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on 11 October 2010
On the face of it, 'Lightborn' might be considered a sort of high-tech zombie novel. It's not.

Everyone in the country uses the 'Lightborn' technology, or 'shine' as it is popularly known. Shine works at the lowest levels of the brain and effectively allows people to re-programme themselves. As Amir Ansari (a shine programmer but also someone who warned against the possible dangers of Lightborn) says:

'We're doomed to an essential apehood unless we can change our deepest programming. And let's face it: people have very little self-control. We're mostly a set of biological levers waiting to be pulled. But we can change that, and that's what shine can give us. Better neurochemical paths. New ways of being.' (P183)

But then, 'The Fall' happens. In the town of Los Sombres (The Shadows), 'the shiny' start going violently mad. The only ones not affected are either pre-pubertal children or 'burn-outs' - criminals and others whose brains have been changed in order to prevent them from benefiting from Shine.

Some escape into a quarantine area, gather around a ranch. Here Xavier, a 14 year-old whose puberty has been postponed by taking kisspeptin, his 'shiny' mother endlessly knitting, Powaqa, a Hopi wise-woman, Chumana, a beautiful Hopi girl, various other refugees and latterly a strange 'John Doe' character, live out a precarious existence as bombers scream overhead in futile attempts to obliterate the lights of Los Sombres.

Meanwhile, in Los Sombres itself, all is not as it seems. There are survivors and a sort of society is functioning, helped by Roksana, the Pakistani/Polish/African daughter of Amir Ansari. Although she is seventeen, she appears immune to the Shine.

Then, back at the ranch, Xavier runs out of kisspeptin. He must venture into Los Sombres to try to replenish his supply. And there Roksana and Xavier meet up.

If you've ever read any Tricia Sullivan before, you'll know that her writing sometimes borders on the hallucinogenic. At times, her worlds seem like J G Ballard's - strangers wandering around bizarre post-apocalyptic landscapes - but her writing is not nearly so cool or detached, rather more Samuel Delany or even Theodore Sturgeon. Certainly, the idea of 'Lightborn' sounds reminiscent of Delany's 'Babel-17' - like a new operating system for the brain.

'Lightborn' is not simply a zombie novel. There is way more going on here. Consider the names of the characters. Powaqa - Hopi for 'witch', Chumana - 'snake maiden'. And Roksana - from the Persian for 'star, bright, dawn' (according to Google, a popular name in Poland). There are clearly spiritual, possibly theistic, and even evolutionary overtones to the story.

And then there are the names of the sections and chapters - 'Just Another Zombie Apocalypse' (P 158), 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' (P 165), 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway' (P 287), even 'Borg Moment'. All clues to the 'post-human' themes going on here.

In some ways, this is the most conventionally written of Tricia Sullivan's books to date. But thematically, it is surely the most powerful too. It is, of course, very well written, (o.k. maybe the second quarter is a bit slow). But the writing is evocative (sprinkled with four letter words by the way), her heroine is, as usual, fallible but thoroughly likeable. Overall, this is really good, thought-provoking adult science fiction.
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on 1 May 2013
Tricia Sullivan is a wonderful talent - I was absolutely blown away by 'Dreaming of Smoke' and 'Maul', but am disappointed - and shocked - to learn that only her latest book, Lightborn, is still in print. Hopefully, some farsighted epublishing company will be importuning her about releasing her back catalogue very soon.

Lightborn is a revolutionary new technology that has transformed the modern world. Better known as `shine', it is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment - beamed directly into the mind of anyone who can meet the asking price. But what do you do if the shine in question has a mind of its own...?

Yipee! At last - a blurb that actually does what it should - give the reader a brief insight into the book's theme and subject matter WITHOUT blurting out a whole tranche of spoilers along the way. Gold star for Orbit.

We follow the fortunes of two youngsters, Roksana and Xavia as they struggle to cope when life in the Arizona town of La Sombre falls apart as the adults all go mad. This being Sullivan, don't expect classic dystopian, `Oh my God, the world is falling apart, isn't this awful?' What marks her out as such a joy to read, is that she is an author who assumes her readers are intelligent enough to keep up without having everything spelt out. So as we watch both Roksana and Xavia's characters mature throughout the catastrophe and follow their personal griefs and coping strategies, their personal stories steadily unfold. They are both complex and interestingly three-dimensional - and Sullivan isn't afraid to show their less likeable traits.

