I've tried to write this intro properly multiple times, but I might as well just put this front and center so those of you who are reading this on the go can get it over with:
Light is one of my favorite books of the year, possibly one of my favorite books of all time.
I know, I do a whole ton of positive reviews on here, and significantly less dissenting ones, so every book comes out looking really good, but there is no other way to say it. While good books pass constantly through these halls, Light is special even among them. When I was done, I sat there for a few moments, unsure of what to think now that it was over. Then, because seven hours had passed by unnoticed, I was immediately surprised that it was dark outside. It's an engrossing story, one that transcends the boundaries of a genre people feel unnervingly comfortable filing it under. It's a beautiful, well-designed world that seems immense but moves tautly through its places.
At the very least, folks, reading that paragraph back, it's caused my language center to break down in joy as I revert to stock reviewer phrases normally seen on book blurbs.
Light is crazy, brilliant, and I wish I'd managed to finish it the first time I read it, instead of losing interest somewhere around chapter 2 and abandoning it for books I understood better. M. John Harrison is a unique writer and one who stands out even above such titans as Stephenson, Banks, and other more modern writers, and passing up a chance to read this book is a mistake on par with starting a land war in Asia. You may like it as much as I did. You may like it less. All I know is that it moved me, it's brilliantly written and constructed, and I must share this joy with as many of you out there as possible.
More, as always, below
"God does not play dice with the universe."
- Albert Einstein*
Light is the story of three drifters. Seria Mau Genlicher is the biomechanical pilot of the White Cat, a "K-ship" that runs on sentient mathematical calculations and can think in fourteen dimensions simultaneously. After stealing the vessel and breaking ties with the military contractor who turned her into the human-ship hybrid she is now, she has become a freelancer, fighting it out with other K-ships and performing various missions for herself and others all throughout the galactic hub known as the Kefahuchi Tract (or K-tract for short). Ed Chianese is a VR addict who spends most of his life getting money from loan sharks to turn it into more time spent in a tank, engaging in detective fantasies as Chinese Ed. He also seems fond of telling stories about the time before the tank, tall tales about when he was a hero and adventurer running alien mazes and piloting ships all throughout the K-Tract. And Michael Kearney is a frightened quantum physicist running from something, turning to any possible avenue to delay it from reaching him and obsessed with the occult to help him understand. The three of them are intertwined-- not in any immediately obvious way, but due to the cosmic spirals everything turns in. And all of them are further connected to the K-Tract.
What follows are three intertwining stories of serial murder, tense shootouts, fourteen-dimensional dogfights, existential horror, stomach-churning descriptions of cybernetics, pitch-black comedy, depressed clones having sex, people putting fishtanks on their heads, and things too bizarre to even describe. I could, of course, but any more description and I would be spoiling the work. Most of the plot of Light can be figured out, and the book has an element of discovery to its twisted plotline. When I figured some elements out for myself, I was surprised at how simple certain puzzles were, and why it took me so damn long to figure out exactly what in God's name it was. As it is, I wouldn't want to explain much more of the plot. I want most of the people who find this book to go in blind, without much of an idea of what they were getting into. That way, all these sensations will be that much sharper. That much sweeter. That much nastier. Because something is waiting out in the K-tract. Something important. Something beyond understanding. And all three of these heroes will have to come face-to-face with it.
"Elegant" feels like an odd adjective to use for a book. Or at least, an odd adjective to use for this kind of book. But it fits. M. John Harrison has a way with economy of language that feels fresh, light, and beautiful. What Harrison is able to do in a single sentence, it takes most people paragraphs or pages to describe. And in that single sentence will be everything the reader needs or wants to know about what Harrison describes. No sentence is wasted or without meaning, everything has just the right amount of balance to it. In one section, describing a character's trauma, a single line of dialogue manages to convey almost unimaginable horror without actually conveying the act or any hint of it on the actual page. While the K-Tract and its inhabitants are revealed gradually-- a few sentences here, a few sentences there-- the picture it paints as a whole is vivid. In Kearney's story, arguably the part of the narrative that gets the closest to horror (though Seria Mau gets awfully close), it's arguably the use of negative space, the things that aren't seen or heard or on the page, that drive the story of cosmic dread and existential unease. The details the reader does get also help hammer home the sense of dread in Kearney's section, the nervous energy of Ed Chianese, and the unnerving sterility of Seria Mau.
