Light Music by Kathleen Ann Goonan
List Price: $25.95
Hardcover: 416 pages (June 2002)
Publisher: Eos; ISBN: 0380977125
Review by Ernest Lilley

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"A wealth of titles washed through the Cowboy's mind, all aspects of himself. Crescent City Shorty, for he had the short form of the city within him. The radio... something about radio was so important to something within him.
Something?? railed Peabody silently. Me, damn you!
Crescent City Radio Cowboy Shorty smiled, spun his pistols and stuck them in the holsters. He could get used to this. He strode sown the corridor. Other folks needed help." -- Light Music

Light Music completes Kathleen Ann Goonan's Nanotech Quartet, a suite for a silenced Earth which started with Queen City Jazz, Mississippi Blues, and Crescent City Rhapsody. It is a grand adventure, a love story, and a novel of human transcendence. It's a tale of the middle-far future mixed with echoes of the old west and of the here and now. It's worth reading.

At the same moment that Peabody, the engineer, receives the light-borne message that signals the end and beginning of everything he's been searching for since the light waves came from space to obliterate human radio communication, the city comes under attack by pirates, damaging it's information core and robbing it of the knowledge it needs for the impending change.

The city, sentient, doesn't know what the change will be, but it knows that it needs the navigation data that Peabody had long ago wrested from NASA, and sends him back into the chaotic outside world to find it again. Still under attack, another lobe of the city brain panics and dumps an encyclopedic storehouse of Cowboy lore into Peabody's mind...for safe keeping...which, "Yippee-Ty-Eye-Aye!" leaves him a bit like Jeff Goldbloom's character in Buckaroo Bonzai, a hard core engineer trapped in a cowboy suit and roaming the west on a big adventure.

The attack spurs a change in Dania Cooper, the scientist in charge of building a new supercollider below the City. When Daina came to the City as a younger woman, she gave up her original flawed genetic template for an enhanced one. Where she had been a bright woman, she became brilliant. But at a cost. To maintain her form she needed to stay bathed in the fog of subtle chemicals the City produced for her, and after the pirate attack they stopped coming.

"Choice: Original or Dead. Choose." asks the city, through the person of the Radio Cowboy. So she awakes her old self, complete with the damage inflicted on her as a fetus by an alcoholic mother. And dressed in cowgirl attire.

Together the two head for Houston to try to recover the critical data, because the City is finally fulfilling its original destiny, and like something out of James Blish's "Cities in Flight" is going to launch itself into space. It takes six months to get there, through the uncivilized new wilderness, and by the time they do, they'd pretty much forgotten why they'd come.

So begins the final installment of the Nanotech Suite.

Angelina and Chester the doll

Angelina is a middle aged woman whose son has just run off to find her husband, off somewhere in Europe. She tied to the land of her people, Argentinean gauchos for generations, but her husband answered the call of "culture" and left for brighter places than their ranch. There is something strange and hidden about her, something that the townspeople have figured out, and they sell her to the government. Angelina escapes from the prison/institution she is held in and remembering the movie "The King of Hearts" that her husband and she had watched so long ago, she lets all the other prisoners free. Then she follows the trail of her son, determined to get him back. She finds a smart doll in a toy store with the owner killed by the local politcia, and when it begs her to take him along she does. But it is an irritating doll.  A doll that, like others before it, wants to become human.

Io and Su-Chen the girl in the moon. Io ran away to the colony on the moon to escape. Now,  everyone on the moon is disappearing, turning into orbs of light, it seems, and finally she's all alone in a lunar city. Not quite alone, even without counting the alien presence that follows her around in glowing light, as she finds when she hears the music of Su-Chen, and autistic girl whose parents had refused the nanotech treatment that could have unlocked her world, choosing to let her live in the world she and her body created. One made largely of a compelling music that she creates. With no one left on the moon, and a compulsion to follow, the others, or go somewhere, or do something, Io bundles Su-Chen (and her cat) into a one way shuttle pod back to Earth. She needs to go to Crescent City.

Dania leaves the Radio Cowboy and gets herself back.

Ra-being and Zeb-being stepped out from under the Los Angeles dome, found the clothes they had programmed before leaving and talked all night. In the morning they find a 1967 VW van that talks to them in a glowing sign on top. "SPACE IS THE PLACE"  and "GET IN. WE DON'T HAVE MUCH TIME." Zeb has been working on a theory of everything, a theory to big for the human mind to grasp. So he had left Crescent City to go to the Dome, the Post-Human city that LA had become.

Lots of things are able to give voice to their feelings in this world; Dolls, Wolves, Boats, VW busses...and they all seem just a bit cranky about it.

Angelina follows the trail of Louis onto a ship and on to Europe, believing that he has gone to join her husband. Chester the doll tells her that Louis has turned to light, which has been happening a lot in this story, though I haven't mentioned it. Speaking of light, it's all the more appropriate that she (and Chester, who is rapidly becoming more to her than a child's toy) are on their way to Paris, where she hopes to find Louis, and her husband. Paris, the city of light.

And other old truths emerge. Once they've seen Paris, how do you keep them down on the farm? For it's true. To approach Paris is to be changed, to become a radio being. To find that you have to go to Crescent City.

It's hard to note things that make no sense at the time.

Back when the pulse first hit Earth, scouring the sky of terrestrial radio waves, it passed through a number of infants, changing them in some way, attuning them to it's own music. Some call them the "bridge people", some hunt them down, and some turn them over to the government. Though by this last book in the series, there isn't a whole lot of government left to turn people over to.

For the first part of the book, the characters mill about on whatever errands they are set to, or they set for themselves, then all roads turn back to Crescent City as it prepares itself to launch into space and follow the celestial music back to its origin.

"Who are you now?" she asked, peering at him with narrowed eyes.
"Jason Peabody, Certified Nanotech Engineer. No matter what the city has to say about . Really."

 

I must apologize to Kathleen Ann Goonan. So far I've passed up the earlier books in the quartet, and had I moved them to the must read pile, I could have discovered an excellent series considerably sooner.

Fortunately, for us, as readers, time stands still while we read, and though we may pick up the story's thread near its end, there's no reason not to travel back to the beginning afterwards and start again.

2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu