Light by M. John Harrison

Light is my first exposure to M. John Harrison’s novel-length fiction, and after finishing the novel, I can only hope it will not be the last. Harrison deftly unfolds the novel in a parallel narrative, our recent past wherein two scientists discover an Ultimate Technology allowing for faster-than-light travel and 500 years into the future, where the ripple effects of their discovery have been an everyday occurrence for most of those 500 years. The technology is ultimately named after the two scientists: Kearny and Tate. While the duality of the parallel narrative is enjoyable, Harrison’s novel blends the tenets of Hard SF and Space Opera into a single powerful novel. This Hard SF/Space Opera hybrid is seeing a flourishing output right now through the fine works of Alistair Reynolds, Charles Stross, and Peter F. Hamilton, to name a few. As I said, I’m aware of Harrison’s contribution to the greater Speculative Fiction genre over the years, but this novel illustrates why he stands with, if not above, the names just mentioned.

The parallel narrative works quite well, as Harrison contrasts the differences between the two eras while also illustrating how some things haven’t quite changed. Some time during the 500 years between the two narrative time-streams of the novel, humanoid aliens invaded Earth and not so much took over and ruled, as their culture and attitudes became prevalent. Eventually, the aliens themselves subsided to the equivalent of a minority race. I found this one of the more interesting, different and ultimately plausible scenarios where an alien race has come to Earth. Though little was mentioned of these aliens arriving on Earth (ultimately, not really important to the story either), they were presented as simply another aspect of the future society. All the problems of humanity in today’s world are still around in Harrison’s future: from addiction (to Virtual Reality-like experiences, rather than drugs) to a form of Xenophobia running around in what has become the civilized scope of humanity.

In his future, Harrison has taken the Kearny-Tate discovery of FTL travel to the next logical step, humans have moved beyond the borders of Earth and explored the infinite vastness of space. One of the discoveries humanity has stumbled upon is an ancient technology for energy, some millions of years old, that after a great deal of use and exploitation, is running low; and this technology has become quite essential to daily life. Much like we are finding in our current daily life with the predicted drying up of oil wells, there isn’t quite a widely acceptable alternative to that energy source. Here, Harrison has done what great SF writers do, illuminate something in our daily lives through the fictional prism of SF.

Harrison has delivered an engaging SF novel, filled with the sense-of-wonder for which the genre is known. Within this sense-of-wonder are truly realized characters who inform of us of not only the worlds and times they inhabit, but of our own condition. Long-time and well-read readers of SF will notice some nice little nods, from characters whose names recollect a very popular Heinlien novel to a character and storyline that echo an obscure yet wonderful gem of fantastic literature.

If I have any complaint, and it is minor and doesn’t truly detract from the effect of the story. Michael Kearney is a murderer, and I felt the ramifications of his actions were not played out in a satisfactory fashion. We see the internal emotional effects they had on the man’s mental state, but beyond that, not much. If we were shown this aspect of Kearney’s personality, should we not have seen the effects on those around him? Or was Harrison simply illustrating on of a number of flaws, albeit a dangerous flaw? Either way, it was the only part of the novel that did not sit well with me up on further consideration.

All told, from the beginning to the end of this remarkably engaging novel, Harrison delivers on the promise inherent in the genre and his reputation. Bold. Gripping. Awe-inspiring. Illuminating. Light is a novel worthy of reading and discussing now and will be for some time.

Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford

© 2004 Rob Bedford

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