Light: One of NGP’s first audio productions

M. John Harrison Lightscience fiction book reviews M. John Harrison LightLight by M. John Harrison

Michael Kearney is a physicist. He’s also a serial killer. Obsessed with numbers and patterns since he was three, he sees something behind them. Something is there, something dark and ominous that starts to emerge sometimes. He calls it the Shrander and the only way to hold it back is to kill someone. Trying to appease the Shrander, Michael uses Tarot cards and a special pair of bone dice to try to figure out what he’s supposed to do next. He’s also teamed up with a colleague named Brian Tate to study the relationship between mathematics and prophecy.

Three hundred years later, explorers are using the “Tate-Kearney transformations” to navigate the space phenomenon they call the Kefahuchi (K) Tract where ancient alien races have left artifacts from their advanced civilizations. One of these explorers is Seria Mau, who was molested by her father and escaped by transferring her consciousness to a K-ship. Now, as a sentient starship, she presides over a crew of brooding self-aware algorithms as she explores the Kefahuchi Tract. Her brother, Ed Chianese, used to be an explorer, but now he’s a Twink — he lives most of his life floating in a tank and plugged into a virtual reality that he likes better than real life.

These three characters are all connected by the Shrander. What is it, and why is it interested in these humans’ lives? What is the energetic light-spewing singularity that’s located in the center of the Kefahuchi Tract? Explorers who go there never come back.

When I read over my summary of Light, I think this sounds like an awesome book. I picked it up because I’ve wanted to read M. John Harrison for years. Then Neil Gaiman got into the audiobook business and started a new line called Neil Gaiman Presents in which he works with authors, narrators, and Audible.com to produce some of his favorite works in audio format. Light is one of his very first offerings so, naturally, I jumped. While I did admire Harrison’s characterization and writing style, and Julian Elfer’s narration was spot-on (I hope Gaiman uses him again), I did not like Light as much as I thought I would for two reasons.

First, it’s written in that self-conscious Teflon style that’s slick, vague and nebulous, maybe full of symbolism, and you’re never sure you’ve really got a grasp on what’s going on until the end. Or maybe not even then. And you wonder, “Is this book too smart for me? Or maybe I just have to try harder?” This can imbue the story with a heady atmosphere of wonder and mystery, or it can frustrate the reader who’s just looking for a good story. In the case of Light, things only start to clear up in the last few pages, which doesn’t feel like enough pay off. I didn’t read any reviews before I read Light because I didn’t want to spoil anything, but I would have enjoyed the plot more if I’d first read a summary such as the one I wrote above.

I could have overlooked the hazy plot if I had liked M. John Harrison’s characters. Unfortunately, and this is my biggest problem with Light, the characters are all, with the exception of one who dies not long after we meet him, completely unlikable. Neil Gaiman warns us in his introduction that we won’t like Michael Kearney, but he doesn’t mention that we won’t like any of the characters. Perhaps it’s shallow to insist on having some character to admire or root for, or maybe it’s simply a reflection of my own optimistic personality, but I know many readers feel the way I do, so I’ll warn them.

All of the characters have sad, desperate, pathetic lives. Many are suicidal and most have some sort of sexual hang-up. They can’t keep their hands off their own genitals, or they keep presenting their genitals for others to handle. Almost every single sex act (and there are a lot of them) is ugly, animalistic, and devoid of all positive emotion. Sex is about pity, power, self-loathing and grief. There is no beauty, passion, love, or hope here. I think that M. John Harrison’s symbolism with light and the singularity shaped like a birth canal is meant to convey some feeling of hope at the end of the novel, but I just felt drained.

I’m giving Light 3 stars because I admire Harrison’s vivid writing style, there are some cool cyberpunk elements (though some were too similar to William Gibson’s work) and this was a terrific audio production. My issues with Light are due to my own personal reading preferences. I recommend Light to readers who aren’t so small-minded that they insist on liking some of the characters. Meanwhile, I’ll be trying a different novel by M. John Harrison, including another produced by Neil Gaiman Presents.


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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

View all posts by Kat Hooper

2 comments

  1. Neil Gaiman Presents. How awesome is that?

  2. Yeah, I’m looking forward to reading more of them!

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