. Meanwhile, the super-rich breakfast in New York, fly by ramjet to dine in London and ski on Mount Ararat.
So that's the basic premise. It is, like the previous 'New Model Army' and others, overtly political. It is wickedly, almost grossly, satirical - which means that, really, there are hardly any endearing characters. But there are some really interesting ideas. The impact of this one change on relations between men and women, on religions, on security and national borders, on the media are all woven into the story, exaggerating and illuminating things that are already part of our here and now.
The book is in four sections. The first three are divided into short chapters, but the final section is one long narrative, with just the occasional break. The narrator intervenes in person on a few occasions too. While reading the first three sections, I was reminded really strongly of Margaret Attwood and maybe Huxley too. The prose is wonderful - somewhere close between the sparse coolness of Ballard and the beautiful precision of Banville.
The first section, then, introduces us to most of the characters, sets up the premise and the initial event that sparks the narrative. The following two sections begin to explore the ramifications through the eyes of two of the protagonists. But the final, and longest, section turns into a quest, a sort of Odyssey. And I have to say that I found it the least satisfying of the four. Perhaps it was the lack of chapter breaks, perhaps it was the subject matter, but I found it hard work, particularly after the satire and social observations of the middle two sections. Which is not to suggest that the final section does not contain satire, just that overall it took a while to gather steam, seemed a bit, well, peripatetic, before coming together into a fairly satisfying grand finale.
Overall, there is some wonderful writing here, some great story-telling. If you've read previous Adam Roberts books, you'll know what to expect. If not, don't come to this expecting some kind of escapist sci-fi. It's a lot more than that.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Arise, ye starvelings...,
It's also a book to be careful about reviewing, because there are a number of surprises and plot twists, and Roberts has chosen not reveal some things until some way though the story.
So - in the future - we do find out when, but not for some time - the Bug has been developed, giving humans the ability to photosynthesise. Their hair can produce sugars from sunlight, so people can live without food, which has therefore become an expensive luxury. The world is polarised between the wealthy, who do nothing but loll around like spoiled children, and "longhairs" who have, literally, nothing. There is a middle class, disdained by the rich as mere "jobsuckers", who seem to be the only ones actually doing anything useful.
In this nightmarish world, we are introduced to George and Marie, holidaying on Mount Ararat with their children, one of whom, Leah, is kidnapped. The reason for the kidnap, again, does not become clear for some time, and goes to the heart of how the world of New Hair works. The ramifications of the kidnap form the rest of the book, as George and Marie try to cope with the event. Meanwhile, a revolution is brewing - among the dispossessed are radical sects of all types, Marxists and Spartacists, religious groups who revere Neocles, creator of the New Hair, Aquatics who take to the sea on rafts - and, more grim, the Bosses, jumped up local village rulers who hold sway over little parcels of territory. After sections of the books focussing on George and Marie, much of this is explored through the journey of Issa, a "longhair" girl struggling for survival in a harsh world.
If I had a criticism of this book, it might be that Issa's section is so much more engaging than the earlier parts, and, as I said above, I can imagine a reader who dips in being put off by the first part and never appreciating just how good it really is. The life of the self-regarding, pampered rich is so much less interesting than that of Issa, and they are, in their self pity so hard to sympathise with - especially the whining Marie. However, I don't think this is, actually, a valid criticism: this book is in many ways a comparison of the lives of those two groups and Roberts actually sets out his agenda through the words of one character, who insists that as poverty is the general experience of mankind, so the history of the poor, not the rich, is the proper subject of study. So in a sense the structure of the book illustrates its content.
This is a well written, serious, engaging book. It is also funny, and Roberts plays some clever language games - look for the quotes embedded in it (just to mention one, he turns the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey into a fridge ("My God, it's full of food!"))
Probably better than either New Model Army, his last, or Yellow Blue Tibia: A Novel, this is science fiction transcending itself, saying interesting things about us and the world. And, against a recent trend of paperback publication, it's available in lovely hardback, a really handsome volume.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars By Light Alone,
This review is from: By Light Alone (Kindle Edition)You know zombie movies, yeah? Zombie movies? Okay so you know how in zombie movies there's often a protracted period in the opening act during which the characters have no idea that the world has gone to hell and that the zombie horde is almost at their front door, and the only way that the viewer has any idea about the zombies is because she's given glimpses of subtly-placed newspaper headlines and T.V. footage telling her about the zombies - reportage of which the characters all seem blissfully unaware? Well, Adam Roberts' 'By Light Alone' begins in very much the same vein. There are no zombies, but the world has most definitely gone to hell. This may be painfully obvious to the reader, but the rich, self-centred protagonists, sealed off in the hermetic paradise of uber-affluent Manhattan, have no idea about the true state of things - reading the news, you see, has become distinctly unfashionable.
