Light by M. John Harrison (Bantam, 2004) 310 pages
It’s been a while since I’ve done a science fiction book, huh? Let’s fix that right now…
So I bought this course from a company called The Great Courses about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. I found it pretty fascinating, especially when we got past the 1980s and into the “rise of the new space opera” and stuff like that. After a time when science fiction focused on the nuances of characters or drilled into the minds of people involved in dystopian worlds or deep government plots (the whole “cyberpunk” movement) , the 1990s saw a revival of stories where the whole universe was the canvas. This harkened back to the old space opera stories of the 1930s.
The new space opera authors were not afraid to send characters to weird worlds, or have them encounter strange aliens (humanoid or not), or find hints of civilizations, dead or alive, doing things that humans could barely comprehend. One of the writers that Wolfe spoke about in the course is British author M. John Harrison, a name I had not come across before. Harrison wrote many books, but this quote got me interested in the book I am writing about this week. Here’s what Wolfe says about Harrison and Light:
“[Harrison writes books] all featuring morally ambiguous characters and all connected to a mysterious region of space where reality is so distorted that it has baffled and even damaged many civilizations over the millennia. [The book] Light, in particular, is a superb example of the sort of literary complexity that can be packed into a space opera template.”
Naturally, after that build-up, I had to get my hands on the book and read it.
It was not an easy read. Not only are the characters ambiguous and mysterious, but so is the narrative. Apparently the idea of a linear or sequential narrative is one of those things that people in the deep future can do without. But if you’re willing to jump around a bit in time and space, you’ll find a heckuva story in here, but told in three interlocking sets of episodes.
Michael Kearney is the person we meet first, a Londoner in fear of the Millennium (it’s 1999). He’s doing research into quantum computing and manipulation of quantum effects with a partner, but mainly it’s the partner who does the research while Kearney mainly goofs off and tries to talk his ex-wife into having sex with him (she does not need much convincing). Kearney is also a very casual serial killer, a fact introduces so casually that you wonder if it’s one of those space-time distortions. But apparently not, and it seems the only reason that Kearney does not murder his ex-wife is because she wouldn’t mind dying at all.
If this isn’t quirky enough, we next meet a woman in the far future named Seria Mau Genlicher, someone who now lives as a mass in a tank of liquid and has been merged into a starship/warship called the White Cat (Kearney’s research involves a black cat and a white cat). These “K-ships” are all that remain of an ancient civilization that has tried to penetrate the boundaries of a region of the galaxy where massive black holes of something even stranger has muddied reality into odd areas of overlapping quantum effects. This is the Kefahuchi Tract, where alien civilizations have entered but form which nothing has ever returned. Seria has taken her K-ship rogue, and is not above taking on passengers she kills in order to examine their cargo, even as the authorities hunt for her and try to destroy her.
Last but not least we have Ed Chianese (“Chinese Ed”) who would rather spend his days as a “twink” on New Venusport near the Kefahuchi Tract than anything else. Twinks live in a virtual reality world while immersed in a vat of psychedelic nutrients, and Ed spins a marvelous fantasy as a hard-boiled detective in Chicago until he can’t pay the rent and is dumped out onto the floor of the tank farm. Ed has experience on “dynaflow ships” and has “gone deep” into stellar envelopes and made his way through old alien mazes where many have been lost. He owes a lot of people, and they’re out to collect…
(Have you figured out this book is not your usual trip to Mars yet? And why would an author try to make faster-than-light travel, or strangely connected places in space and time understandable, or weird god-like beings in some way logical? This is the quantum world, baby, where nothing makes much sense. So just go along for the ride. )
Chinese Ed and Michael Kearney and Seria Mau Genlicher are all tied up in ways that slowly reveal themselves as the book plays out. Kearney and his partner’s actions must determine the future where the other two play, and their work is so important that there are dioramas in place in the far future to commemorate key moments in their lives and work. Ed and Seria have a past that is shared in a way that you slowly figure out as the book goes on. (It’s easy to hide these little snippets in plain sight because there is so much happening in each scene.)
Lurking everywhere in the background is this thing called the Shrander, a being that shows up in different forms under different names (Sandra Shen, for one) at different times all over the book. Kearney has stolen a set of weird dice form this Shrander – they are shown on the cover of the paperback – and is fond of tossing them at odd times. He has given names to different results, names that also exist in the far future in the other parts of the book. But it’s unclear what effect if any this tossing is having on Kearney’s life or anything else.
Perhaps Kearney’s throws in the present are having an effect on the characters in the far future? Lots of things in this book happen on multiple levels, including the narrative. Sort of like real life.
Before I read this book, I would never had thought it possible to sell a narrative so disconnected, or ideas introduced with so little context or explanation (like “K-tech), or characters so clearly lost and adrift in life and the plot. But now I see that you can, or at least a writer could in the early 2000s. There are two more books in this loose “series” about our very odd future (Nova Swing and Empty Space). But I’m not sure I’m ready to read those yet. I hope I will be.