Thursday, 26 March 2009

On Light by M. John Harrison

Light is written by M. John Harrison and bears ringing endorsements from practically every sci-fi author of note, including 2 personal favourites of mine: Iain M Banks and Alastair Reynolds. Having also won some awards, my expectations were high. That the story opens in a “bleak Midlands town” is perhaps even more personally significant than at first glance, given the author was also born here in Rugby. 

The 3 main characters are visited in turn as the brief chapters rotate between them, each headed with a recurrent symbol to identify which, and all containing murder and sex in spades. The prose is deliberately mysterious, seemingly promising revelations just as soon as one gets to the next chapter, but then merely repeating the intrigue: frustrating. With this chapter format, one would usually expect integration at towards the end, but Mr M. scorns us here too, concluding as blunt and randomly as many of the death's along the way. One of the story lines apparently has no utility other than adding extra texture and depth to this imagined universe, as if John had some clever link in mind at the outset, but then grew lost and confused (perhaps in sympathy with the repetitive dream sequences of the other 2 plots), forgetting this purpose before he could finish... This plot is also the most atmospheric, trying but largely failing (for me) to build a sense of dread, in a similar way to what Reynolds has often pulled off.

There are plenty of mentions of fractals and chaos; buzz phrases of the latest scientific paradigm shift, well under way at the turn of the millennium, which is one of the 2 temporal settings in the book (oddly pre-dating the writing of the book by just a couple of years). There are no technological singularities in sight, and the solar system scale engineering is reminiscent of Niven and Clarke with a thin veneer of contemporary sentiments. Harrison persistently refers to space battle events happening inexact numbers of nanoseconds, giving an instant feel of obsolescence for all but the most naïve reader. These parts also appear to have gaping inconsistencies where entire conversations are had, in normal human time, about something that's going to happen within the next microsecond! :os

So, while it was easily entertaining enough to keep reading, I didn't really enjoy doing so. Perhaps I'm missing the point; it is clearly not meant to be a linear page-turner with a crescendo of peril as a loveable character (one can empathise with) overcomes the odds, saving the world and getting the happy ending.

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