Well, I say there are no zombies - but that's not really true. 'By Light Alone' is set 100 (ish) years from now, when humans have genetically engineered the ability to photosynthesize through their hair, thus eliminating the need for food. This results in a kind of extreme Marxian two-class society: the rich (who can afford real food) are completely sealed-off and unreachable, and affect baldness as a visual signifier of their wealth. The poor masses, by comparison, grow long flowing locks and spend their days prostrate in the sun in order to survive. (I suppose the "jobsuckers" (those who work) form a third class - analogous with the petite bourgeoisie - but the novel never deals with these directly.) The so-called `longhairs' are seen by our rich protagonists as the zombie plague: socially worthless (they don't need food, so there's no motivation for them to work the low-paid jobs of the poor), nomadic and emaciated, they ring the walled-cities and lay-about on rafts, just existing in their millions, described using imagery highly reminiscent of cinema's zombie hordes: gorging all day (albeit on sunlight), walking about, and not doing very much of anything else.
In order for By Light Alone to work, then, the reader has to swallow the ridiculousness of photosynthesizing hair, and for what it's worth I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief in this regard (who says Science Fiction has to be about real science, anyway?). I was wary going-in to a book that so obviously functions as a thought experiment, a transposition of our real world concerns about a growing rich-poor divide that utilises a science fictional gimmick (the "hair") to both simplify and radicalise the terms of the enquiry. But the clinical and gloomy investigation into the nature of poverty is pleasingly tempered by Roberts' knack for charming characterisation and frequently hilarious satire. The satire in question isn't especially subtle (and his caricatures of the vain, ignorant, unsympathetic rich are so extreme as to be unhelpful in some passages), but I generally found the jokes to be successful, and the culture criticism to be biting and astute.
The first half of 'By Light Alone' can be uncomfortable reading. We spend most of our time with George and Marie: grotesque, vain, vulgar millionaires entirely ignorant and dismissive of the wider world and its myriad problems. They spend their time holidaying and eating various expensive and exotic foodstuffs; partly because it's fashionable, and partly because they just can. George and Marie's children are cared for by a full-time nanny, who is occasionally commanded to bring the kids out so that they might be shown-off for 5 or 10 minutes to George and Marie's equally abhorrent friends - this being the total extent of the interaction between parents and children.
I experienced a strange cognitive dissonance when reading about George and Marie, somewhere between voyeuristically delighting in their vileness, and morally despairing at the unapologetic pride they have in their own ignorance. Much of the language in the first half of the novel is equally divided: there's a limited narratorial point of view that seems similarly unaware of the wider "real world", but which simultaneously satirises the protagonists' despicable ignorance and gluttony. It's impressive stuff, coloured by Roberts' characteristically dry sense of humour. For example, when Marie admits to a friend that she has two children, the narrator chips-in with this sly description:
`Two!' repeated Ys, as if this number were one of those mind-stunning statistics you hear on documentaries about the vastness of interstellar space.
The primary catalyst for dramatic action occurs when George and Marie's daughter, Leah, is kidnapped while on holiday. Leah is returned to them after several months' frantic communication with the local police, but something about their daughter isn't quite right. She's lost the ability to speak English, has been forced to grow her hair long and, after months in the capture of poor "longhairs", hasn't eaten "hard food" since her kidnapping. After various psychological and pharmaceutical therapies, Leah slowly returns to her old self, but the process takes its toll on her parents, and this traumatic event inevitably exposes the cracks in their marriage.
The change in George's world view at this point is a slightly garish and parable-esque U-turn that's just about in keeping with his pre-established character, but the more interesting emotional fallout is definitely Marie's, whose search for solace in various lovers, drugs, therapies and hobbies reveals an emotional complexity that tested my pre-conceptions of this rich, vain woman. She's still patronising and ignorant, of course, but it's satisfying that Roberts' caricatures attempt some emotional depth. There's a strange amount of posturing in By Light Alone, and the book constantly had me shifting and re-adjusting my opinions of its characters. I'm not sure if this is a consequence of deliberate misdirects and red herrings designed to play on my own prejudices, or if it's just down to some clunky writing.
When `what happened to Leah' is eventually revealed to the reader, for example, I was equal parts pleased by the originality of the twist, and disappointed by its implications for characterisation. I guess it's down to the caprice of the individual reader to decide whether she can buy-into the idea that Leah's parents wouldn't have immediately sussed what was going on, even though Roberts had laid some of the groundwork for their parental ignorance in advance. I'm still not sure what I feel about it, to be honest.
