November BOTM: Light by M John Harrison

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by Archren, Nov 1, 2004.

  1. Archren

    Archren BookWyrm

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    Anyone mind if I start off?

    I finished this yesterday, and I have to agree with those who said it was a slog. However, the ending was better than I had feared.

    This has some elements in common with what I think of as "mainstream" fiction. Primarily, it deals with incredibly messed up people as its main characters. (After the first few chapters I felt like the book should be renamed: "Serial Killers and the women who love them.") I know that there are real people out there with exactly those kinds of problems, but they can't represent the majority. Now, it seems like some people think that if you don't write about really damaged people, you aren't being "deep" or "literary" or something. However, it is not really my cup of tea. Some people appreciate that more than others, I guess.

    The reason it was such a slow read for me was that I didn't care about the characters, so I didn't rush back to the book each time I put it down to find out what happened to them. In fact, I'd let it lie there and find bits of other things to read rather than find out what happened next.

    A couple of questions: What did Michael Kearny contribute to the whole Tate-Kearny thing? It seemed like he did absolutely nothing but run around, while Tate did all the work. And if he had to randomly keep running around the world and killing people to run away from his own personal demon, how on Earth did he ever keep a University job and earn money? Or during those years did he always manage to conveniently schedule his killing sprees during conference trips?

    Also, what was the point of always referring to sex using the F word? After a while it seemed juvenille, personally. Was it for shock value? Because casual sex isn't particularly shocking to anyone anymore.

    Anyway, I can see why people liked this book. While it isn't going on my favorites list, there were some really good things about it, particularly the visualizations, the leit motifs and the background descriptions. Also the language use (above quirk excepting) was excellent.
     
  2. emohawk

    emohawk Hip, cool, jiggy wit' it

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    I agree with most of what Archren said so I won't reiterate things if I can avoid it. Also I read this about 2 months ago so forgive me if my memory is a little foggy.

    This is the second M. John Harrison novel I've read, and as is will documented on this forum, I absolutely hated The Centauri Device. Obviously I went into it with some trepidation but after hearing some interesting buzz about it and (in the UK/Aus edition) having about 3 pages of absolutely radiant remarks about I thought I'd give it a shot. I seem to recall someone else also mentioning earlier that Neil Gaiman called it the best SF novel he's read in 20 years (or something to that effect). Having finished Light I have to wonder what the heck Gaiman has been reading for the last 20 years. Then again he wrote a gushing introduction to the edition of Samuel Delany's The Einstein Intersection that I have and I couldn't make head nor tail of that book so I should shy away from his recommendations in the future. But I digress.

    I thought this novel was significantly better than the afore mentioned waste of perfectly good ink and paper, but obviously that's not much of an achievement. I didn't hate Light, but I didn't exactly like it either. Like Archren said, I could see why some people would like this book and it had some very interesting elements to it but on the whole as a novel I thought it left a fair bit to be desired, which Archren largely touched on. It's one of those novels that seems to be written to pander to the literatie and if that's it's aim I'd say it's a successful novel. If, however, Harrison meant it to be read and enjoyed by the other 99% of the population I'm not sure he succeeded. 2 of the 3 story strands I could only get interested in a times and one (the third I think) didn't hold me much at all.

    I wouldn't say it was a bad novel at all, for what it is it's fairly good, but it's really not my kind of thing - I read SF to enjoy it and be entertained and I'm not sure Light sets out to be either.
     
  3. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    I'm also in the didn't totally hate it but didn't really enjoy it either. I mostly didn't understand what was going on (if anything), but some of what happened (mostly in just the way it was written) was interesting enough that I continued to read it, so that says something. As best I could tell, it was the story of one messed up 24th Century family and a completely detached messed up 20th Century couple. As Archren said, I know there are people like this, probably, but they didn't really make good reading.

