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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 a skiing trip to Mount Ararat on the Turkish-Iranian border, but during their holiday their daughter, Leah, is kidnapped. Attempts to track her down fail, but a year later she is found and returned to their home in New York City. But Leah's return preludes a time of immense change in the world, as revolution threatens...

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.
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on 29 August 2011
In the past, rich people were fat and the poor skinny. These days, poor people are fat and the rich are skinny. In Adam Roberts' future, the rich are bald and the poor grow their hair as long as they can. The reason for this is that Nick Neocles developed the Bug. Once ingested the Bug turns hair into an organ capable of photosynthesis. The poor need never go hungry again. And to prove their superiority, the rich ostentatiously live on 'hardfood'.

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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This is an excellent book, though one that repays a careful, not a quick read. If you're in the habit of skimming books, it won't be for you.

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.
Highly recommended.
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on 4 June 2013
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.
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on 15 July 2012
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.
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on 27 September 2012
The world has been freed from hunger. A gene-tweak to human hair makes it able to use photosynthesis to support human life, albeit needing very long hair, lots of sunbathing and a sedentary life. Some life on rafts, with desalination kits providing drinking water. So is this a story of utopia?

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.
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on 3 April 2014
I discovered Adam Roberts in an Indian Restaurant, his use of of language and humour is exquisite, he has a fantastic turn of phrase and some of his descriptions are incredibly evocative.

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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 November 2015
Dazzling invention meets searing adventure in this thoroughly extraordinary novel. Hunger, reads the strapline, is a thing of the past, and so is food.

On holiday the daughter of a rich man disappears from an eastern snowline resort. Marie, his wife relinquishes all responsibility (they had not been getting on at all) and leaves him to pursue investigations into her disappearance in the hands of George, the rich man, the girl’s father.
Where is this place? Perhaps Russia? We are not given the information. All we know is that George’s task is accomplished – over the course of eleven months of searching he finds his daughter, (but we know she is not his daughter from the memories she has of another mother.)
The world building can be compressed into a few sentences, for this is not now, by a long chalk. The poor of the world have only two advantages – they no longer need food. A bug is implanted which means they can live on light. As long as there is sunlight, they can exist. Only rich people can afford to also eat and only pregnant mothers need hard food in order to gain the nourishment to give birth. The second advantage of the poor is that they are numerous. All they have to do is lie around in sunshine to gain the energy needed to continue existence.
Leah is the ‘daughter’, tall, comely and eleven years old. But society is about to break out into factions, the Sparticists, the Muslims, and various others, and Leah is one small girl lost in a world where she has to scrabble among the millions. Lost again, aboard a barge in the ocean, Leah hangs onto the idea that she must find New York. The struggle has begun. The puzzles increase in perplexity as Leah tries to find her way, helped by various people, back home to a world where she can be safe.

There are eerie presentiments in this book. Might we all be heading for a similar break up, where the rich and the poor are pitted against each other? Leah’s Odyssey has an open ending and one can only wish for the best. This gripping story will keep you reading compulsively.
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I have only relatively recently discovered Adam Roberts, with the likes of Jack Glass and The Thing Itself, but every one of his books I've read has been excellent, so it seemed time to start filling in the gaps.

I went for By Light Alone because of its interesting sounding premise. It's a cracker (as they say). The idea is that science has produced a mechanism where people can get all the energy they need from sunlight, thanks to a bug that turns their hair into super-photosynethic light absorbers. All they need to live is some water and a few essential nutrients. A clever (if technically verging on the impossible) idea, certainly. But where Roberts triumphs is in going into the unexpected implications of the change - the absolute heart of what makes science fiction, and which so few literary types who do SF down, and think it's all about spaceships and ray guns, appreciate.

One implication considered is that for the first time ever it's possible to have a group of people who have literary no money at all. Not just poor but literally penniless. Roberts also examines the possibilities for male/female distinctions, and how a small group of wealthy people might consider those who have the special hair to be a subspecies, and to conspicuously wear their hair short to emphasise they don't need it.

The book is divided into four parts, each seen from a different (but linked) individual's point of view. At the heart of the book is the story of a privileged family whose daughter is taken from them on a skiing holiday. They assume initially it is as a hostage, but the authorities gradually explain that something much darker is behind it.

The one fault I would say that the book has is that the forth segment, which is the longest, seen from the viewpoint of the captured daughter, is the least effective. It's partly because the environment she is in forces a slow, plodding development, with occasional dramatic outbreaks of violence, but also because it just doesn't work quite as well as the other sections. It's good, but the others are brilliant.

If you want to see what good, modern science fiction is like - or are looking for a new author to branch out into, Adam Roberts is an obvious choice. I wouldn't go straight to his latest, The Thing Itself, as it is his most complex book, but either By Light Alone or Jack Glass would make an excellent way in. Recommended.
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on 9 October 2014
"By Light Alone" explores a future where hunger is no longer a problem - the poor are genetically engineered to photosynthesise, and food simply becomes the indulgence of the rich. However, with this fundamental change comes a whole new world of problems.

The first half of the book offers the perspective of the super rich, as we follow self-absorbed George and Marie holidaying with their children. To their complete bewilderment, Leah, their daughter, is kidnapped but no ransom is demanded and the ramifications begin to change their lives forever. Half way through, perspective then switches to follow Issa, a "longhair" trying to survive in the world of "absolute poverty". Through her struggle, we learn how the other half lives - where ruthless bosses lead the local villages and revolution brews.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It has a clever and interesting premise, and I was convinced whilst I read it. I found the first half focusing on the rich harder going and particularly struggled through the section on Marie. However, it was interesting to follow the two poles of society and perhaps the second half was made all the more engaging because of the difficult characters of the beginning.

I was also initially disappointed at what point the book ended, but on reflection I think it emphasised what the book was really about (vague comment I know, but I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers!). The important point is that despite finishing this book a few days ago I am still thinking about the story, its ideas and what it meant, and I always take that as a sign of a good read.
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