By Light Alone Paperback – 18 Aug 2011
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"Should have won the 2009 Booker Prize." Kim Stanley Robinson, author, "Red Mars," on "Yellow Blue Tibia""
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).See all Product description
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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.
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.
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