Review of Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M John HarrisonTitle: Light
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #1
M. John Harrison
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Bantam Spectra
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
own copy

The cover of my edition of Light is covered with flattering quotes. More can be found on the inside pages. Many come from sources I admire – Iain M. Banks, Michael Marshall Smith, China Miéville, the Guardian. They praise Harrison’s skill and vision as a writer, the complex literary nature of Light, and it’s brutal, energetic brilliance as space opera. The novel won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, was nominated for the BSFA, and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke. I was dazzled before I even started reading, and baffled afterwards. Elegant, violent and wildly imaginative, Light is literary genre fiction, bringing together quantum physics, a strange new world, bizarre characters, and all the complex relationships that exist between them. It is a particularly challenging read, and it’s only after my second attempt that I feel I have a decent understanding of the novel.

The story is divided into three strands, one set in 1999, and two set the post-Earth future of 2400. In 1999, Michael Kearney – a visionary physicist and a serial killer – has spent decades running from the Shrander, a mysterious entity with a horse’s skull for a head. Michael kills to keep the thing at bay, but because it’s his brilliant mind that attracted it in the first place, it will never leave him in peace. It seems like it’s been a while since he’s managed to do anything productive, although he and his partner Brian Tate are currently involved in a research project that has recently produced only enigmatic results. Tate can’t get Michael to hang around long enough to do any work – he keeps running from the Shrander, with his anorexic and psychologically frail ex-wife Anna trailing after him.

We know that Michael and Tate’s research will be groundbreaking though – in 2400, Tate-Kearney transformations are commonly used in space travel. In this future, humanity is scattered across planets surrounding the Kefahuchi Tract, a space-time anomaly, a “singularity without an event horizon”. For over 65 millennia, the K-tract has beguiled every race that came across it. One race even “steered whole solar systems into position” (7) just to have a closer look at the Tract. It’s a phenomenon that takes no heed of causality, and where explorers can find ancient artefacts that can’t be understood and alien tech that defies all known possibilities.

Seria Mau Genlicher zips around the Tract thanks to the alien tech of her K-ship, The White Cat – an absurdly powerful vessel bristling with weapons and capable of shooting into orbit at Mach 50. It’s run by sentient mathematics and algorithms with a life of their own. Seria Mau allowed her body to be mostly destroyed so she could be plugged into the ship, where she floats in a tank of nutrient-rich chemicals. She’s just acquired an inexplicable artefact that brings the authorities hurtling after her, but which promises opportunities humanity has been dreaming about.

Planet-side in the city of New Venusport is Ed Chianese, once a famous explorer, now a washed up ‘twink’. Like Seria Mau he spends all his time in a tank, except he’s addicted to playing out clichéd old-Earth scenarios in virtual reality. But Ed is in debt to some very bloodthirsty people and gets forced out into the real world when they come looking for him. He runs all the way into a strange new life as a visionary in a circus.

These plot strands seem disparate and in fact the three main characters will never speak to each other. It’s only at the end that you can fully understand how they’re connected. But one of the beautiful things about this book – assuming you’re like me and enjoy this sort of thing – is the way the stories are delicately connected by images and details. Some of are very fine, just a thread tacked across chapters. Ed runs from his pursuers into the confusing warrens where the alien “New Men” live; Anna’s apartment is described as a warren where you never know where you are, and Michael’s decidedly weird friend Valentine Sprake has the same pale skin and shock of ginger hair as the New Men. Anna and Michael walk past melting tarmac; in the next chapter, Seria Mau’s dreams and nightmares “leaked up inside her like warm tar” (65).

It’s much easier to notice the recurring images, details and phrases. I mentioned the Tate-Kearney transformations and the fact that both Seria Mau and Ed start out in tanks. Cats are everywhere. Seria Mau named her ship The White Cat after the white oriental cat Michael bought for the lab, and whose strange interest in their computer screens is the first sign that the two physicists have stumbled onto something otherworldly. Michael stole a strange pair of dice from the Shrander 20 years ago; in 2400 similar dice are used for a game. Michael uses the dice to plot journeys, seeing a connection between prophecy and mathematics (he is also obsessed with the Tarot. Odd, for a physicist, but that’s the kind of guy he is). In 2400, there is a brief mention of an admiral who “abandoned the Tate-Kearney transformations and simply threw dice to decide his moves”. This kind of thing can actually work because it seems that, out in space, physics doesn’t have laws so much as guidelines:

Space was big, and the boys from Earth were awed despite themselves by the things they found there: but worse, their science was in a mess. Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, but assuming anything. (136)

Beaches frequently appear as metaphors for liminal states or places. It was staring at the pebbles on a beach that child-Michael first began to understand the world as he does. The “ragged margins of the Tract” (7) are known as The Beach, and one of the characters muses, “We’ve got to leave the beach some day. All of us. Grow up. Leave the Beach, dive into the sea” (139). By which I think he means that humanity needs to move on to the next stage of discovery.

