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“Light” by M. John Harrison


M. John Harrison is a respected, but divisive, author of non-conventional Science Fiction and Fantasy with many fans and detractors. In the last decade Harrison has concentrated on a trilogy beginning with the novel “Light”, an unusual example of the 'space opera' genre. The story is split into three different plot threads, all of which eventually tie together in a surprising conclusion. The first plot thread – and possible the most interesting – is the story of Michael Kearney, a brilliant scientist on the verge of the next great scientific breakthrough, who in his spare time is a delusional serial killer. He is haunted by visions of a skeletal bird-like figure he knows only as the 'Shrander' – he has no idea of the figure's intentions but feels compelled to run from this apparition. The plot strand follows Kearney's attempts to find a place in a world he doesn't really belong in, while simultaneously trying to re-establish his relationship with his depressed ex-wife, and develop revolutionary new quantum technology.

The other two plot threads are set in the far future, after mankind has, in standard space opera fashion, spread out among the stars. The story is concentrated in the area of space around the Kefahuchi Tract, a mysterious region of the galaxy surrounded by the remnants of an ancient race's technology that humanity is trying desperately to understand. The main character in the second plot thread is Seria Mau, a woman who exists in symbiosis with a semi-sentient alien spaceship. The operation that allowed her to pilot the ship means that she can never leave it, or rejoin humanity, with the result that she has spent the last couple of decades away from human contact. After she defects from her military employers she works as a mercenary – destroying other human and alien ships. By this time she is so alienated from humanity that she doesn't care about the lives (or deaths) of others, she only wants to find her place in the universe – and she desperately believes a strange artefact will help her to do that. Unfortunately she has no idea what the artefact does, but she sets off on an expedition to the edge of the Kefahuchi Tract to find the one person who might be able to tell her.

The third plot follows Ed Chianese, a man hiding in virtual reality games from a threat he no longer remembers. People are chasing him, and seem to want desperately to find him, but he has no idea why they want to find him or who he really is. He goes on the run through a stereotypically dystopian futuristic city, eventually ending up in a bizarre interstellar circus.

Michael Kearney's plot is probably the best of the sub-plots – the often surreal events that occur to him mean that there is rarely a dull moment. Although there isn’t really anything remotely likeable about him, he is an intriguingly deranged character and one perhaps worthy of at least some sympathy due to his madness. Seria Mau's subplot is less interesting, again she is deserving of pity but her arrogance and inhumanity make it impossible to empathise with her, also her plot thread seems to meander slightly, never really going anywhere of great interest. Ed is the most likeable of the characters, the only one who is actually a decent, comparatively normal, person. Unfortunately the plot is possibly the least interesting, for most of the time (at least, until the latter stages of the book), it is fairly standard cyberpunk.

Harrison is a superb writer of prose and “Light” is probably the best example of that. At his best he weaves words together with great skill. His characterisation isn't always as skilful, at worst some seem caricatures of eccentricity whose action have little reason behind them. There are a few other flaws as well, embarrassingly bad sex scenes litter the plot with irritating frequency and the future history of his galaxy seems unnecessarily whimsical at times – for example the alien race of “New Men” who conquer planets and are then too apathetical to do anything except watch low-quality human TV.

In summary, “Light” is a brilliantly written book with plenty of ideas and original concepts. Sadly the characterisation and plotting fails to fully live up to it's potential – it's still generally well done but there are some flaws that drag the whole experience down a bit.

Rating : 8.5 / 10

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