Author: M. John Harrison
Series: Empty Space (Kefahuchi Tract) #1
Another review that I find hard to write; but it must be said that it is an unusual book. If I were to characterize it in just a few words, I’d say it’s a prologue 300 pages long. Seriously. It’s built like a card trick: a lengthy setup with a short, delightful payoff. One thing I can attest to, though, is that it has a great ending.
Apart from this, however, Harrison’s Light is an uneven concoction of seemingly disparate elements: effusive technobabble and slick, brutal cyberpunk cant go hand in hand with mysticism worthy of the best – or at least most murky – of the New Age prophets. While ostensibly there is a story, even one in two timelines, it’s more of an allegory, burdened down with heavy symbolism and filled with characters who were created with an ulterior motive. Truth be told, this last sentence is something I could put in my every other review, so there’s that ;). If I sound overly critical, however, I am not. I actually, quite surprisingly, enjoyed this book. But Harrison doesn’t make it easy for readers to like his novel. Introducing as our guide a genius physicist cum pathetic serial killer on the run from a menacing entity, the author makes it somewhat difficult to get his readers (or at least this reader) invested in the story. And that’s only the beginning of a wild Tarot-inspired journey through the labyrinth of the author’s own psyche.
The symbolism is rather ostentatious, though probably not so well known to the usual SF crowd; for some, it may be new and fresh, or even utterly unrecognizable. And if you want a different take on Light, I suggest checking out Bart’s and Jeroen’s reviews. I admit, a few years ago I would be quite enticed by the mystery and mysticism. I was never much intrigued by Tarot until I read Erikson; but after encountering Gardens of the Moon, I wanted to understand that layer of the Malazan world better, so I did my required reading (not actual Tarot reading, just reading about Tarot ;)). So now I am quite familiar with the figures of the Fool and the Emperor, the Lovers and the World, the Hanged Man and the rest of them. Harrison makes a good, if very standard, use of them. The journey through the Major Arcana, from the Fool to the World, couldn’t have been more obvious. It is a journey of self-realization and self-knowledge as much as it is one of learning about the world and the universe, and Michael Kearney serves dutifully as the vehicle of this conceit. Unlikeable and clad from head to toe in an impenetrable plot armor, he stumbles from one place to another, always in fear and despair spiced with a generous amount of self-loathing. But Harrison never seems to treat his protagonist as a real person; it is rather a stand-in, a mannequin necessary to present the ideas behind it. And yet, his arc is rewarding in its own twisted way, for once you realize you can’t expect Kearney to be a realistic character, you start enjoying the journey through the ideas for their own sake.
Kearney is one of three protagonists, and definitely the least likeable, at least for me. His storyline is set in “now;” late 1990s to early 2000s spread between London and New York. The twin storylines of the estranged siblings, Seria Mau and Eddy Chianese (and I really hope they’re not Kearney’s far descendants), takes place in the wide, wild galaxy 400 years in the future, when humanity already reached the stars. But while their sandbox got infinitely bigger, the humans didn’t get any wiser. The future storylines are fun, edgy and cyberpunky to the extreme. While Harrison’s science is fuzzy and generally indistinguishable from magic, it makes for some spectacular imagery. Merging the visions of deep space with trippy murky interiors of squalid interspecies slums and cheap entertainment districts Harrison excels in creating an uneasy, claustrophobic atmosphere of disappointment compounded by the inability to escape from oneself. Both timelines follow a similar arc: starting down in the gutter, and spending a loooong part of the story in said gutter, both in the 2000s and 400 years on, they travel upwards toward a more optimistic future. Potential future, let’s not forget, but one that actually manages to be hopeful instead of bleak. That said, I couldn’t help but notice Harrison’s rather obsessive approach to sex as something mostly mechanical, comforting in the addictive way of a smoke or a drink, and as a result almost utterly devoid of meaning or intentional reciprocation, and yet ruling the lives of the protagonists in unforeseen ways. There is an arc for that, too, with the mindless addictiviness of the early scenes traded for a more human connection, and I do wonder if that’s Harrison’s further attempt at buttressing the main message of growing self-awarness through the process of learning about the world. The plot of Light makes for a neat card trick, I admit it freely; I was actually very satisfied with this ending that becomes a new beginning. While I called most of the twists early on, I was not disappointed with how poetic, justified, and brutal the conclusion turned out to be.
Lastly, I want to highlight Harrison’s writing. It’s truly impressive. Harsh, nasty and cold for the most part, it can be incongruously poetic, whimsical and emotional. It takes skill, imagination, and patience to create images as evocative and memorable as those offered by Light.
All in all, while not as original or thought-provoking as I hoped it to be, Light proved an entertaining read, enjoyable enough for me to read the sequels. Harrison’s got the cyberpunk vibe down pat. I now hope in the sequels he ups his game with regard to the character development and not just the novelty of Tarot or games of chance ;).