Light – M. John Harrison

I’ve read in numerous places, which I’m far too lazy to reference here, that M. John Harrison’s 2002 novel Light does for Space Opera what his Viriconium sequence did for Fantasy back in the 1980s.  This is quite the claim, as Viriconium towers over the landscape of postmodern fantasy literature as a definite and unchallenged Olympus; the book that finally did-away with the literary naivety of the field by drawing direct attention to the problematic artificiality of secondary-world High Fantasy, all the while remaining deeply enamoured of the tropes, traditions and history of the genre; a genre with which Harrison is clearly well-versed and much in love.

To think that the same writer could reinvigorate not just one, but two distinct genres both of which, let’s be honest, suffer from more than their fair share of cliché, repetition and imaginative exhaustion is difficult to believe, but having read the frankly staggering (and not to mention extraordinarily beautiful) Light, I’m definitely coming round to the idea.  It’s 30-odd years since Harrison seemingly abandoned New Wave sci-fi with his early (and criminally underrated) novel The Centauri Device, but his forays into the lands of Fantasy and (later) Literary Fiction were obviously time well spent, as Light meshes a keen commitment to psychological realism with a penchant for inventive, stripped-back imagist prose.  The book toys with and deconstructs many of the familiar tenets of science fiction, but in a joyous and celebratory way, never sneering.  Harrison’s frame of reference is galaxy-spanning, and Light is replete with subtle (and not-so-subtle) tributes to the canon of famous (and not-so-famous) science fiction literature, T.V. and film.  Please don’t think the book is just some big party of self-indulgent genre references, it most certainly isn’t: the narrative is dominated by an unflinching and unsympathetic portrayal of horrific violence, manipulative sex and mental illness, but underpinning this grit is a definite comic treatment of the vagaries of space opera.  The satire is tender, and the commitment to sensawunda is genuine.

Light focuses on three larger-than-life characters; the theoretical physicist and serial killer Michael Kearney; Seria Mau Genlicher, a woman who’s been (voluntarily) cybernetically mutilated and encased in a vat of protein fluids from which she pilots a strange alien craft – an artefact from some long-extinct race of star-moving galactic engineers; and Ed Chianese (/Chinese Ed), a Virtual Reality addict enlisted in what can only be described as a… er… space circus. Michael’s story takes place in 1999, the latter two narratives (Seria’s and Ed’s) transpire around 2400 AD, with chapters alternately flitting between each character.

All three protagonists are haunted by different manifestations of ‘The Shrander’, an ungraspable and incarnately weird creature that variously functions as terrifying apparition of death, anti-hero, malcontent, surgeon, seer and sage.  The Shrander’s most memorable form is that which haunts Michael Kearney in the guise of a be-robed and spritely stalker with a horse’s skull in place of a head. Not only is this a clear aesthetic reference to the Celtic Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd (and a knowing wink to fans of Viriconium with a suggestion of a shared universe), but the horse skull-headed version of the Shrander also acts as microcosm for one of the book’s major themes: the estrangement of the familiar.  By tradition the Mari Lwyd is a luck-bringing and festive Celtic ritual, and while The Shrander definitely contains elements of this festivity, it is by turns a much more terrifying and grotesque presence: it’s the Mari Lwyd uprooted from its traditional contexts and placed, instead, within a weird and defamiliarising alien landscape.  Removed from its place as a curio of Celtic festive and musical history, the writer imbues the image of the horse skull-headed puppet-creature with more sinister connotations – death, madness, murder.  This is largely achieved by a fixation with the anatomical otherness of the Mari Lwyd.  In general the image of a skull is inseparable from the concept of death, and Harrison manipulates this to truly horror fiction-esque scales.  A big part of Lights’ aesthetic is a making-strange of otherwise common place or traditional objects.

A Mari Lwyd. My what big teeth you have, etc.

Outside of The Shrander’s haunting, much of the plotting is concerned with explaining how the three protagonists found themselves in their current situations.  Seria Mau’s life before her cybernetic implantation into an alien ship is told through a series of disjointed and cryptic dream sequences that, though initially baffling, come together in a way that rewards patience and is immensely satisfying.  The disorganized memories of her troubled childhood gradually expose the awful circumstances that led her to make the irreversible choice to be implanted into her ship, and I expect the visceral scenes of techno-surgery to stick with me for some time.  It’s a testament to Harrison’s skill as a writer that something so physical and disturbed can also be so moving.  Seria Mau is mutilated, trapped and profoundly alone, but these are truths the reader has to parse out from prose dense with scientific jargon as she concerns herself not with pitying introspection, but with the everyday mechanisations of her FTL alien ship and the technical demands of operating in nano-second time frames stretched out by mind-altering drugs to last, for her, for subjective minutes.  The tragedy of Seria Mau isn’t her present circumstance, but that the universe organised itself in such a way that she made the choice to live like this.

Decisions, then, form the thematic heart of the novel.  This is re-iterated by Michael Kearney’s work as a quantum physicist exploring the various theories surrounding probabilities, quantum states and branching, possible universes. Driven half-mad by the stalking Shrander and his failure to devise a useful system of quantum computing, Kearney defers all of his choices to a strange set of dice that he stole from the Shrander in some un-written prologue to the novel.  The dice are loaded (… I apologise in advance for this…) with symbolism… with connotations that range from choice theory and quantum mechanics to the world that could have been if only different choices were made.  Of course “dice stuff” is a big cliché of post-modern fiction, but here the beauty and pitch-perfect tone of Harrison’s prose and the playful morality of his ideas stop Light from ever seeming trite or disingenuous. Also there are cats (two cats – one black, one white) that manifest in all three timelines and that play a significant part in the choices and directions of the characters’ lives, both literally and figuratively.

This is all well and good, but where Light really (again, I’m sorry…) shines…  is in its examination of the ways these characters’ choices affect the lives of the people close to them. The supporting cast is a lowly and agency-less collection of tragically damaged individuals tossed around like ragdolls by the selfish and often misguided decisions of the three protagonists. Michael Kearney’s ex-wife/occasional fuckbuddy Anna, for example, is a mentally unstable woman in thrall to Michael’s every movement. The beautifully constructed, psychologically piercing and eloquent exchanges between the two are a stylistic highlight of the novel, albeit harrowing and difficult to “enjoy” in the usual sense of the word:

“I try to help you – only you won’t let me”

“Anna” he said quickly, “I help you.  You’re a drunk. You’re anorexic. You’re ill most days, and on a good day you can barely walk down the pavement. You’re always in a panic. You barely live in the world we know.”

But in terms of its style, Light is a book of many shades (… just take my apologies as a given from now on…).  Several long passages of esoteric technobabble (much of which I suspect is more bullshit than science) are almost David Foster Wallace-esque in their challenge to the reader to actually look up the words you don’t understand (only to find that a percentage of them actually are bullshit).   While some may argue that this renders the “science” part of “science fiction” arbitrary and spurious, I think the real point is a playful fixation on the glorious sounds and tones of jargon, absent their content, to become a kind of poetry. It doesn’t have to make sense, as the narrator puts it: this is “a place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out”.

Light is a challenging, oftentimes abstract novel that, in spite of (or maybe in complement to) it’s title, contains a lot of dark.  The novel’s dénouement ties the three narratives together in unexpected yet fulfilling ways, and the book’s examination of senseless cruelty and selfishness only lend the ending greater poignancy.  It’s a book of clichés turned in on themselves, of constant references to a saturated history of science fiction that Harrison neither attempts to ignore nor to revolutionise, but to celebrate.  I’m not sure if Light is the Viriconium of Space Opera, simply because I don’t think Space Opera suffers from the same institutionalised problems as modern Fantasy literature. It is, however, an incredible novel; perfectly balanced, relentlessly beautiful; puzzling but always fascinating.


8 responses to “Light – M. John Harrison

  1. What pretentious, pseudo-academic nonsense. This review doesn’t make any sense. Who are you trying to impress with your big splodge of drivel-speak? Your writing is a mess. All a good reviewer needs to do is write concisely and clearly, using few words.

  2. A mood conjuring introduction to the novel, and one that’s encouraged me to get a copy. Thanks Tomcat. You summon a sense of the writing without burdening readers with a plot reduction, my pet hate in reviews. The notion of one of the characters referencing a Mari Lwyd is the icing on the cake! (And you’ll know why!)

  3. SFF is certainly full of cliche-ridden works but to be frank I can enjoy a predictable and cliched work if it is written with some skill and is above all entertaining. That doesn’t mean I don’t prefer something that stands above all that. I’ve avoided reading Harrison in the past because I’ve read some of his short fiction and been a bit intimidated by it. I should give his long fiction a try and you’ve certainly sold this one beautifully.

    • Harrison is very much an acquired taste, and his books encourage the reader to work very hard: but it’s definitely worth the effort, I promise. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Nice review as ever, though I think I’ll go back and read The Centauri Device (for all Harrison apparently has reservations about it now) and work my way forward. That means this is on my TBR pile, but probably for closer to 2023 than 2013.

    • Thanks. Yeah, I know Harrison and the “community” have issues with the Centauri Device, but I enjoyed it. Beautifully written, nicely demonstrates an author’s unease with the conventions of his own genre. It can be a bit clunky in terms of plotting and character – but I’ve always been more interested in sci-fi as a poetics than as a thought experiment or genre.

      • I’m genuinely interested in Harrison’s thoughts on Centauri, as I am on most things, but his opinion is simply that. The novel ceased to belong to him when he published it, and is now its own thing in the world. His opinion is necessarily an informed one, but it’s not dispositive.

        There’s a fair chance he’d agree with that statement of course.

        As for what the community thinks of it, well, that’s a matter of profound indifference to me.

  5. I have never read anyone critical of M John Harrison, just as I have never finished any of his novels. Why is that?

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