Friday, August 2, 2019

Light by M. John Harrison

Light is a complex book, and on this third reading I’m starting to feel like I understand it more. Don’t get me wrong; I loved it all three times. The first time I read it, my main response was a giddy, “This is how you do space opera!” The second time I saw that there was a lot more to it that I wasn’t getting, yet that enjoyment remained. This time I understand it slightly more, but I think that’s largely beside the point. Part of what Harrison is doing is saying there are things we can’t understand. As the Shrander says to Ed Chianese near the end, “I don’t want you to understand it, I want you to surf it.”

Ed is a burned out space pilot, now a VR addict, a twink in the parlance of the book, and the lead character in one of the three strands of the story. Seria Mau Genlicher is a k-ship, a human who has been grafted onto an advanced spaceship and partners with a sentient algorithm to pilot the thing, is the lead character of the second. These two strands happen in the distant future. Humans have discovered faster than light due to the mathematical and physics prowess of the main character of the third strand, Micheal Kearney and his partner, which ostensibly happens in the late 1990’s. Kearney is also a serial killer. He has this idea that killing people will keep the Shrander, a mysterious creature that is stalking him, at bay.

In the future strand the action takes place around the Kefahuchi Tract, which had just been discovered by astronomers in the present day portions of the novel. That tract is “a singularity without an event horizon. A place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out, like cheap conjurer’s stuff, magic that might work or it might not, undependable stuff in a retro shop window. You couldn’t make anything of an idea like that, but you couldn’t stop trying.” That is my experience of the book as well. I can’t fully grasp the science it’s hinting at, but it’s endlessly engaging. As best I can tell, it’s essentially a black hole or series of black holes out of which the detritus of countless civilizations falls out, not all working by the physics of our world. There’s a scavenger culture built around that, and the mathematics that drive ships like Seria Mau’s come from one of those civilizations.

There are the aforementioned space pilots and a serial killer physicist. There’s a space circus. There is a post-cyberpunk world as vivid, noirish and squalid as anything in William Gibson. There are a variety of sentient algorithms who manifest in disturbing ways. Information can manifest as a substance, as can light. There is a lot of math I don’t understand, but it in no way makes the book drag. The story is compelling, but the language is as well. It is a dark unflinching book in some ways. Out of this milieu, though, a weird sense of hope emerges. Without being saccharine, the book implies that if physics won’t always work, anything, almost literally, is possible.

I love this book even more with a third readthrough. I suspect I will revisit it at least several more times. It is literature of the highest order.


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