There's also a great sense of humanity and empathy to the work, something that tends to be tossed by the wayside when it comes to a lot of books**. Empathy is sometimes confused with "sympathy", in that the characters have to be sympathetic, but no. A writer should at least make their audience care about the characters, however despicable they are. And...Harrison does do that. Ed may be interested in drugs and sex, but the mystery of how much of what Ed talks is complete bullcrap is something enticing. He also proves to be the most moral of the three protagonists, or perhaps just the least damaged. Seria Mau starts off as cold and vicious, but as her plot unfolds, more reasons for why she's so vicious and cold put her actions into focus. And Kearney is obviously deranged from his confrontations with insane mystic Sprake and the thing he's afraid of, but his clear dread and relationship with his wife (as well as the eventual fates of people around him) make his section of story a lot more tragic and less vulnerable to apathy. Harrison manages to give the sense that these are people, if not human beings. There's even an encounter late in the book, one that I don't dare give away, that makes it very easy to understand what Kearney's going through, and one that is really freaking frightening.
And, finally, the book is very tight. In less-capable hands, these would be three separate books, or a much longer book, but Harrison keeps the action taut and moving quickly. Every piece seems suitably large, but at the same time, it's small. Tight. Confined to these characters and their journeys. It goes quickly, but covers a lot of ground. It's very fast-paced, partly because of that economy of language, and partly because Harrison keeps it ticking along nicely. I especially enjoy the action scenes, like the gunfight in the tank farm and Seria Mau's attempt to outrun the EMC forces when they come for her. It's very quick and quite easy to follow. Unlike last week's offering, it doesn't flag or lower, it just keeps on ramping up the stakes and eventually, when everything's revealed, it comes to a head and only then does it cool off to a more meditative tone. At which point, the perspective of the book changes and it reveals a new dimension, something unexpected but not necessarily a twist. It then ends on kind of an open question. This isn't a bad thing-- it ends with everything wrapped up-- but on a question nonetheless.
In fact, that's the one issue. Everything ends a little neatly and in one section where finally all is revealed and the characters receive some kind of closure. And it still feels like the beginning of something else. I really shouldn't be complaining, it ends exactly where it should and there are two sequels that revisit the K-Tract, but it feels like the mysteries were a little too mysterious? I don't know. I'm grasping at straws, at this point I'm pretty sure I couldn't find something to hate about Light unless I dug deep.
But in the end, there is one excuse for not at least giving Light a try, and that is that you are somehow unable to read. It's not science fiction, so that's not an excuse not to read it. It's short, so it won't take you much time: Barely over three hundred pages. It's well worth the trip. Find this book. Buy it if you can't find it. If your friends can't find it, give it to them. If you know their tastes and they would dig something like this, then press it into their hands, tell them "Don't look at the front flap, just start reading." and run off cackling madly***. Get your hands on this book and read it by any means necessary. You won't be disappointed. In fact, I think you'll be quite the opposite. This book may do things to your head the way it did for me, or it may just be a hell of a read. So yes. I now need a copy of this book and its sequels.
Also, watch out for the Shrander.
- The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett
- The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills
- Empty Space: A Haunting by M. John Harrison
AND MANY OTHERS
* Yes, I know, but any epigraph or pull quote I could use from the book would be a huuuuuge spoiler.
** By which I mean The Magicians and Tales of the Otori. Among others.
*** The cackling madly is mandatory, unless you have trouble with lung capacity and mold, like I do apparently now