    I wondered the same thing about the Kearney half of the Tate/Kearney pair and their work....no idea there either. I think (and don't hold me to this) that the abundant use of the "f" was more to show that to these people it was nothing more than something that their wiring made them do, not even casual sex, but more hardwired, some kind of symptom of their individual neurosis or disfunctions or whatever they woudl be called.

    I'm sure that it may have explored some interesting issues, but I'm also sure that I missed most of them if it did. I had ideas about certain things, but no matter how hard I try I can't seem to connect them to anything else.

    Already forgot her name, but the girl in the ship seemed to have gone through some sort of metamorphosis from sexually abused girl to ship core egg thingy to beautiful flying entity....is that somehow signifigant in light of other things in the book? Dunno. Kearney ran his whole life away from the Shrander, killing people all the while to keep it away, and it turns out it only wanted to ask for its dice back? The whole human race was created by the Shrander's race in order to create Ed Chianese so that he could go into the Tract?

    Not only don't I know how Kearney fit into Tate/Kearney, but I also can't figure out for the life of me how his part in the book was supposed to highlight or be highlighted by the others....basically that's my problem with this one: The three lines didn't really come together for me in a meaningful way and I am left with no real idea what happened or why, how what came before led up to what came in the end. If anyone can explain it, I would be very happy to listen and try to understand.

    After hearing so much I was very interested in reading this, but I can't say that it worked out how I hoped it would.
     
  4. Kamakhya

    Kamakhya Seeker of Stuff

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    Erf...you have summed up my thoughts very well as well. At points I loved the story, and at others, I had to slog through it. Was the girl/ship only done so that there would be a free K-Ship to take to the Tract? The Kearney story made the least sense of all. What was the point of it? That he was a failed experiment? Was the girl another failed experiment and only Ed could do the final run?

    Throughout most of the novel, I was left with far more questions than answers and found myself confused. I kept hoping that all the stories would come together in the end and it would all be explained, but, alas, I was a bit disappointed with the ending.
     
  5. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    FicusFan, where are you? I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say we can't wait for your take on this one. ;)
     
  6. Archren

    Archren BookWyrm

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    Glad I'm not alone on this one.

    There's another thing I thought of: If the end goal was to get someone into the Kefuchi (sp?) Tract, why? Why was that goal so important? OK, it's a place where a black hole isn't limited by a schwartzchild radius (yeah, right) and extra-universal physics is spewing into our own. But why is it so important to get a person in there? The importance of the goal was never clearly elucidated, it seemed to me.
     
  7. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    Beyond the black hole is the final frontier....why not go there? Not that I know...but that's at least one low-explanation explanation.
     
  8. FicusFan

    FicusFan Anitaverse Refugee

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    Yesterday I was having my heart torn out (the Patriots lost for the first time in 399 days :( ).
     
  9. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    Given what I understood of this book, that may actually have something to do with some of the parts I didn't understand...
     
  10. FicusFan

    FicusFan Anitaverse Refugee

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    (Well this is my first attempt to pull it all together, though I have been thinking about it, so forgive me but I will ramble.)

    This book took me about 3 weeks to read because I kept putting it down and had to force myself to pick it up. Can we say bathroom, its natural abode.

    It is the second MJH book that I have read. The first was the omnibus Viriconium which I have never finished. Some of it I really liked, but then the stories just sort of ran down, the descriptive and navel gazing passages multiplied and it bored me.

    This book was also boring but in a different way. Though there were 3 different main characters that were ostensibly human, I did not recognize anything even remotely human in their actions, their lives or their motivations. Eventually there were glimmerings but you had to get half way to 2/3 of the way through the book before it became evident. Without that human contact the story might as well have been listings from the phone book.

    (I still don't even understand why everyone was pissed at Keaney for his comment at the New Year's eve dinner. )

    The casual ease with which he killed and then moved on did not compute. There was no emotional context, and very little intellectual context and it might just have well been a sentence about hair color. Perhaps that was MJH's comment on our society - the ease of death and how quietly we take the news, but in terms of a story it sucked.

    I felt Keaney was so odd that I didn't know how to deal with him. His obsession with an imaginary place to masturbate, his inability to have active sex with another human, and his apparent lack of scientific work seemed to make him someone who would not be functional. Yet he was a highly educated professional who found a kindred soul to marry and then divorce, and another to work with him as a partner - and carry the full burden of work for Keaney. I have no idea if he had anything to do with the discovery or his name was on it because he worked with the other guy who did the work. Although Keaney was the first to see the invisible wave on the monitor that only the cat could see, so he told his partner where to look. Who knows.

    All the while Keaney had psychotic breaks and killed women and apparently didn't care if he was seen with the victim beforehand, and then he just left the body lying around to be easily found, and he was never arrested. Is this about how modern society is constructed to keep people deemed important 'functional', even if they are not and are a danger to themselves and others ? How we have so little real in real life anymore ? Who knows.

    Then he runs around with the weird guy who dies and he sees people walk through walls and he is running from the Shrander. His fear and his behavior is really a little boy's - he never confronts the Shrander or deals with it, he is afraid of what his mind has conjured and how s/he looks ? He has never matured, but locked himself in his past as an unhappy child. Even when he outgrows his childhood he holds onto his misery and uses it to infect the rest of his life. Then he is afraid of the sparks and eventually he ends up in space with the Shrander and sees something (the fututre and all its unknown possibilities ? which he couldn't face in his life ?) and dies, like Moses, outside the promised land, as punishment for his doubt. In Keany's case his punishment was for doubting that he could face the unknown future and for using and killing the women to protect his psyche from taking a risk and growing up ?

    Then there is Seria and she is even worse. Her interest in 'watching' others, rather the being or doing for herself. Her joy in stalking and tricking and killing others who haven't even got a clue that they are part of her game. She was possibly the toughest because there was so little that was human, and then her repellent behavior and her odd quest. It seemed that she also had childhood issues and she made choices to avoid problems that she actually had already walked away from when she left home. I don't know if that is a theme in the book, or if MJH is making a comment on how we tend to 'forgive' people more when we have a story of past sufferreing to explain evil or hurtful behavior. But at the end she seemed to try to redeem herself and make choices that took her into the unknown future in a positive way. For that she was transformed - because she was willing to risk the unknown.

    Ed was perhaps the most human of the 3 and it was easier for me to read about him, though he also had some odd behaviors. But he seemed at the bottom to be burdened with the guilt of his not saying goodbye to Seria, and his mother's death. The death of a female pilot is what pushed him over the edge into being a twink. A twink is another way of escaping the unknown future - he was hooked into the past in his fantasies. He also was with the rickshaw girl using her as a surogate mother. Yet when he had to decide who he was he wanted to be a K-ship pilot, not to escape from home like his sister, but to push the envelope of exploration and to do the one thing he had never done before. Perhaps the aliens wanted to create Ed because the reason and the tone of how you do something has more impact on the outcome than we know ? I have no idea what all his training in seeing the future was in aid of. Did it make him easier to convert for the K-Ship, was it a test to see if he was really what the aliens wanted, to see if he could get over his past baggage and move into the future ?

    So for me the book seemed to be about people and their relationships - those of family and those constructed to take the place of family, of how you need to put the past behind you, grow up and deal with the fear of the past and not transfer it to the future. The future is not known or comfortable but still must be faced without crutches. Nothing is guaranteed, but you still must take the risk.

    I also thought that by juxtaposing Keaney and the modern day with the 24th century it shows that if you do something or create something you have no control over what people centuries down the line will do with it. Are you responsible ? Was Keaney responsible for the war with the aliens because he made the drive that made it possible for humans to go into space and enter into a conflict ? Was he afraid of something like that and so he avoided doing anything important, and fate over took him anyway ? Was he terrified when he looked into the future because anything and everything was possible, that there really are no rules and no boundaries, and only some 'great' people can deal with that ?

