China Miéville has said the following about Micheal John Harrison: “That M. John Harrison is not a Nobel laureate proves the bankruptcy of the literary establishment. Austere, unflinching and desperately moving, he is one of the very great writers alive today. And yes, he writes fantasy and sf, though of a form, scale and brilliance that it shames not only the rest of the field, but most modern fiction.”
Light is the first of three connected books – The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. It won the Triptree award, and its sequel Nova Swing won the Clarke and the PKD. The trilogy is also known as the Empty Space trilogy – Empty Space being the title of the last book, published in 2012. All three books are quite different, and Light can easily be read as a standalone novel.
Do I agree with Mièville? I’m not sure, and besides, I’ve only read this one book. But after reading Light, I’ll finish the entire trilogy. The same goes for The Centauri Device – a stand-alone space opera title published in 1974. I also bought Viriconium – a fantasy series of novels and stories started in 1972 and finished in 1985. So I’ll get back to you in a couple of years on that Nobel prize. In the meantime, let me try to convey the atmosphere of Light.
Light is catalogued as space opera, and Harrision “reinvents” it, according to Wikipedia. I’m not sure what that means. For my money, Light falls firmly in the Wolfean school of sci-fi: it didn’t feel all that new or reinvented. That’s not to say Harrison doesn’t have an own voice – he does have something original to offer – but the combination of the weird, the sci-fantastic and the more traditionally literary is not unseen.
So yes, I namedropped Gene Wolfe. I’d say this book feels a bit like a cross between his work and Neuromancer. There’s a bit of quantum techno babble, and – just as in Ninefox Gambit – it’s totally unclear what is going on technologically. That’s not a problem, it didn’t bother Trekkies either. The technology might not be as clear as in most hard SF, but the overall story is. The 3 storylines – one in the present, 2 in 2400 – ultimately connect, and all plot questions are solved. Harrison also adds small horror components here and there, and manages to insert baffling, bizarre moments in a believable and poetic way. On top of that, there are quite a lot of dream sequences.
There are a few harrowing scenes that indeed offer a fresh, original tasting of familiar SF tropes – but reinventing space opera this is not, also because it simply isn’t fully space opera: Light is a lot of things. “Post-cyberpunk, post-slipstream, post-everything” says an Alastair Reynolds quote on the back, and that’s fairly accurate, as far as that is possible, in these post-post times.
For those who expected some analysis of Light‘s philosophical or ideological themes, I’ll have to take a rain check. Maybe I’ll have something substantial to offer after reading the two other novels, but for now it’s only sketches. I can say this: the book’s 3 protagonists are all severely broken, damaged individuals. Their mode of survival is flight. Yet there’s a glimpse of redemption towards the finale, and Harrison ends with a kind of metaphysical monism: everything is possible, all is all. Highly advanced alien civilizations end up not only in a post-scarcity mode (like Iain Banks’s Culture) but in a post-physics mode too, a mode that seemingly allows them to transcend everything. For a book that’s rather bleak, that’s a surprisingly positive conclusion. But then again: barriers seem to remain, and everything inevitably seems to end, including said aliens. ‘Seemingly’, ‘seem’ and ‘seems’ are the operative words here: as I said, I have two more books to read – but I’m guessing they won’t offer a final word on all that, as Harrison seems to be a mystic.
The prose is terrific. At times fluid, visual, dreamy, at times elliptic & harsh. Here are two samples, as a quote is worth a 1000 words.
Next he woke with the smell of a salt in his nostrils. The great bulk of the dunes was black over him. Above that, the neck of the night with its cheap ornaments strung round it. Both of those were more comforting than the silhouette of the circus owner, the red ember of her bat-shit cigarette. She seemed pleased.
That weird twist of light just hangs like a crack in nowhere.
If all that sounds like your cup of tea: do try this book. If it doesn’t, there’s a big chance you’ll hate it. I don’t think there are a lot of readers who’ll end up giving this 3 stars. It’s either 1 or 2, or 4 or 5. For the record: I say 4.