Friday, January 11, 2008

Light - M. John Harrison

"As a matter of interest, why did you murder all those women?"
"To keep you away from me."
"Oh dear. Didn't you realize it wasn't working?"
-from Light, by M. John Harrison

This is a crossposting of a review I had up on my other blog, but A. It fits better here, and B. I'm lazy and want to get content up.

Well, I just finished reading Light, by M. John Harrison this morning, or late last night if you prefer. It was a book that I picked up and put down twice, getting a chapter or two in before putting it down and wandering off, only on the third time did I stick it out because I felt deep down that there was a great prize in reading through this mystery.

It follows three people intersecting in time and space, and every one of them is peeled back in layers of pain and ennui, either way, they're all varying degrees of fucked up. The first is a software engineer who is working on a quantum computer, no, actually he's a serial killer targeting women, well, actually he's a man fleeing a codependant relationship, but it truth it's a monster with a horse skull for a head that he stole a set of dice from, and he uses those dice as a divination guide through life that led him to see the possibility of a quantum still with me here?

Secondly there's the White Cat, Seria Mau, or Seria Mau and the K-Ship, White Cat. You see she's the brain in the ship, literally. Not only that, she stole it from the military. Of course, the ship isn't really military, it's a shell of a ship hacksawed to fit in this alien artifact so they can hook it up to human technology and jack in a human controller. If you've ever read any of Anne McCaffrey's "Ship who..." series then you know the gist of it. Of course, she's also a little girl whose mother died when she was young and her father did his best to turn her into a replacement for the dead mother...with all the ickyness that entails. Oh, and the process of hooking one up to the tech makes you schizophrenic, well, not really, since there really is an alien presence speaking with her mind. She is now, among other things, a pirate.

The last one is Ed Chianese, we're first introduced to him as a twink, not what the current definition would be, but a future one. He goes for weeks into full body immersion tanks to experience a 3d fantasy world where he stars in a bigger than life detective drama, heavy on the gratuitous sex and violence. After all that's taken away from him we find out that he was once an infamous pilot pulling daring raids into the void and around the Beach. The Beach is a sort of tidal area around a section of space that essentially defies all explanation, hundreds of civilizations came to try and understand it, sometimes dragging whole planets around to get a better view, but in the end they died out just as easily. Which means that there's a lucrative business with salvage. Of course, beneath the death defying flight jockey and the burnt out pleasure junkie is the little boy who didn't understand why his sister left him and his father alone after their mother died.

In the end their stories get twined together and wrapped up with, what I felt, was an overabundance of handwaving and saying "Aliens did it." actually just one godlike alien who designed everything from the beginning to create their set of circumstances. It felt lacking, there were time paradoxes that I felt could have come together neatly, strings that could have linked up nicely, in fact none of the three characters actually meet each other except as, well, bones. I felt disappointed at the end, it was not what the beginning and brilliant middle of the book promised. Of course, the only characters really with soul happened to be the side characters.

On the up side, as I mentioned, the setting was brilliant, beautiful, and I wish more time had been spent on it. The post-frontier town era that plagued the beach, the use of 'fetches' part hologram and part nanotech cloud to communicate, the rickshaw girls, genetically engineered so they could run and carry the cart from birth to death(2-4 years or so), the one time 'cultivars' or grown clones where you could download your personality and be whatever the gene techs could splice for you. Then there were the New Men, aliens who visited Earth and conquered it, of course they weren't very good at it, and within a few generations they were the universal garbage men and quick-e-store clerks, unable to fit in and compete in a human world.

Two other themes stood out among the characters, one was a twinned facination and disgust with sex, and the other was a callousness about life. The killer of course has encounters with the women, and with his ex-wife, where he really isn't interested in intercourse nearly as much as seeing her vulnerable and, well, fucked up from her own psychological issues of anorexia and the fact that she's sleeping with a killer(and won't let him leave her). Seria Mau watches her passengers with a lurid voyeurism, until she gets annoyed at them and vents all except one into space. That one too will die along with the other person who ends up helping her, marooned on a viral planet. And finally for Ed, years of VR has ended up with him reacting to women only as sex objects, the exception being the rickshaw girl that he saves who is also somewhat of a mother figure, until her own psychosis sends her to a body shop to be turned into a sexual object so that she doesn't have to act out the protective envelope that he's surrounded himself in, which he of course rejects out of hand. Maybe the author is trying to say that one should be happy with one's self, but it sounds more selfish. As if Ed sees her only as valuable in relation to his own self worth, and that her fears and insecurities aren't acceptable.

Anyways, if you're going to read the book, it's a fun ride, but if you're pressed for time it's one you can skip. The ideas of fetches and cultivars and gene splicing are wonderful, and it promises so much for a story, which gets bogged down in the last chapters by handwaving. But if you've got time to burn and are looking for something beautiful and transient, then pick it up and enjoy the ride.

"The mathmatics wrapped around her--kind, patient, amiable, inhuman, as old as the halo. It would always look after her. But its motives were completely unknowable.
"Sometimes I hate you," she advised it.
Honesty made her amend this. "Sometimes I hate myself," she was forced to admit."

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