    In terms of the story making sense or being enjoyable the book sucked. I felt like the sentences and words were arranged by random number generators so that often they made no sense. I thought the styilized bit with the shop window, the tuxedoed man, and the junk and the box (Pandora's ?) was annoying. I didn't get most of the mental pictures that MJH was trying to describe with this descritpions of the cosmos. I thought the story jumped around and didn't explain and left things hanging. I felt most of the characters were shallow and those that weren't weird or psychotic were just odd for the sake of being odd. I also thought the settings were ginned up for shock value and to be lurid rather than having any real weight or meaning to the story. I hated the shadow operators - though I was seduced by the idea of 'math' living its own life off in another plane and being able to interact with and direct life here.

    I would tell anyone who asked, and have done so, to avoid this book like the plague. You can tell interesting, deep and meaningful stories that actually work as stories, and I don't think MJH even tried. I think he was aiming for the 'look at me, I'm so intellectual' crowd.
     
  11. Archren

    Archren BookWyrm

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    Actually, I was able to accept it as a goal while I was reading it, it was only afterwards that I realized that it didn't necessarily make sense, so it is probably OK. It didn't interfere with my ability to suspend disbelief like some of the other elements did.

    FicusFan, thanks for that incredible analysis! You picked up on and put into words stuff that I never would have noticed. Especially Seria Mau and her tendency to vouyerism; I noticed that without noticing it conciously, you know?

    OK, here's another thing that was completely lost on me: in the end, what did the Dr. Haends package do for her?

    Sorry about the Patriots, man. As a transplanted New Englander, I completely feel your pain. Still, they could still get to the SuperBowl again. Go Pats! :D
     
  12. Rob B

    Rob B \m/ BEER \m/ Staff Member

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    I really liked the book. I liked the bouncing back and forth between the two eras, I liked the aliens and how they merely became another subculture in the future.

    My major problem; however, was with how nothing happened to Kearney after the killings. This portion of his character seemed there only for shock value and nothing was every really resolved about it.
     
  13. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    It seemed to do two things. One, get her onto the path that ultimately led her through the wormhole before the package was opened. After it was opened, it seemed to buff up the mathematics and the ship to some degree or another...I think.
     
  14. FicusFan

    FicusFan Anitaverse Refugee

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    Well we will have to see next week what the Pats will do with the mess they have gotten themselves into. It still could be the Superbowl, or it could be the start of the toilet bowl :eek:

    I kept getting flickers of meaning and stuff underneath, but I found it really hard to understand what the book was really about, as well as just understanding what the surface story was about.

    I think the package was an artifact that was left either by the Shrander-aliens or maybe the K-ship aliens (or were they one and the same ?) and it had somehow become changed so that it wouldn't work with the K-ship maths. Once it was released both Seria and the maths had to make changes to survive because the status quo was no longer possible. Seria realized that but released it anyway becasue she realized that she couldn't go on as she had - it was a null and sterile existence. So she risked what life she had to try for something new, different, and hopefully better.

    I have read experimental works before, and sometime I have enjoyed them. But I am so negative about this book perhaps because the writing was to me so cold and clinical and the characters were so unlikeable and inhuman for the majority of the book. In the past when I have enjoyed books I didn't always understand the writing seemed warmer and the characters, while flawed or odd have had a humanity to them. This book really lacked that for me, and I just can't seem to get past it, even though it does make you think.
     
  15. Luke_B

    Luke_B Diamond Dog Staff Member

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    I know I'm not really a participant in the this book club, but I have to say I loved this book, even though I read it over a year ago and can't remember all the details. I think Ficus' analysis is very good, but where he/she says "cold", and I can understand where she/he's coming from, I thought it was glacially beautiful. It's a story about the other and alienation, so the detached and distanced writing was appropriate. For me is was a clever manipulation that paradoxically engaged my emotions. For example, when Seria blasts all the humans out the airlock, killing them, I was deeply moved by how clinical the description of this horrendous act was, but there were also deep undercurrents of emotion layers into the writing. If the writing had been overtly melodramatic it wouldn't have worked. And on a related point, the characters were all struggling to retain their humanity - that was the point - but I still feel they retained enough for me, again, to invest myself emotionally in them.
     
