Light by M. John Harrison

Iain M. Banks said ‘Light is brilliant’. And of course light is brilliant usually, even dim light. But the light of this novel, the Kefahuchi Tract, a huge asteroid deep in space that has no horizon, is all the aspects of light you can imagine: searing, dazzling, hypnotizing, the expression of more energy than any physics or mathematics can handle, entrancing, splendid, portentous, it sheds light but on what? A search for meaning is what Light is all about, and whilst I can’t pretend to understand half of the science, the fiction is elegant and compelling.

Given an understanding that space and time can be bent, we jump through time seeking only the salient points in our journey to understanding the Kefahuchi Tract. We follow the lives of Kearney, who discovered the possibilities of space travel, in our own time, Seria Mau and Ed Chianese in 2400AD. There is something beautiful about the connections between their stories, all of them somehow unable to connect to the world around them. Seria Mau and Ed Chianese are brother and sister, but they do not meet in the story. Kearney’s partner Tate, goes everywhere with a white cat on his shoulder and it comes as no surprise that Seria Mau’s ship is called the White Cat and that when she sends an image of herself to talk to people, she appears as a white cat. And all three are spurred on by beings whose reality flickers – something best not followed up if you don’t want the plot ruined. But these connections remain physically unfulfilled, as if touching people in any way but on the periphery (and Ed Chianese is a twink when we first meet him, that is someone who lives in a tank and dreams away his life in a kind of 3D video field) were some metaphor for the countless civilizations unable to do anything but sit on the edge of the Kefahuchi Tract, and so Light is marked by both the desire for answers and the pain of loss.

Seria Mau and Ed Chianese lost their mother, how, we are never sure, but there is some suggestion of foul play. Certainly their father is not the benevolent kind. He abuses Seria Mau, gets her to play mother in more ways than one, and Ed Chianese witnesses it. Instead of supporting his sister, he turns his back on her, as she heads off to drive a K-ship, a process that all but destroys your body to wire you to your ship forever. This wiring is called an Einstein Cross and the sacrifical demands of creation, of progress, are reiterated throughout Light.

Kearney misunderstands the shadow creature he sees in the gaps between everything. He thinks it is others he must sacrifice to save himself and so his life can easily translate into the delusional musings of a psychotic serial killer. And again, a ragged, bloody religion rears its head. Light presents us with a kind of belief that leads to a life much more like the saints of Flaubert’s Trois Contes than the two-dimensional heroes of science and religion that we might prefer. Reaching beyond the extremes of the possible is not for the faint-hearted. Seria Mau is just as bloody as Kearney and all of them, save perhaps Ed Chianese, who has to be taught, thirst to play god, the shadow creature most of all.

The Kefahuchi Tract is a new version of the final frontier, something for us to reach towards, as if seeing everything would be, finally, to comprehend. The civilization of conquest does demand sacrifice and often at a cost most are unwilling to sanction. And Harrison is aware of the sexual underplay of this drive as all his characters remain somehow bound to it, indeed Kearney is only granted a full view of the Kefahuchi Tract after his first act of penetrative sex. The heady mix of all of these desires for reproduction, for truth, for love, can be played out with their humanitarian mine fields alight because the space setting of this novel distances us enough from our everyday world to contemplate human nature without such a great risk of offense. I’m not sure if I admire that or am annoyed by it. Perhaps I’m only annoyed that many non-science fiction books are too timid to shine a light into the darkness of our human hearts. This is not to say that all science fiction books do, but perhaps more to say that Light, even though I often felt I had no clue what was going on, is a great book and should be read by more than science fiction enthusiasts. I’m quite keen to finish the trilogy, but next week is Saramago’s Cain. So perhaps in a few weeks’ time.

If you don’t mind getting lost in a book – I mean both senses of that – then give Light a go. It’s illuminating (couldn’t resist). No, seriously, Light is a book that does what I believe real literature should do: Light poses difficult questions about the meaning of life and the causal way in which we strive to view it. If you are looking for where literature is progressing, this is a good place to start.