The role of parenthood and caring is examined as the children are forced to become responsible for their mentally damaged parents - and this being a Sullivan novel, there are no slick, tailor-made answers served up. Roksana's father, a shine guru, is an inadequate parent who refuses to engage with her on an emotional level, despite his ability to provide protection against the lightborn. As people battle to rebuild their lives after the initial catastrophe, Sullivan also looks at what constitutes a functioning community by providing two quite distinct models - those survivors in La Sombre scraping together a functioning existence from the wreckage, while also dodging the Government forces; and the community that the local Indian tribe have fostered on a ranch in the wilderness, as far away from the influence of the shine that they can get.

I am conscious that in teasing out these strands, I may have given the impression that the actual storyline is a worthy attempt to dissect these issues - and Lightborn is nothing of the sort. The books starts with a bang, whisking the reader immediately into the narrative and as there is no limited omniscient info-dump silting up the action, you need to pay attention, because this is a fast-paced book. The worldbuilding is absolutely fit for purpose - and if we would like more insights to the overarching political role of the near-future America in which this all plays out, then we fill in the blanks ourselves. As Xavier and Roksana aren't concerned with how American interests mesh with the rest of the world, this isn't an aspect that figures in the novel - and that's fine with me.

Her writing, as ever, is wonderful. Dialogue is pitch perfect and the passages describing the sentient lightborn as it interacts with the human brain is brutal and beautiful. As you may have gathered, I highly rate this book. Any niggles? Nope. Not a single one. But don't take my word for it - go find a copy and read it yourself.
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on 7 October 2010
Tricia Sullivan is one of those writers you want to keep a close eye on. One to watch, as it were. Hailing from the US, she began publishing fiction right around the time she immigrated to the UK - not that I would for a second suggest the glorious climes of Britain inspired her, somehow. (Mayhap she found her muse in the monotonous grey clouds, eh?) In 1999, she took home the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award for her third novel, Dreaming in Smoke. After publishing a trilogy of fantasy novels under a pseudonym, she returned to the fertile fields of sci-fi in 2004, and there she's remained.

Lightborn is her first novel in three years, and in truth, it feels three years old. An arbitrary, insignificant nip in time, you might think - indeed - but if one thing's been done to death in that period, it's sexy vampires. If there's another, it's got to be kids scraping by an existence in a physically or psychologically isolated remnant of civilisation after The Day the World Went Away. Breathe easier: thankfully, there are no sexy vampires in sight in Sullivan's latest. Not a one.

Alas, there has been a calamity. In Lightborn's case, shine was what did it. Since you ask, shine is, and I quote, "The ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment - beamed directly into the mind of anyone who can meet the asking price." A technology embedded in the waveforms of light, capable of projecting an understanding or an instruction or an orgasm; whatever you please, really. Inevitably, in the city of Los Sombres, shine evolved, became hostile enough to pose a threat to the entire US. Not knowing how to stop the renegade shine's spread, nor able to justify dropping a nuke amid a civilian population - however deranged - the government opted instead to close Los Sombres' borders. No-one in, no-one out.

Not everyone's affected by the shine. For one thing, kid's aren't able to process shine till they come of age, and there a few, a very few adults, who have been "burned out" because of some crime or indiscretion. Unfortunately for the kids and criminals, they're trapped inside the quarantine zone with a horde of not-zombies. Xavier lives on an impromptu Native American reservation on the Los Sombres outskirts, necking bottles of Kisspeptin inhibitor to put off puberty, and thus the sad half-life of a shiny. When someone steals the last of the camp's supplies, he saddles up Bob Newhart (the horse) and takes to the city, where he meets Roksana, and realises the truth about shine is not at all what he - and the rest of the world with him - has been led to believe.

