By Light Alone Hardcover – 18 Aug 2011
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In the future hunger is a thing of the past. Unless you choose to be hungry. The new novel from the 'enfant terrible of British SF' (GUARDIAN).
About the Author
Adam Roberts is Professor of 19th-century literature at London University. His novels, SALT, GRADISIL and YELLOW BLUE TIBIA have all been shortlisted for the ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARD. He has also published a number of academic works on both 19th-century poetry and SF.
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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.
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.
I've read three of his books now and none has disappointed. Luckily he is so prolific that I am not likely to run out until he actually stops writing.