The book links Michael and Tate’s discoveries with future ones, and these are typically represented by light, specifically a tangible, flowing light that appears as tears or foaming liquid. “Sparks in everything” – this phrase is thought or uttered multiple times. It’s beautiful, but discovery isn’t romanticised in this book – it’s terrifying, painful, and dangerous. Michael can’t handle it – his knowledge attracts the Shrander and is essentially a source of pure horror that his turned him into murderer and rendered him useless. Seria Mau underwent appalling physical adjustments and risked death – as a 13-year-old child – to become a K-ship captain. Ed is the only one who offers us the classic, thrilling image of the space explorer, but he’s currently planet-bound, sticking his head into a tank to tell the future.

But it isn’t all bad. Discovery is endless. In a universe where physics is so pliable, nothing can ever be fully understood and anything is possible. Another refrain is “there was always more; there was always more after that. Discovery and exploration often take on a notably sexual tone as well, or is somehow associated with sex and sexual relationships. The climax of the novel (excuse the pun) is described in overtly sexual terms. Seria Mau is introduced as “trolling for customers” (7), suggestive of a prostitute, although what she’s offering is horrific, high-tech death rather than pleasure. We later learn that she became a K-captain partly to escape her home, where her father wanted her to “become the mother” in the wake of her mother’s death.

Michael and Anna both seems to use sex as a means of temporarily escaping their personal problems, although Michael, for some reason, never wants to penetrate women – a symbol of his fear perhaps? Ed Chianese, the explorer however, has a string of unusual sexual relationships. The first is with a character in his virtual reality. The second is with an alien. The final one is with Annie Glyph, a rickshaw girl. Rickshaw girls are essentially human carthorses, genetically tailored to massive and powerfully muscled.

With all the weird sex in the novel, the issue of bodies comes up frequently. Seria Mau initially doesn’t want one, and when she uses an avatar for face-to-face meetings she goes as a white cat. She meets with a gene tailor named Uncle Zip, who surrounds himself with clones – versions of himself who are younger, thinner, and sometimes female. Anna, an anorexic and twice-failed suicide, looks just as fragile as her mental state. Annie Glyph comes across as her parallel and her opposite – a huge, powerful woman who dwarfs the man she sleeps with. Sex and gender finds all sorts of new permutations in this novel – I can see why it won the Tiptree award.

There’s quite a bit of science, reminding me that I really need to get better acquainted with quantum physics if I want to continue reading this sort of thing. I still don’t quite understand what a singularity is, nevermind a “singularity without an event horizon”. But although I feel like a full appreciation of the novel is out of my reach, the technical details aren’t alienating. Harrison turns the science into poetry and I learned to just enjoy the words without fussing over the physics.

The tech is pretty cool either way. K-ships are just spectacular, and The White Cat is the best of them. The shadow operators were one of my favourite things about the novel – living algorithms who usually appear as “women biting their knuckles in regret” (186) and fuss over humans with personalities to match. The White Cat’s shadow operators long to craft a pretty little body for Seria Mau and dress her up in white lace. Planet-side are all sorts of genetically tailored ‘cultivars’ – gun kiddies, over-muscled punks with tusks, rickshaw girls. There’s a cultivar called Mona (also written as ‘Moaner’) – an over-sexed female body that has become popular with women.

I could continue discussing the little details. Light is just that kind of book – short but incredibly complex. I find it to be a lot like the K-tract – beguiling even when I don’t understand it. I’m glad I re-read it, and I’d like to do so again one day, after I get a copy of Nova Swing so I can experience the trilogy as a whole (I just read book 3, Empty Space; more on that in my next review). It’s certainly not for everyone, and even now I don’t want to rate because I’m not sure what to make of it. But I’m happy to be inexplicably captivated.

