Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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Light
by M John Harrison

A book review by Steven Wu
http://www.scwu.com/bookreviews/
October 08, 2003

Rating: 3 (of 10)

Light is an unbearably cruel novel. It is cruel in the sense that it treats its characters with a callous disregard for their humanity. But it is also cruel to the reader in that it entices and entices, but ultimately fails to deliver.

Light tells three interweaving stories. In the first, set in 1999, Michael Kearney slowly goes mad on the eve of a major discovery that will make possible faster-than-light travel. In the second, set in 2400, Seria Mau is the floating intelligence on board a ship, the White Cat, whose physics- and mind-bending engine is in part derived from Kearney's brilliant insight. And in the third story, also set in 2400, the drifting Ed Chianese attempts to find the meaning of life--while keeping away from local gangsters--in a terraformed Venus.

Let's start with the basics. Light is an intensely unpleasant novel. It opens with a casual, almost offhand murder, and such murders occur with disturbing frequency throughout the novel. (At one point, for instance, Seria Mau ejects an entire room of paying passengers into the vacuum.) The characters are cold and insubstantial; they seem almost alien at times, their motivations obscure, their capacity for human empathy stunted or entirely absent. The bleakness of the novel is emphasized by a surprising (and disturbing) emphasis on extremely frigid sex entirely devoid of any human element; in fact, the sex of Light often feels more exploitative than sharing, more cruel than comfortable. (See, for instance, the clone Mona's treatment at the hands of her fellow human passengers in this excerpt.) And the novel's overall depression is not lifted by the bizarre setting, which gives off the feeling of a world of chaos with an edge bubbling into the absurd. In fact, the universe of Light has the same sort of atmosphere as an insane circus, with gibbering clowns, frothing animals, and torture devices used for play. It's interesting, in a macabre and ultimately grotesque way, but it's hardly a nice place to stay for any length of time.

Of course, that might be the point of the novel--and, in truth, I rarely have serious problems with bleak novels. (I highly enjoyed Brian Aldiss's equally macabre Hothouse, for instance.) The biggest problem with Light, however, is that it's just so damned confusing. Harrison is not fond of exposition; he instead drops hints about his science-fiction universe and expects the reader to assimilate it into some gestalt impression, fascinating in its outline but undefined in its details. Hence, we hear about Kearney's revolutionary idea and the disturbing fractal light that haunts him without any understanding of what they mean; similarly confusing are the mathematics and shadow operators on Seria Mau's ship, not to mention the mysterious box that keeps calling for Dr. Haends; and finally we are baffled by Ed Chianese's fortune-telling experience in a strange interstellar circus.

Most of this confusion is, I'm sure, deliberate: after all, at one point Harrison writes:

You could see every strange thing out there on the Beach, ideas washed up a million years ago, modified to trick out tubby little ships like these. In the end the bottom line was this: everything worked. Wherever you looked, you found. That was everyone's worst nightmare. That was the excitement of it all.
Excitement? You must mean obscurity and bafflement.

And the story just keeps getting weirder and weirder and weirder. Light's narrative is, quite literally, reality-bending. The conclusion is an eruption of utter chaos, disparate story elements crashing together in a manner that makes no real sense. You leave this novel no more enlightened than you were at the end of the first chapter.

On the bright side, Light is fueled by the author's unmistakable energy; Harrison clearly poured a lot of thought and imagination into the novel, leaving little nuggets of pure inspiration scattered throughout the story. Ultimately, however, Light promises more than it delivers. While at first it draws you to continue reading by that nagging feeling that an explanation lurks just around the character, by the end you're just glad to be able to put the book down.

[Note: I seem to be in the minority of the science-fiction world in disliking this novel. For instance, this excellent review from InfinityPlus echoes many of my concerns but ends up praising the novel to the high heavens.]

Copyright © 2003 Steven Wu

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