What I’m Reading: M. John Harrison – Light

If I was polemically inclined, I would start this post off with saying that Light is Science Fiction for readers with a brain. Since I am not, I would of course never do that, but even so I would like to say that this is one of the more intelligent Sci Fi novels around and that it requires a reader for whom reading is a process of active participation rather than passive consumption to fully enjoy it. I (in case you were wondering) can be either, depending on my current mood and on the book I’m reading, and yes, I enjoyed Light very much, thank you.

Light plays out along three narrative strands that run alongside each other for most of the novel and are brought together only at the very end. At least on the level of plot (of which there is not all that much in the first place), but an even slightly closer look reveals that they are tightly interwoven with each other on the levels of theme and imagery, the most obvious one being probably the repeated mentioning of the Kefahuchi Tract (which gives the trilogy Light is the first part of its name) in each of the three strands. Slightly harder to discern (unless you happen to be a buff at anagram-solving) is the recurring presence of an entity (named “the Shrander” in the present day strand), who during the novel’s finale turns out to have played a central role during events. And there is much, much more, like the gestures of rubbing one’s mouth or face that both Michael Kearney and Ed Chianese use constantly as if they needed to ascertain themselves of their own corporeality. This would make it appear that they in some way have issues with their bodies, maybe even their existence, which ties in with the protagonist of the third strand, Seria Mau Genlicher, who has given up her body to become one with her spaceship and kills humans to create “evidence of herself”. Which in turns contrasts with Kearny’s strand as he is a serial killer, but the bodies he leaves seem to show no evidence pointing towards him at all.

The closer you look, the more interrelations between the seemingly decoherent strands are there to be discovered, there is always another level, another stratum of threads weaving back and forth between them; the effect is almost fractal. This means that the reader has to pay close attention, not just to what is going on in terms of plot but to what is actually written on the page, the words themselves, and also has to do some thinking, if she or he wants to catch even a part of it. This is not gratuitous, not merely self-absorbed puzzle-solving, but Harrison using the means of literary language and literary structure to create something that cannot be conceived of in referential terms.

And I have not even touched on the cultural references this novel is brimming over with, or on my suspicion that each of its three strands may be a pastiche of a different Science Fiction writer (I am really unsure about that part – but Seria Mau Genlicher’s parts seem to owe a lot to Cordwainer Smith, while I was getting some strong Philip K. Dick vibes from Ed Chianese’s strand. I can’t place the Michael Kearney strand with any confidence, though – maybe J.G. Ballard?). There is a wealth of things to discover in this brightly shining novel, and as far as I’m concerned, Light is the best Science Fiction novel  since at least Feersum Endjinn, possibly even since Nova.

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