Lightborn is an over-familiar experience from the first page, a retreading of well-trodden ground - think The Extra by Michael Shea, last year's Boneshaker and The Hunger Games - that brings little innovation to the table. Its pubescent protagonist is a dullard, if a necessarily inquisitive one, and while Roksana and the supporting cast are more interesting - Elsa in particular is a darling wee scene-stealer - the wet blanket Sullivan dubs Xavier rather chokes any sense spontaneity from her narrative. Lightborn gets substantially more interesting in its last act, as Sullivan's narrative ambitions metamorphose from the ho-hum struggle for survival into something suddenly grandiose and accordingly absorbing, but unfortunately it's a case of too little, too late.

That said, even lesser Tricia Sullivan is an improvement on much of the technically and creatively brain-dead genre fiction out there, and Lightborn has its moments. The award-winning author laces her text with wit and humour: the novel's five parts are named in excellent taste after prog. rock operas such as Shine On You Crazy Diamond, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Brain Salad Surgery; individual chapters are headed irreverently; one of Xavier's inspiring speeches in the late game is interrupted by the rumbling of his stomach. So perhaps, as with The Extra (which also features giant mechanical spiders), one isn't to take this tale too seriously. Add to that, it's an easy, fast-paced read. As with the best writers and directors, Sullivan gets out of the way of her story, lets her art speak for itself, and that's a fine thing. It's only a shame Lightborn doesn't have much to add to the conversation.
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To be honest this is more of an acid trip into the world of tomorrow than anything else. It's definitely intriguing, the supporting characters fascinating and they really help take the reader into this world so that the story is revealed at its own pace. Add to the mix a very interesting long story arc with a touch of humour added within and the reader will get something pretty unique for their money. Whilst this won't make my top Sci-Fi titles for the year I did appreciate the hard work that went on to create this as well as enjoying the few light moments within that allowed the authors descriptive prose the chance to "shine." I'll definitely watch out for other books by her and hope that they pick up a bit more on character concentration and development.
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on 12 October 2010
By far the best SF novel I've read in a long time, LIGHTBORN is fiercely intelligent, with all the intense speculation of the best science fiction, but also with the sheer, heart-thumping excitement of a really great zombie thriller. The two POV characters are intensely real and sympathetic, grounding the speculative aspects of the novel in a strong emotional connection - I really, really cared about what would happen to both of them, but especially to Roksana, who's a really fabulous, strong but vulnerable heroine.

I loved it.
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on 19 February 2011
We seem to be in major disaster territory. Things start to go bad on the 19th July 2004 when Roksana has a run-in with her family's Eastern Euopean au-pair and her father, an expert on 'shine', the use of light patterns ('lightborns') to program people's minds, goes missing.

The story resumes again on July 17 2006 with Los Sombres, the town Roksana lives in, now under siege by the Army. There are occasional bombing raids, and incursions by military bots and soldiers, which try to capture people. Life, such as it is, goes on with the adult population seemingly enslaved by shine and following repetitive routines. Roksana becomes a one-woman radio station, Falln, making podcasts on the situation. This makes her a target for the forces trying to reclaim control of Los Sombres.

Outside of Los Sombres a small community exists of refugees from Los Sombres and Indians from a reservation, the latter seeming to have more understanding of what is going as their tribal wisdom taps into shine. One new arrival might be Roksana's missing father. A member of this community, Xavier, whose mother is a shine victim, is approaching puberty, at which point he will become vulnerable to shine, and so he decides to risk a visit to Los Sombres to pick up supplies of a drug, with a street name of Kiss, which will inhibit this process. Xaiver mets Roksana in Los Sombres and the plot then starts chugging along till its end.

But there are serious problems with this scenario. Why bother to give two specific dates, to presumably establish an alternate reality, when the two-year gap seems between the dates seems ridiculously long for the minor localised collapse described to endure? Why does the Army resort to such an incompetent and destructive response? Why is the Army used at all and not medical/police services? Shine, which seems to depend on optical connections, also seems to also involve AIs. Where do these come from and how do they relate to shine? How can shine possibly be related to Native Indian 'tribal wisdom'? And most importantly, why are the young not more susceptible to shine than old people, since their mental patterns are going to be much less ingrained and thus more mutable?

Since chapters seem to be named after pop songs, the intent is clearly to idolise youth as the saviours of the old, who are zombified by disaster, which the 'old' military cannot understand and so try to blindly destroy. It is a shame that such lively writing is built on cliche.
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