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.


The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison

At an austere 200 pages, The Centauri Device has destabilized my preconceptions of Space Opera.  I heretofore assumed that all Space Opera was self-defined as such by merit of its Homeric length as much as by any adherence to established themes or argument (admittedly I’ve been reading a lot of Alastair Reynolds).  But like some kind of literary Tardis, The Centauri Device is abundantly more vast than its meagre pagecount would suggest, a feat entirely due to M. John Harrison’s mastery of the imagist mode.  In hand, this may be a lightweight flit of a novel, but the depth of its ideas belies the economy of its prose.  The Centauri Device rivals, if not supersedes, any 800 page genre brother you could care to name.  Harrison has a penchant for abstract, metaphor heavy, dream-state writing that is unfortunately absent in much current sci-fi, but the influence this book did have is undeniable; apparently it was the progenitor of those long poetic spaceship names that’re now so ubiquitous (notably in Iain M. Banks, Peter F. Hamilton and the aforementioned Alastair Reynolds).  The fact that Harrison developed, perfected and then abandoned this trope over the course of a single novel is testament to his talents (incidentally, among my favourite of his spaceship names are: Let Us Go Hence and the comically grandiloquent The Melencolia That Transcends All Wit). So, I’ll try my humble best to do The Centauri Device justice in the paltry compass of this article – but no promises…

Here’s the blurb: Several decades ago, humans bombed the living shit out of the planet Centauri, all but eradicating the native population.  Now an archaeological expedition has unearthed the so-called Centauri device, and the four major human factions go to war over its ownership.  There’re two problems however: 1) only the last remaining carrier of Centauri DNA (an anarchistic, drug-involved semi-criminal freight captain called John Truck (our protagonist)) can activate it, and 2) nobody knows what it does.  The Arabs (note: this is a loose, hand-down moniker with no geographical or religious relation to the present day) are a powerful movement of space socialists (stick with me…) who believe the Centauri device is the ultimate propaganda machine; the Israelis (again, no relation) think it’s a bomb; the Aesthete Anarchists don’t have a clue what it is, and the body-modifying religious nutjobs of the time, the Openers, believe the device is God Himself.  In effect, The Centauri Device is a strange incarnation of the alien artefact novel that was popularised by Arthur C. Clarke; here however, it’s tempered by a contemporary mid-period Cold War context reflected in the arms race agenda of the novel’s rival sects.

In this regard, The Centauri Device definitely shows its age; constant hyperbolic references to a Leninist takeover and hysterical fear of ‘Trotskyites’ are thinly veiled renditions of contemporary societal concerns. Plus there’s a space-hippy Stratocaster playing rock star who functions as a bizarre incarnation of Hendrix (Harrison was a big fan, apparently); likewise the drug du jour is a kind of future-Heroin imbibed at a never-ending psychedelic party; the Centauri device itself is clearly analogy for Nuclear weaponry – safe, but only in the right hands (whosever they may be).  But is it a failing of far-future sci-fi to be such an obvious product of its time? Well, no, because a fundamental aspect of the genre is an implicit, albeit removed, questioning of contemporary mores, without which the whole oeuvre would be meaningless escapism (not necessarily a bad thing), and arguably poorer as a result.

But where The Centauri Device suffers from a traditionality of plot and a contemporariness of reference which may alienate many readers (though which I found enjoyable), its most striking achievements are of style, theme and character.  Let’s forget the a-to-b-to-c mechanisations of scene, and focus on tone.  The Centauri Device is beautifully written; it has a kind of supernal, vertiginous otherness to it that augments the already bizarre goings-on with an impetus on metaphor, dreamscape and grammatically non-standard expression.  While this frequently results in baffling sentences and tangential musings that necessitate re-reading, the overall effect is to elevate the book’s more mundane aspects into the realm of aesthetics: the disconnect between the conventionality of the plot and the beauty of the writing is forgivable (hey, Harrison was a ridiculous 25 when he wrote it), purely because the style makes so much more of the story than would elseways be apparent.  A recurring motif, for example, is the description of the character Ben Barka as a desert, which is so stunning and well-realised that it adds both emotional depth and history to a character otherwise only cursorily featured – the empty but violent desertscapes suggested in his glance betrays an inner anger convergent with pain:

As he moved, he shed brittle echoes of past deserts and intimations of the Desert to Come.  And, far off in his liquid brown eyes – broken white columns, like reflections in a failing cistern.

It’s rare for a sci-fi writer to employ such imagist language but, surprisingly, it really, really works.  Where else in sci-fi could you find such an eloquent description of post-battle unconsciousness as this:

All of them, the asphyxiated and the dying, had worn coloured glass masks, or swum in senselessness, fish of the Impossible Medium; all solid forms had vanished in amazing twists and contortions, and he had felt his interface with space diminish, felt it crawl through him in slow, luminous ecstacies.

I’m showing impressive restraint (honest) by not just quoting the entire thing verbatim here.  Harrison’s prose is like some inter-dimensional tentacle that slips and slides between genre spaces, appropriating imagist language here, literary realism there, grasping at Shakespearean gravitas and Nabokovian satire and consolidating them into a unique style that transcends the conventional vagaries of sci-fi.  The Centauri Device functions in a surreal hinterland between the frivolous (guitar genius space rock-stars) and the literary (metaphor-heavy, imagist prose), and it’s the instability of this relationship that makes it so darn fun!

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not just a fundamental exercise in style; many of the book’s themes betray Harrison’s anarchist leanings: “Politics, Religion and dope: they keep us happy in Hell”, and the downward spiral from audacity to despair via mass murder and responsibility of the protagonist John Truck is brilliantly realised, displaying a moral depth more in keeping with so-called Literary Fiction than sci-fi.  If you were feeling particularly grandiose, you could claim that The Centauri Device evinces the literary legitimacy of Science Fiction: its ability to engage with real-world concerns while concurrently displaying a mastery of style, syntax and such higher-yield techniques as metaphor and allusion is no mean feat.  Some heavy handed plotting is problematic, particularly when John Truck is being passed around from faction to faction like some kind of Pass the Parcel Chosen One, but this book’s events are merely launch pads for its more ideological concerns of power, responsibility and the unknowability of technology.  The stark anti-war agenda may operate as an obstacle to readers disinclined to didacticism, but this is a minor thread and in no way detracts from the book as experience or idea.  The Centauri Device is beautiful sci-fi; flawed, but by no means broken – Space Opera in minor mode, a worthwhile way-in for newcomers and simultaneous stylistic pinnacle for genre purists.