Review: Light, by M. John Harrison

Light

(Gollancz, 2005. ISBN: 0-575-07403-5)

(Review first published on the ASIM website, August 2007)

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Light is heavy; Light is dark.

M. John Harrison is a British writer whose works are variously categorised as either literary or genre fiction. Light is thematically in the latter camp, but possesses a structure and an overall tone appropriate to a serious mainstream work. This could be a risky combination – in seeking to appeal to both audiences, the book could satisfy neither – but, from a genre perspective at least (can’t seem to find my highbrow literary hat today), it works in this instance.

Light has a braided structure. Alternating chapters focus on the protagonists Michael Kearney, quantum physicist and careless serial-killer; Seria Mau Genlicher, captain and once-human operating system of the K-Tech starship White Cat; and Ed Chianese, a tank-farm refugee with an opaque and apparently dangerous past. The activities of Seria Mau and Ed occur in 2400 AD, but in widely separated regions of the Milky Way; the chapters detailing Kearney are set in the UK and US of 1999. Ultimately, their stories are connected, but from the outset it is hard to see how: it’s to Harrison’s credit that the various revelations occur in a gradual and subtle fashion.

Novels with this kind of segmented structure are often difficult to immerse oneself in. There’s a natural tendency for one strand to appear more interesting than the others, so the remaining fraction of the text appears intrusive. For some reason, Light didn’t strike me this way. Perhaps it’s that, for at least the first half of the book, the chapters are all quite short, so the reader knows there’s going to be a rapid turnover; perhaps also it’s that MJH introduces the main characters in reverse order of reader empathy. Kearney starts proceedings in chapter 1 by murdering the woman he’s been living with for the past couple of months; Seria Mau, in chapter 2, initiates a much higher body count by ambushing and destroying several spacecraft on the fringes of the Kefahuchi Tract, but this is violence less personalised than Kearney’s seemingly random and meaningless murderousness. (Less hands-on, at least). Only Ed, in chapter 3, avoids immediate bloodshed, although he’s soon to find himself on the receiving end of the violent intentions of the Cray sisters.

There is, in fact, a great deal of violence in Light’s 320 pages. For the most part, it’s described off-handedly, almost casually; the same is true of the book’s content in sexual activity, particularly of the one-handed variety, of which there’s also a lot. I mention this not out of prudishness, but because it’s such a notably frequent feature of the text. It’s as though Harrison is saying that no matter what happens, sex and violence, in all their forms, will always be with us. Part of the human (or trans-human) condition, perhaps. The portrayal of this activity is all the more disconcerting for the detachment through which it’s filtered, as though Harrison is daring us to take sides on the morality of each action.

Harrison’s characterisation is clear and spare. For a book which, by the standards of space opera, is reasonably short (and which additionally aims to represent both present-day British life and existence in the reasonably far future), there’s such a wealth of incidental detail that the reader gets a very clear view of the shape of Harrison’s universe.

The writing in Light is precise and varied, with few if any words wasted, whether Harrison is concerned with matters personal (‘Her gait had the quick irritability lent by high heels in bad weather’ and ‘She had tried to kill herself twice. Her friends, in the way students are, were almost proud of this; they took care of her.’), architectural (‘The lights had gone on in those ridiculous glass towers which spring up wherever the human male does business.’), or astronautical (‘… at a kind of non-Newtonian standstill inside a classic orbital tangle of white dwarf stars …’). In fact, there’s such a concentration of language – Harrison can telegraph a confronting murder scene, or a poignant sexual encounter, into an alarmingly small number of words – that Light may well take longer to get through than many other books twice its length. This is not the sort of book to skim-read, you’ll miss the essential stuff. (You’ll probably also require frequent rest breaks.)

From the arguably retrograde position of having read Light‘s ‘sequel’, Nova Swing, first, I can say that Light is more brutal and less optimistic than the later volume; Nova Swing has a more consistently SF-noir feel to it, but that I think is principally a matter of locale. (The ‘Ed Chianese’ chapters in Light are the most similar in tone and setting to the events of Nova Swing.) The connections between the two books are clear, but reasonably tenuous: each book works well as a standalone, but if you’ve read one you’re likely to want to explore the other. I certainly don’t regret having read either.

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(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2007)

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