Light, by M. John Harrison, is a book that pulls no punches. It seems the author set out to meld the genres of ‘serious’ literary fiction and hard sci-fi. I’m not sure it worked perfectly and I’m not sure I enjoyed it as much as I would have done if it had been set more squarely in one camp or the other, but I certainly applaud the effort. I think most sci-fi fans have probably yearned at some time or another to see some of the stylistic weight that’s associated with literary fiction applied to the concepts they love to read about. Sci-fi is frequently fun, and often of great worth, but it typically excels more for heady conceptual reasons than stylistic ones. This book has style aplenty, but was less fun than I had hoped for. There’s a good bit of dark humour, but much that could be played for laughs is instead a source of existential unease — not slapstick, but pathetic and broken. There is, it goes without saying, miserable sex and joyless masturbation aplenty.
The novel is split into three parts. One is set at the close of the 20th century, when Michael Kearney, physicist, psychotic, and serial killer, is close to discovering the equations that will allow superluminal travel. He murders in order to placate the Shrander, a horse-skull headed hallucination from which he must constantly flee in terror. Kearney’s strand of the novel depicts his uncomfortable relationship with his anorexia-suffering wife and the paranoia and angst that settles on him and his physicist partner as they work on their equations. The other two are set hundreds of years later, when much of the galaxy has been colonised (thanks to Kearney’s work). Seria Genlicher Mau (great name) is a once-human, symbiotically locked into the core of a technologically-advanced K-ship. Capricious, petulant, and bipolar, Mau is another sad character, frequently knocked unconscious by the ship whenever her emotions run too high. She and the ship are tricked and harried towards a particular location around the Kefahuchi Tract — a mysterious area of space around which a kind of frontier culture of human settlements has sprung up. The third strand concerns Ed Chianese — a pilot-ace turned sim junky on the run from mobsters on one of these Kehfahuchi Tract settlements.
This isn’t really a plot-driven book, so it wasn’t a sure thing that these strands would be brought together at the end (which would be a very safe bet with pretty much any other writer of sci-fi). Nonetheless, the characters do, at last, (kind of) come together at the end of a wormhole in a satisfactory (and even rather happy) ending.
There were lots of great things about the book. On an intellectual level I really liked the juxtaposition of these pathetic characters and the outrageous situations (and universe) in which Harrison puts them. There was a powerful sense of unease in the Kearney sections, and a genuinely frightening death by mathematics scene which I had to immediately re-read. I thought that the alien New Men — idiot and pop-culture obsessed, gangling and red-haired — were pretty convincing and highly memorable. I liked the planet conquered by a fractal virus that turns anything it comes in contact with into copies of itself (again, quite frightening stuff).
It didn’t go down easy, but, on reflection, there were lots and lots of things that I liked (many more than I’ve briefly listed here) and that will probably stay with me longer than most other stuff I read. It might take a while, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be returning to the Kefahuchi tract sooner or later (this is the first of a loose trilogy).