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Light June 19, 2011

Posted by futurewired in M John Harrison, Reviews.

Light by M John Harrison is a dark, complex book, spattered with sex, violence, and esoteric interpretations of quantum mechanics, all delivered in a cold, detached style of prose that somehow manages to be both compelling and ultimately slightly unsatisfying.


There are three main strands to the book, following three characters, one in the 20th century, two in the year 2400. They are linked by tormented visions of their past, by often hallucinogenic experiences of a mysterious entity, and by the Kefahuchi tract, a space time anomaly/Big Dumb Object, a source of fear and fascination in equal measure.


The first of the three characters Michael Kearney is a theoretical physicist, on the verge of a breakthrough in quantum computing that will one day form the basis for interstellar travel. He is also a serial killer, driven by visions of ‘the Shrander’, a creature with a horses skull for a head, whose dice he stole and uses as a guide on aimless journeys. His only ongoing relationships are with similarly damaged individuals, his anorexic ex-wife, his neurotic lab partner, and Valentine Sprake, a ‘magician’ and accomplice in Kearney’s murders.


Flashing forward to 2400. Seria Mau Genlicher – a slightly weird pun on Sarah Michelle Gellar – is a rogue pilot of a K-ship, permanently bonded to alien technology, her mind able to be one with her ship while her body remains in a chemical tank. She too is haunted in her own way, by dreams of her past and the vision of a mysterious man in evening dress. Seria Mau is detached to a pathological degree by her situation; capable of killing without reason, in response to a fit of pique. (One reason for this is that, having bonded with the ship at a young age, she has never had a chance to mature.)


Parallel to this runs the narrative of Ed Chianese, a daredevil pilot turned virtual reality addict, wandering through a sleazy space port world of vice and crime. His encounters with the mysterious Sandra Shen being to point towards the answers to the books many questions. This narrative feels like a cyberpunk variant, but with an unusually apathetic central character. While Kearney is fleeing something, and Seria Mau is searching for something, Ed seems largely to drift from woman to woman. He eventually finds himself a position predicting the future at Sandra Shen’s circus, although his real destiny lies in a different direction.


There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in the book; information as a substance, fractal unfolding of space. The Shadow Operators are a great idea, abandoned algorithms, conscious bits of code that lurk in the corners, sometimes taking on one-shot cloned bodies. There’s also an intriguing solution to technological problems that sf narratives often throw up; all the innovative solutions to faster than light travel work, even as they rely on mutually exclusive models of the underlying physics. No one knows why, there are hints about decoherence from superposition, and that this is one of the mysteries for which deciphering the Kefuhachi tract might provide a solution.


For me though, something about the book didn’t quite work. It might be to do with the aforementioned prose style. This is the first novel I’ve read by M John Harrison so I don’t know how typical this is of his work. To me it was cold, detached, matter of fact, especially when dealing with violent topics. It seems like a conscious decision, it reflects the way the characters view things, particularly Seria Mau and the Shrander. The Kearney sections around the middle tended to drag a little too; I’m all for morally ambiguous characters and dark themes but there seemed to be something lacking here, an absence that made the ending feel a little hollow. There are some great touches though, some absurd juxtapositions that I liked, such as when Ed Chianese’s noirish fantasy is interrupted by a giant yellow duck to indicate that his time is up.


Light is an interesting book, a compelling read but one that I found hard to have strong feelings about. I might give M John Harrison another go, I’ve heard good things but this just left me a little cold.



1. Redhead - June 20, 2011

i read Light back when it first came out, and I recall thinking “that was a neat experience, but I don’t think I understood it”. The book made a little more sense after I read it’s sort of sequel Nova Swing, but other than a neat literary experience, it wasn’t something I went around recommending to friends.

Harrison is an odd duck, that’s for sure. I’ve a love hate relationship with him. I’ve read a few of his books & short stories, and both enjoy and dislike them at the same exact time.

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