by M.John Harrison
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575074033
Date: 01 November 2007 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Gollancz reissue M. John Harrison's 2002 novel Light, loudly hailed as a masterpiece by reviewers and critics alike... except for me it seems! As if you prove exactly how subjective this reviewing lark is, I just didn't get this novel at all when I first read it, and in fact found the entire thing pretty baffling. Just about everyone else, it seems, disagreed! We're re-running my original review, but on taking another look at both the novel and my thoughts about it, I can't say that I've changed my mind. (Note the new Gollancz release features a different cover to that shown.) M. John Harrison is a highly respected figure in British genre fiction cited by some of the new wave of writers, most notably China Mièville as a major influence. Harrison has been contributing to the scene since the late sixties and is perhaps best known for his Viriconium series and for The Centauri Device (1974) now widely regarded as science fiction classic. It has been a while since this writer last ventured into the realms of hard SF and so his new publishers, Gollancz, are quite rightly touting Light as one of their major releases of the year.
Contrary to its title, Light (deliberately?) is a very dark novel. It is made up of three plot spokes which rotate throughout. The first concerns a present day scientist who seems on the verge of a breakthrough in quantum theory. His work though takes second place to his erratic and often murderous behaviour as he runs from the spectral pursuit of The Shrander, an entity which haunts both his dreams and his waking nightmares. Coupled with this are two futuristic story threads, one concerning a sentient K-Ship and the other the wandering adventures of one Ed Chianese, a twink (someone addicted to a sort of virtual reality immersion). I'm scraping the surface with these summarised descriptions of course, but to give away more would be spoiling things. Suffice it to say, all three plot strands are highly detailed - all the more surprising as at only 335 pages, this is not a big book.
Another reason to avoid giving you an over-long plot summary is that Harrison is one of those sophisticate writers more concerned with the themes of his novels rather than the plots. That is not to say that Light is poorly plotted in any way - it isn't. Though structurally conventional, the essence of Light has such a misty (and mystifying) quality that the effect is like watching the smoke rise from a wood fire. This is a story that swirls apparently randomly, coiling around itself, obscuring the clear view, always moving, always changing its pattern, yet remaining recognisably consistent.
Here Harrison is exploring the nature of reality - how it changes and how his characters desire this change. This exploration is often non-linear - sometimes to the point of appearing a non-sequitur - but it is somehow never incoherent. Indeed, the extraordinary use of language employed and the depth of the ideas in Light make this a highly literary work and Harrison's craft as a writer who uses words and phrases to force the reader to see beyond the surface level of meaning is clear throughout. He only tells us the bare minimum of what we need to know, with the novel's creations and conventions only becoming apparent towards the end. This craft extends to the mood of the novel which remains disconcerting right to the last page.
I must confess that as a reader I tend to be more far comfortable with a story that I can get my teeth into, one that I can witness rather than work out. I can recommend Light to you purely on the basis of its sheer artistry and the brilliance of Harrison's writing, but I also found it quite bewildering in places and I came away from reading it with the suspicion that I'm not quite clever enough to have got it - and no doubt that is probably the case! I hope you fare better.