  16. lemming

    lemming New Member

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    I quote myself from October 12:

    Well, I'm finally done with Light now and can honestly say I don't know what the fuss was about. I don't know why it would be anyone's favorite book of the year, much less anyone's favorite book of the decade, much less why it would be Neil Gaiman's favorite book of the decade. Yes, the writing was sometimes very good, and yes, there were interesting turns of phrase. Considering the current state of the art, I should add that it wasn't bloated. However, the characters were mostly unbelievable, the random uncaring killing and the random uncaring sex were depressing (and not artistically done, though maybe that was the point), I never got a decent sense of the future world or society supposedly being portrayed, and the ending was stunningly unsatisfactory--not that anyone is probably expecting satisfaction anymore if they've read that far.

    I do sort of wonder what I missed with... minor spoiler... the scientists both figuring out the big discovery (as you look back from the more future timelines) and not seeming to make it at all (in the more present-day timeline).

    Was there some meaning there that I was supposed to find both chic and insightful? Because it didn't work, though it did leave me plenty confused.

    As for positive points, I definitely liked the white cat / black cat imagery, and the Shrander. I liked Annie Glyph. I think Neil Gaiman probably liked the shadow operators. But that's not a long list to stack up against the price of a new trade paperback and a much longer list of things I outright hated.

    It's funny--even after reading everyone else's thoughts I still don't have anything to say. Knowing I would never read it again, I traded this book off to a friend soon after making the post.
     
  17. Archren

    Archren BookWyrm

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    I'm still trying to figure out: what purpose did it serve to have the main character be a serial killer? Was it to show that genius and insanity are related? To show that his psychosis had no relation to his genius? To show that his psychosis had no relation to the fact that he was being follwed by an honest-to-god alien entity?

    Basically, was this a SF vehicle for a character study of an extremely distrubed individual, or was it crucial that an extremely disturbed individual moved the SF plot forward?

    Maybe some of the writers around might have more insight as to why people choose to write the characters they do?
     
  18. Luke_B

    Luke_B Diamond Dog Staff Member

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    Archren, I think it served the story and the themes, particularly the theme of alienation. I don't think anybody could be much more outside of society that an serial killer. I think somebody, rather prudishly IMHO, mentioned they were annoyed by the use of the word f*ck to describe the sex in the book. The sex was both physically and emotionally violent, a lonely and alienating act, and the word was perfect for conveying this.

    I think the critcism that there are no sympathetic characters in the book is valid. But I could actually recognise some of myself in each of those people.
     
  19. Archren

    Archren BookWyrm

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    You're probably certainly right about the f-word throughout the book, Mono, although the sex between Ed Chianese and the rickshaw girl wasn't as soul-crushingly depressing as the rest of the sex, and I belive it was used there as well.

    It is easy to say that one of the themes is alienation, but what does the book tell us about alienation? How does it further our understanding of it? I mean, the fact that serial killers are ultimately alienated while physics Ph.D.s are also mildly alienated isn't really news, you know?

    I am personally horrible at picking apart themes and motifs in literature (physics person like I am, although a PhD is a little beyond my purview at the moment), so I am really curious to see how other people might see deeper currents in this than I do.
     
  20. FicusFan

    FicusFan Anitaverse Refugee

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    I will go even further and say what purpose did any of the book serve ?

    I felt it was totally devoid of entertainment qualities, though I know some may have enjoyed the stylized and oddly structured settings. If you look at it as something that is primarily about alienation and modern society - where did it offer anything new or interesting ? Where did it have anything to say that others haven't ? How can it have any meaning for everyday people who live everyday lives ?