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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Light by M. John Harrison

Now this is one of the weirdest ass books I've read in a long while. This is not a criticism, just an observation. It's really defying me to encapsulate the story and themes in 50 words or less, but I'll try to give it a whirl. Three different plots lines follow three different people in three different times. This is not really accurate either: two of these time periods are the same, or overlap, and one of these people is not really a person anymore, but a sentient space ship working on the purpose for a weirdass alien artifact. The contemporary story follows a serial killer who is working on quantum computing. The third follows a man who has just been dumped out of a tank and is running about in something approximating a Noir plot, but with lots of cyberpunkery as ornament. 

This book made me have a couple revelations about genre, and for that I thank it. I don't generally enjoy super hard science fiction because it's really weird and schematic. The authors tend to get their duuuuuude on about concepts, and then they forget about good writing and character and all that. I'm up for this occasionally, as I have humanities-type person aversion to reading about science, so I enjoy hard sf for the narrative wrapper that it puts around scientific thought. I'd rather eat glass than read something written non-fictionally about the Technological Singularity (c.f. Kurtzweil, et al.) but it's cool as a bit of play in a story. (Also, I know, please don't freak out, that the TS is more bullshit and masturbation than *actual* scientific thought. It was just the first thing I thought of that I would rather see in fiction than in a treatise or similar.)

Anyway, I think it might be time for a massive digression. I recently watched a pretty fascinating conversation go down on Goodreads between a romance novelist and a reader who doesn't generally read romance. The author spent a lot of time explaining where she was coming from in terms of the characters, how she was trying to say something about sex addiction within the confines of the romance genre. This got me thinking, why did she confine herself to the romance genre? She talked about the editing process, how her publisher edited pretty hard, and how some things got lost in the mix. Why not try to publish something that would break out of the romance ghetto? 

I'm going to answer my own questions in true asshole fashion. She wrote a romance because that's the genre she enjoys. I read Light because a friend of mine, who is also an sf nerd, gave this to me for my birthday, and he must have thought I'd enjoy this. And I did. The language is totally killer, slick with a sort of cyberpunky Noir damage, but with these quick sketches which nail character in short, hard strokes. I hadn't really seen the relationship between Noir and cyberpunk before I read this; the way both tend to rely on hard-luck and the image of the Street; the chase and the mystery; the beauty of the flickering neon and ugly marketing of a gutter-level view on things. 

The code parlors, the tattoo parlors – all run by one-eyed poets sixty years old, loaded on Carmody Rose bourbon – the store-front tailor operations and chop joints, their tiny show windows stuffed with animated designs like postage stamps or campaign badges from imaginary wars or bags of innocent-coloured candy, were already crowded with customers; while from the corporate enclaves terraced above the Corniche, men and women in designer clothes sauntered confidently towards the harbour restaurants, lifting their heads in anticipation of Earth cuisine, harbour lights on the wine-dark seas, then a late-night trip to Moneytown – wealth creators, prosperity makers, a little too good for it all by all their own account, yet mysteriously energised by everything cheap and tasteless. Voices rose. Laughter rose above them.


But then the real heart of this story has to do with sex, and it's totally uncomfortable and tricky as hell within a genre that doesn't really lend itself to that. I love science fiction like the brother I never had, but space opera, cyberpunk, doesn't generally have much to say about early childhood trauma, internalized body issues, sexual abuse. Or if it does, it says it in ways that are stupid and juvenile. (Sorry, science fiction. *arm punch* You know I love you.) Why did Harrison choose to write about this in this genre? Who the fuck knows? But probably because this is a genre he enjoys, and he clearly has fun in it & knows the idiom like a fever dream. 

SPOILERS BELOW

So my mention of the technological singularity in the first part of the review wasn't a total accident, although my equation it with scientific thought mostly was. Harrison brushed up against the singularity in the almost god-like Shrander, and in the ways that bodies are replaced and renewed, put on ice, cloned, proxied, etc. Science is often a collection of data, but those data are put into narrative by scientific thought and theories; the hypothesis is a story looking for causality. Sometimes I think all the ridiculous "theorizing" that goes on about the singularity - how it is already here, how it will make human life perfect or something, is this strange narrative that says more about our discomfort with our bodies than anything. Harrison kind of rips this apart. Seria Mau becomes disembodied because of childhood sexual abuse, but taking the body away doesn't take away her trauma. She keeps murdering her human cargo - sorry for this bad phrase, but it kind of works - because they keep having sex. The narrative, fractured though it is, drives her to heal her own fractures and get her body back. Her brother twinks out in a tank, living in stories that play for him in the cliched idiom of the Noir plot, and his non-seeing is part of his not-seeing in childhood, not understanding what was happening to the sister he loves.

END SPOILERS

I guess I'll just say one last thing, not under cover of spoiler  This book does not make a lot of sense in the end, in terms of plot-lines, and lots of reviews seem to grumble and imply that you need multiple reads to dig it all. Maybe. But I think it's pretty cool how the symbols just sort of rolled together like the patterns on dice, and didn't slip-knot into a hard conclusion, but into the impression of a conclusion, the bones held in the hand for the next hard throw. Inside the hand is bones too. Ah.

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