The second half of By Light Alone entails a dramatic shift in narrative focus, and the book now concerns itself with Issa, an itinerant "longhair" trying to reach New York. The change in register at this point is welcome; long descriptions of food, affluence and luxury are replaced like-for-like with accounts of hunger, poverty and violence. The tonal move is jarring, but deliberately so. As Issa travels through (I think) Turkey, she is variously assaulted, dehydrated, lost and forced to deal with the Spartacists (revolutionaries set on overthrowing the superstructure of the real-food-eating rich). It's harrowing and often deftly-handled stuff, but I found many of the long passages that recount Issa's wanderings to be tedious, repetitive and a bit too vague in their imagery (I had a lot of trouble actually visualising the landscape). Perhaps you could generously describe such sequences as the novel's form mirroring the experience of its subject... but er..hmmm.
Seen from the perspective of the "longhairs", of course, it is now the super-rich of the book's opening chapters who appear to be the zombies: constantly stuffing their faces, ignorant about, well, everything, and just kinda brain dead and detached. I don't want to take this whole zombie analogy too far (I admit it's a bit fatuous and vague), but it's definitely helpful in describing the somewhat ironic way in which the book's two groups of people (the rich, and the longhairs) see one another. The most successful aspect of By Light Alone is the way the novel appears to set-up simplistic binaries, but then perpetually interrupts the process by shifting the perspective to the other side, to detail the pains and flaws of what was heretofore an "other". As I've said, the rich aren't exclusively depicted as emotionally depthless and selfish, and likewise Roberts is keen to avoid any stereotypes of the noble poor (many of the "longhairs'" actions are truly despicable).
So By Light Alone is an odd thing, really. It makes a lot of demands of its readers: you have to buy-in to lots of nonsense that can't always be waved away as "just satire", but if you're willing to read it without too much cynicism, then you'll find the book to be frequently funny, engaging and, at its action-packed dénouement, genuinely moving. I found myself having to constantly re-orientate my opinions of its characters and their actions, and this, in some ways, is a good reflection of the complexities and problems of the debate at hand. The second half of the book is a little too earnest, and definitely over-dependent on unlikely coincidences to drive the narrative forward, but By Light Alone remains a fascinating thought experiment, and definitely worth a read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inreresting idea, but does not quite convince...,
Unfortunately not. The world is still not a happy one. The rich cut their hair and deliberately live on gourmet 'hard food'. The poor need hard food to have children, thus while men sunbathe women labour in menial jobs to get the hard food they need to survive pregnancy. Those among the poor able to afford hard food act like gang leaders, rewarding followers with hard food and condemning opponents to death by shearing their hair.
There is tension between rich and poor. The former live in fortified ghettos, protected by police,and when necessary, the military. Some among the poor ('Spartacists') stir up trouble and try to organise attacks on the rich areas. There is rising tension as recent incidents referred to (but not narrated in detail),have inflamed the rich/poor conflict. There are scenes in the novel of the poor being shot, and bombed on their rafts.
Separate sections each cover a particular member of a rich family, the father George, the mother Marie and their daughter Lissa. The parents are both shown as self-centred individuals, who do nothing of any importance. An awful event shakes up their dull existence for a while but it is resolved, albeit by external parties. The last section in the book is the best as it puts a markedly different spin on the previous ones and gives us some characters with much more depth than the shallow rich.
All in all, the writing throughout is superb. However, one cannot though help feel though that the global scenario given is a little unlikely. It exists somewhat uneasily in between realistic and surrealistic modes.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great ideas, horrible characters,
This review is from: By Light Alone (Kindle Edition)I have what I can only describe as a complicated relationship with the works of Adam Roberts. I have read all of his SF works (though none of his criticism or parodies), and of these my favourites are Stone from 2002 and New Model Army, which was one of the best books of 2010 in my opinion (bafflingly overlooked when the awards came around). So why did his latest, By Light Alone, sit unread on my Kindle for more than six months, and why is he the least re-read of my favourite current authors? Partly because I buy too many books so have a massive stuff-to-read list, but mostly because, while I enjoy the quality and clarity of his prose, and appreciate the science fictional ideas in his work, the characters in his books tend to be horrible, objectionable, and often extremely selfish people. This means that I don't always feel like spending time in their company.
The characters in the first half of By Light Alone are a case in point, super-rich socialites who are self-absorbed to the point of solipsism and are intensely annoying as a result. That is clearly how the author wants us to feel towards these people, but that doesn't make it any less annoying to have to read about their impoverished inner lives. These idiots live in a medium-future Earth where the poor have, in theory, been liberated from the need to work by the invention of bio-engineered photosynthetic Hair; simply take the Bug to transform your DNA, grow your Hair long, and stand in the sun for enough time each day, and you only need to eat enough to get vitamins and trace minerals, not for energy. However, removing the need to work simply to eat has devalued the labour of the poor, and sunlight alone does not give you enough energy to lead much of an active life (just ask a sunflower).