Why can’t more ‘chick lit’ be like this? Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying

In a recent reading challenge, I read a chick lit novel whose idea of feminism was to avoid men and portray women as either victims of their unhappy marriages or single and thus empowered to almost mythical proportions. Whatever its noble intentions it made feminism look like a new age joke. The best thing I can say about it is that it made me long for something far bolder, more complex, and better written. I’d had Fear of Flying on my shelf for a few years and had started it a few times without finishing. Now I found myself in the ideal circumstances to really enjoy it.

Fear of Flying has a chick lit plot pulled off with more flair, honesty and insight than that normally fluffy genre seems able to muster. Or rather, the novel feels like the strong origins of a genre that has since become watered down and weak. Isadora Wing is frustrated by her unhappy marriage to Bennett and longs for the elusive ‘zipless fuck’ – a ‘pure’ sexual encounter, an indulgence without strings, without power games. She thinks she may have found one in Adrian Goodlove, but in pursuing him she has to face her titular fear of flying – both a literal fear and a fear of freedom, of being single. As imperfect as her marriage might be, Isadora clings to its security and is not devoid of feelings of love and loyalty to Bennett. Also, she is more dependent on men than she would like to be:

“All my fantasies included marriage. No sooner did I imagine myself running away from one man than I envisaged myself tying up with another. I was like a boat that always had to have a port of call. I simply couldn’t imagine myself without a man. Without one I felt lost as a dog without a master; rootless, faceless, undefined” (78).

And it’s true – without a man she does lack definition, at least for herself (less so for the reader). She’s dreamed of finding “a perfect man whose mind and body were equally fuckable” (91) and in this seemingly impossible search for love she’s avoided defining her own identity and desires. “In the mornings,” Adrian tells her at one point, “I can never remember your name” (227).

This seems odd for the narrator of a feminist classic, but this is part of what interests me about Isadora – she’s a mass of contradictions and conflicts. What she has learned from her mother (who is indulgent and loving yet blames Isadora’s existence for her failure to become an artist) is that “being a woman meant being harried, frustrated, and always angry. It meant being split into two irreconcilable halves” (148). However liberated, Isadora has still grown up in a sexist society and been influenced by its dysfunctional ideals. In addition, she happens to be a lustful, heterosexual woman. She’s been a feminist all her life, she says, “but the big problem was how to make your feminism jibe with your unappeasable hunger for male bodies” (88). She wants to be married, but she also sees all the flaws in marriage. Currently, she’s torn between the dull security of her marriage to Bennett and the unstable excitement of an affair with Adrian. Having both passion and security, it seems, is too much to ask. Isadora (like Jong) is also a writer who has struggled for years to find the confidence and discipline to turn her craft into a profession. She may be intelligent and educated, but she can also be terribly immature and irrational. She’s not a heroine I’d aspire to be but I admire the fact that she articulates and struggles with her conflicts, and this is where the novel has its greatest strengths – it’s sincere and insightful in depicting dilemmas some women struggle with.

Jong pulls this off with witty, energetic writing. I love close psychological studies of characters and this one is as fun and inspiring as I’d hoped it to be, rather than being whiny like the watered-down ‘feminism’ of the chick-lit that led me here. However, it occasionally gets slow and dull. Fear of Flying is obviously semi-autobiographical, and Jong seems determined to show off Isadora’s – and by extension her own – intellectual prowess. There is far too much name-dropping and the narrative sometimes gets held up by history lessons, travel impressions and psychoanalysis lectures. This isn’t entirely irrelevant, but it can get long-winded. “I know you’re smart and educated,” I want to say, “so could you cut this short and get back to your sex life?”

This is not because Fear of Flying is a particularly raunchy book. It’s often fun, yes, but it’s the kind of amusement you get from witty rants. The book is about sex, not of it. It’s unabashedly graphic when talking about sexual relationships, but with the exception of the ‘zipless fuck’ fantasy in the first chapter, the sex scenes are brief and perfunctory, not naughty deviations from the plot.

The story follows Isadora across Europe as she vacillates between Bennett and Adrian, and regularly turns to the past as befits the psychoanalytic theme that runs through the novel. We learn about Isadora’s family life, sexual encounters, affairs, therapists, her career, and her first marriage (to a genius who unfortunately turned out to be a lunatic).

Overall I found it inspiring, not because it offers solutions (it doesn’t), not because I thought all Isadora’s problems applied to me or women in general, but because she is sincere and often funny in articulating them, she’s honest about her cowardice, but she also makes the effort to engage the conflicts she finds herself in. It’s the kind of book that promises rewarding rereads, and I’ll definitely return to it.