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Light
M. John Harrison
Gollancz paperback £10.99

review by Patrick Hudson

M. John Harrison published his first SF story in New Worlds magazine in 1968, and for the last 30-odd years he has been leading the cutting edge of literary science fiction and fantasy. The Viriconium series, published between 1971 and 1983, is considered by many as a fantasy classic on a par of any written by his contemporaries, and In Viriconium won the rare accolade of being shortlisted for the mainstream Guardian fiction prize. His non-SF novel Climbers (1989) was awarded the Boardman Tasker Memorial Award for writing about the mountain landscape and climbing. Harrison is a writer for whom the terms 'mainstream' and 'science fiction' lose their utility; his best writing wields the powers of both.
   For the last few years, he has concentrated on non-genre work, but in his latest novel, Light, he combines his SF and mainstream interests in a story of three entangled lives in the far future and the present day. In 1999, mathematician Michael Kearney struggles with the problems of quantum computing, and the forces that drive him to commit random murders, embodied by the ghostly figure of Shrander. In the 25th century, we follow Seria Mau Genlicher, pilot of the White Cat surgically attached to her ship, as she tries to find the origin of a mysterious ancient artifact - the only clue she has is its request for 'Dr Haends' every time she switches it on. Elsewhere in the galaxy, Ed Chianese is on the run from his debts and the murderous designs of the Cray sisters, before he meets the mysterious Sandra Shen. Each of the stories runs independently, but connected symbolically and thematically, before meeting on the surface of a planetoid outside of time.    This is possibly Harrison's finest genre work. Previously, he has never seemed totally comfortable in the genre; much of Viriconium is a critique of the heroic fantasy model, and The Centauri Device reads like hate mail directed at space opera clichés. Light is more confident, using genre conventions without feeling the pressure of the self-imposed limitations that they bring. Additionally, the characters in Light are more dynamic than the self-regarding antiheroes that inhabited his earlier work. Tig Vesicle reminded me a lot of John Truck from The Centauri Device, and I found it interesting when his place - in his home and in the structure of the novel - was taken over by the charismatic thrill-seeker Ed Chianese. It's as if Harrison is tipping his hat to the older work and demonstrating the change of direction.
   That said; the characters in Light are not necessarily nice to know. Ed Chianese, at least, tries to change his feckless lifestyle, but Seria Mau and Kearney are both cold and unappealing. Kearney in particular is a rather loathsome serial murderer, but their darker aspects are a reflection of how the world and the act of living in it has damaged them. All three travel a route that sees them literally and figuratively transported, transfigured by a sort of Gnostic apotheosis that frees them from pains of the world when they perceive its true nature. The tone can be quite dark, but Light is ultimately an optimistic book suggesting that even the most troubled can find peace.
   In Light, Harrison combines the perceptive psychological approach of J.G. Ballard, Will Self and Michael Moorcock's more literary output, with the space operatic flash of Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks and Ken McLeod. It's a great combination and a real pleasure when combined with Harrison's distinctively fluid prose and ear for descriptive metaphor. In short, Light is enjoyable to read, while being challenging and thought provoking. What more can you ask for?

Related items:
tZ  Disillusioned By The Actual - M. John Harrison interviewed by Patrick Hudson
tZ  Climbing To Viriconium: M. John Harrison - author profile [published in The ZONE #4]

Light by M. John Harrison
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