Roberts explores the effects of the Hair on economic and social structures via a number of different viewpoint characters, and the plot rolls along nicely. I preferred the second half of the book to the first since I was more interested in the character (I'm trying hard not to spoil any of the plot here). If you like his other work then you will probably enjoy this one as well, but new readers might need a bit of motivation to get through the opening sections.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Laborious reading,
This review is from: By Light Alone (Paperback)Literary it may be, but you will probably be rolling your eyes as you read the prose that seems inappropriate in a SF book, and prose it has in abundance.
The actual premise is a good one, genetically engineered people that can use their hair to photosynthesise food, and the possibilities to explore the politics and social relationships in such a world are extraordinary IF you can navigate the often flowery and verbose language. Just imagine, you can flaunt your wealth by shaving your head and buying food which only the most wealthy can afford.
Probably best for a long haul flight or bout of illness in bed to tackle it.
Ponderous and wooden.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clever and insightful science fiction.,
The primary concept of this book is wonderfully wacky: that in the future humans have been genetically engineered to photosynthesise sunlight through their hair, thus eradicating the demand for food from an ever growing population. What has not been eradicated are the social and economic inequalities of our time nor the vain affectations of the rich and powerful. They have simply evolved, and now the rich flaunt their wealth by shaving their hair and eating food while looking for ways to further shield themselves from the hairy hordes of the desperate poor.
George and Marie are exemplars of such high society. They live a life isolated from the harsh realities of the wider world until their daughter, Leah, is kidnapped while they're holidaying in Anatolia. After these initial events, the novel outlines the attempt by Marie and George to recover their daughter and the impact of her absence on their lives, then latterly the aftermath of her eventual return, before finally offering an explanation of what actually occurred for Leah during the time she was taken. The structure of the novel is itself an integral part of the story, the final segment of the book is one long chapter which reveals Leah's physical and psychological journey, and which places the events of the other chapters into their proper context including the revelation of a well executed conceit. All the while the personal experiences of the characters are set against the backdrop of growing social unrest.
Throughout this book Roberts employs his erudite writing style to impressive effect, combining satirical insight and perceptiveness with great depth of both theme and character. Marie in particular is an utterly vile human being, but a great personality. There are also moments within its pages that By Light Alone is actually quite dark, including accounts of sexual exploitation. A difficult subject at any time and one often employed all too lazily in fiction, thankfully in this work, these never appear as anything other than entirely appropriate. The darkness within this novel is accentuated by an acute awareness of contrast. George's ruminations on the transient nature of existence following not just the loss of his daughter, but his witnessing the death of the man apparently responsible, occurs, for example, in potent polarity to the shallowness of his previous existence and the nonchalant humour of Roberts' prose. This contrast of light and dark, superficial and profound, characterise the narrative. As does a wonderful grasp of the effectiveness of understatement.
It's not often that I rave unreservedly about a novel, but I really did love this book without exception. By Light Alone is clever science fiction, and not just because of its prose or theme; It is imbued with perceptiveness and acutely observed social insight that transcends genre and that make this a fantastically relevant offering of 21st century literature. I sincerely hope this book finally brings Adam Roberts the recognition he deserves from a wider audience. For me, it has been my favourite novel of the year so far. If you want to see the best that British Science Fiction has to offer, and just how grounded in real world concerns it can be, then you need to be reading Adam Roberts. By Light Alone is a great place to start.
3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not for me,
Add to this that a lot of the novel felt like padding and I was left wondering if this title was more a novella or short story expanded to fulfil a contractual obligation. Sadly, whilst I have enjoyed this author's work in the past this one just wasn't for me and I hope that the next book goes back to what has gone before with better rounded characters, a huge overall plot alongside his breakneck pace and cracking prose.
1 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars too much literature not enough plot,
The second half reveals a major plot hole which is never explained as it shows the adventures of one of the main characters as she travels across the world trying to get home, said main character having been replaced without anyone who ever met her noticing the difference. This section is much better and reveals the writer to have some talent in the field of thriller writing, the only problem is the convenience of Issa running into the one person who could help her get home by accident, and her flexible memory of facts and figures.
Overall this rises to the level of average by dint of the final section and can only truly be recommended to those who are looking for something that makes them look like they have a critics eye for fiction rather than a readers eye.
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By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Paperback - 14 Jun 2012)