M. John Harrison is a science fiction writer. Light was first published in 2002. Winner of many awards, The Guardian ranked it #91 in its list of the 100 best books of the C21.
The story spans four centuries. It is located in the Kafahuchi Tract, a huge complex phenomenon that hangs in the sky, home to ‘burnt-out stuff, litter from the galaxy’s early evolution.’
The novel unfolds in apparently unconnected chapters. We meet from well into the future Seria Mau who seems barely human and prowls the Tract looking for work and trying to understand a package from someone called Uncle Zip.
‘The visible part of it lay on the deckplates in a small room in the human charters, in a shallow red cardboard box tied with shiny green ribbons…..
The box, however, was the least of it. Everything inside was very old. However Uncle Zip dressed it up, neither he nor anyone else could be sure of its original purpose. Some of these artifacts had identities of their own, with expectations a million years out of date.’
Also from the future, we meet Ed Chianese, who escapes the real world when he can by living much of it in a virtual reality tank.
Michael Kearney is much more of our time. He is a scientist who believes he is forced by a creature called Shrander to murder. Although keen to disconnect from this monster, he kills as easily as emptying a pocket of old sweet wrappers.
Light is not an easy read. You learn the language of Light piece by piece. Like an English speaker trying to pick up Spanish, you have at first a sense, a guess at what something might mean, but you have to stay focussed to build your literacy. Concepts such as shadow operators, fetches, tank farms and stochastic resonances reveal themselves over time, but only if the reader remains vigilant. And yet it is in this process you realise the brilliance of the book. Harrison is not a writer who translates for the reader. M John Harrison simply describes what he believes ‘is’.
If you need likeable or admirable protagonists, this book will not scratch that itch. If you wish to become immersed in a wild future ride, the book will reward with an ending that leads you to believe you have understood the way things work.