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Light
M. John Harrison
Bantam Spectra, 320 pages

Light
M. John Harrison
M. John Harrison is a lifelong writer and author of many novels, among them: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, The Centauri Device, and The Course of the Heart. Under the pseudonym Gabriel King, he and Jane Johnson have written The Wild Road and The Golden Cat.

M. John Harrison Website
ISFDB Bibliography: Gabriel King
ISFDB Bibliography: M. John Harrison
SF Site Review: The Centauri Device
SF Site Review: Travel Arrangements
SF Site Review: The Wild Road and The Golden Cat
SF Site Review: The Wild Road

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jeff VanderMeer

Some books make you want to run for a thousand miles, to dive off of buildings just for the burn of the fall. Some books are like drugs, adrenalin rushes, fireworks. M. John Harrison's Light is not just among the best SF novels of the year -- it's without question the best read of the year. Harrison has jettisoned all banality, dead spots, padding, and come up with a novel that moves without sacrificing depth. Not since Stepan Chapman's The Troika and Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons has a novel managed to so single-handedly revitalize and re-energize the SF field.

Light balances two main threads: one set in 1999, centered around Michael Kearney, a physicist with, for lack of a better description, very dark secrets, and the other set in 2400, after humankind has spread out across the universe due (in part) to Kearney's discoveries. The Kearney storyline has all of Harrison's trademarks -- the tortured characterization, the faintly uneasy truce with the affliction called life, the awareness of the artificiality of the modern world. These traits have served Harrison well in recent years, especially in the novels The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. Such works functioned as brutally depressing acts of honesty -- to the point of being, perhaps, too hopeless. The appeal of Harrison's earlier Viriconium stories was that they meshed this emotional starkness with the outwardly more cheerful exotica of fantasy. Now Harrison has combined his astute, ruthless characterization with the SF form, to create a work that bristles and seethes with energy and intelligence, a work both playful and sublimely serious.

In the far-future sections, which center around the mysterious Kefahuchi Tract in deep space, Harrison manages to satirize the swagger of space opera while extending, expanding, and amplifying its effects. Characters such as Billy Ankers, Seria Mau Genlicher, and Ed Chianese are as deftly drawn as those in the contemporary setting. Harrison's descriptions of space maneuvers rival Banks'...

There was a vague ringing in the hull. Out in the flat grey void beyond, a huge actinic flare erupted. In an attempt to protect its client hardware, the White Cat's massive array shut down for a nanosecond and a half. By this time, the ordnance had already cooked off at the higher wavelengths. X-rays briefly raised the temperature in local space to 25,000 degrees Kelvin, while the other particles blinded every kind of sensor, and temporary sub-spaces boiled away from the weapons-grade singularity as fractal dimensions. Shockwaves sang through the dynaflow medium like the voices of angels, the way the first music resonated through the viscous substrate of the early universe before proton and electron recombined. Under cover of this momentóless of grace than of raw insanity and literal metaphysics -- Seria Mau cut the drivers and dropped her ship out into ordinary space. The White Cat flickered back into existence ten light years from anywhere. She was alone.
...while his description of the shadow operators that help out aboard certain space ships displays the poetry of a truly inspired imagination...
What were they? They were algorithms with a life of their own. You found them in vacuum ships like the White Cat, in cities, wherever people were. They did the work. Had they always been there in the galaxy, waiting for human beings to take residence? Aliens who had uploaded themselves into empty space? Ancient computer programmes dispossessed by their own hardware, to roam about, half lost, half useful, hoping for someone to look after? In just a few a hundred years they had got inside the machinery of things. Nothing worked without them. They could even run on biological tissue, as shadow boys full of crime and beauty and inexplicable motives. They could, if they wanted, they sometimes whispered to Seria-Mau, run on valves.
Throughout Light, Harrison never forces exposition into scenes. Everything that needs to be explained is explained, but only where such explanation fits best. He leaves enough mystery for the reader to be enchanted and mesmerized by his creations, and provides enough explanation for satisfaction by story's end.

Michael Kearney, meanwhile, gives Harrison the opportunity to create a character as tortured as he is amoral, a man who almost by accident facilitates the discovery of faster-than-light travel. Kearney's lonely childhood has warped his consciousness; he is unable to fully function in society. More importantly, when given what amounts to a mental push, he descends into a kind of madness. Kearney is haunted by a vision:

"Try and imagine," he had once said to Anna, "something like a horse's skull. Not a horse's head," he had cautioned her, "but its skull." The skull of a horse looks nothing like the head at all, but like an enormous curved shears, or a bone beak whose two halves meet only at the tip. "Imagine," he had told her, "a wicked, intelligent, purposeless-looking thing which apparently cannot speak. A few ribbons or strips of flesh dangle and flutter from it. Even the shadow of that is more than you can bear to see."
The implications of that vision turn Kearney into something between monster and pitiable wretch -- a gray area that adds further layers to the novel. Each reader will decide for him or herself how to judge Kearney's actions, but Harrison makes it possible to understand those actions at a very deep level.

All of these effects lead to an ending that, despite a whiff of deus ex machina, is truly satisfying.

Harrison is not the first writer to attempt these types of effects -- but they've never been done this well before, or in this combination. Imagine the best pure adrenalin SF novel twinned to a stunning mainstream novel to get an idea of the overall effect. Harrison's manipulation of layers of reality also deserves mention -- the book is often truly mind-bending as a result.

Light proves a number of things. First, the New Wave was not a failure, despite propaganda to the contrary. Harrison, a founder of that movement, is as relevant today as any living writer. This book, as well as recent fiction by Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard, shows that the "shock of the new" provided by the New Wave has yet to subside. Second, Harrison, at an age when many writers are figurative dust, doomed to repeat themselves until they're literal dust, is a tough, clever, talented son of a bitch who hasn't had blinders on while creating his more introspective work over the last decade. Light is a book to make both Iain M. Banks and Vladimir Nabokov blush with envy, a book that uses hard SF concepts like poetry and is merciless in its assault on the irrelevant. I cannot think of a SF novel in recent memory that has both mocked the stereotypical "sense of wonder" and yet simultaneously created a sense of wonder. The pleasures of this book are wide and numerous. I cannot recommend Light highly enough.

Copyright © 2002 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime will release his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in April 2003.


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