M. John Harrison, Light (2002)

Author: M. John Harrison

Title: Light

Format: paperback

Pages: 320

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 ;).

Score: 7/10 

31 thoughts on “M. John Harrison, Light (2002)

  1. I am surprised and not surprised you liked this. I am glad to see you on the blog but have to admit, I would have liked to read about a different book. I hated every second when I read this and put Harrison on my to avoid list 😀

    From everything I hear, if you liked this, the sequels should be right down your alley too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I moderately liked it, as the score suggests 😉 I had a feeling you’d have hated this. I must admit that the beginning was very unpromising, making a pathetic serial killer a protagonist was hard for me to swallow. Once I got onto the whole conceit, though, I became a bit more forgiving. What I really liked about it was the language and the space imagery. The rest was your run-of-the-mill with some kinks.

      I think I might go through my Yotsuba&! experience next, though, so that should be some consolation 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll see that -1 and raise you +10 for me having good taste 😉

        This is the kind of book where I realize that other people are as alien to me as aliens would be. I cannot fathom mentally, emotionally or spiritually how a book like this can be in any way liked. But it is and I just don’t understand.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I think we are a looking for something a bit different in our books. I think for you wholesomeness may be more important than for most and is the guiding value. Never asked you if you’ve read Lolita? That’s a book for which I have a very similar reaction to yours 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I would concur with your sentiments.

            I have read Lolita and felt sick for a week afterwards. I read it back in ’11 and have felt nothing but contempt for the Literati ever since 😦 I read it to get in another “modern classic”. What got you to read it?

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Similarly to you I wanted to read one of the 20th century classics 😉 I hated that book with a deep-seated disgust, and hate it to this day. Can’t understand why it’s called a classic.

              Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I have this image of you being very principial in your reads; I think I am too, but to a lesser extent than you ;).

              Harrison’s choice of protagnist was a big no for me and definitely affected how I look at the book, but didn’t turn into the red line I think mostly because Kearney was made pitiful and pathetic; there was nothing laudatory about him as Harrison didn’t make him into a hero, or even a positive person. Whereas Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert… ugh.

              Liked by 1 person

        2. That’s an interesting and honest reply. I feel the same sometimes, but I think less than you do. I like Harrison because I feel a kind of connection to him – he seems to perceive things similarly, and results in mental/emotional and spiritual connections.

          Part of the disconnect might be that your outlook on life seems to be more conservative and obviously religious, and those things have been under quite some pressure in both mainstream & more highbrow intellectual culture, both of which Harrison seems to tap into.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Oh, absolutely. Harrison’s worldview is completely at odds with mine and that ripples out into so many areas. It’s one of the reasons I’m so “aware” of the underlying ideas in a story. Or at least try to be aware.

            Some times I can talk about those differences dispassionately, and at other times, not a chance.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this book. Mainly for the language and space stuff. It’s a very imaginative book, and I really like that sentimental atmosphere and brutal cyberpunk stuff. The sequels are also pretty good. Nova Swing is a love letter to Roadside Picnic, I think. The final book goes weirder towards the end. I’m not even convinced that the future that we see in this series is the actual future set in the same universe as Kearney’s, but that the future in this series is sort of fractalled into existence based on what happens in the current day timeline. The third book starts playing with those ideas.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I noticed from your review you are a fan! 😀

      I’ll check out the sequels at some point, Harrison sure knows how to write striking descriptions. I guess I’ll read Roadside Picnic first, though 😉 Wanted to get it in Polish, but that would be a long wait, so I’ll have to settle for the English version, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review. I totally missed the Tarot stuff, and it just goes to show how Harrison crafts his books, usually with layers some readers might totally miss, but without that missing hurting the experience. I follow his blog too, he doesn’t post that often, but it is clear Harrison puts a whole lot of thought into his writing, much more so than most authors. I know I miss most of what he tries to do, but I’m still drawn to his writing – as Jeroen said: language & imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, he does seem like an author who actually puts a lot of thought and care into his writing.
      Haven’t read anything about Light except from your and Jeroen’s review, as I like to see books with fresh eyes before I delve into details and interpretations, but it seems to me that Harrison is rather in the post-science camp, seeking answers in metaphysics more than in mere physics. Hence the Tarot and symbols of luck, games of chance etc. as a way of dealing with what seems an indeterministic, or not entirely deterministic, universe.


    1. Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 🙂

      It is quite unusual, that’s for sure. And out of one’s comfort zone is a good description, too! 😉 But I think it’s worth trying out; it certainly breaks the tired mold when it comes to both imagery and erudite savagery of language.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m fine with techno-babble; it’s the murderous protagonists I have trouble with 😉
      I’ll wait before I read the sequel, though. As much as this was intriguing, I feel I need something different now 😉
      Thanks for reading, Lashaan! 😀


  4. We really need to get you reading more non-allegorical symbolism bereft of ulterior motives 😉

    But I’m glad you… liked it? Parts of it. Most of it? Some of it. Parts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehehe well, that hasn’t happened yet; looks like my reading choices keep steadily in this vein; maybe James will change it.
      I generally liked it; although I liked parts of it more than others 😉


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