M. John Harrison's Light
True confessions time – I hate The Lord of the Rings. There. I’ve committed it to print and you may now all silently judge my failings as a speculative fiction fan.
A small caveat: when I say that, I’m referring to the original trilogy in book form. The movies, despite the endlessness of the third one, kicked serious heinie, both in terms of visual panache and sheer storytelling. The Hobbit, Tolkien’s prequel to the saga, is one of the books that I read about 400 times as a preteen. I simply could not get enough of Bilbo’s adventures in the world outside the Shire. But the trilogy itself leaves me cold. In the last 30-odd years, I have started The Fellowship of the Ring at least a dozen times. The furthest I have ever gotten is to the bit where we first meet the elves. I have officially given up. Life is too short to force yourself to read books that bore you.
Some might blame my lack of an attention span on TV or video games or ADHD. Those some would be wrong. I have no problem with long books -- hell, I’m trying to convince myself to not read Stephenson’s latest epic again -- I just have a problem with dull books. Call me crazy, but I like things to regularly happen in my stories. It doesn’t have to be a plot-a-whirl, where events spin about with wild abandon. Still, there has to be enough going on that the “what happens next?” question pulls you from page to page. And, for me, LOTR spends too much time dwelling on songs and forests, rather than on what happens in them.
But I also have a problem with Tolkien’s voice, whose lyricism leave me feeling like there is a wall of words between the characters and me. The same holds true with the award-winning China Miéville’s books. Try as I might, I can’t get past the dense lyricism that decorates his pages, like all of the baroque geegaws that adorn certain churches. This is a personal failing, and one that I’ll easily own up to. I deeply enjoy writers who play with the way in which words can be assembled (like the oft-mentioned David Foster Wallace and Tim Powers), but I have little patience with those who take a more Dickensian approach of more being more, of language being mere ornamentation that clutters up the plot. There are readers who dig that. Good for them. I am not one of them.
Which is why I thought I’d hate M. John Harrison’s Light. I’d given up on Harrison before, simply because I found the writing too lyric and, somehow, cold. I caved on Light simply because quite a few writers that I read highly recommended it. Neil Gaiman, Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds can’t all be wrong, can they? No, they aren’t wrong. For the first few chapters, however, I feared they might be. Harrison’s prose verged more on the “tell with great detail, describing every last metaphorical eyelash” rather than on the more direct “show.” For example, from page 2:
Kearney let them go. He lit a cigarette and considered the idea, which rather surprised him. In the moment of articulating it -- of admitting it to himself -- he had recognized how corrosive it was. Not because of the loneliness, the egocentricity, of the image, here in this enclave of mild academic and political self-satisfaction: but because of its puerility.
The paragraph goes on from there. It’s not griping, not even in context. And much of the first third of the book reads like that, despite the dramatic events that take place as the plot ramps up. It’s a study in how removed your characters can be from events that they are the cause of, like everyone in the book is caught in a maelstrom while taking heavy anti-psychotics with Xanax chasers. It’s hard to like characters who are that affectless.
Like Kearney, the aforementioned scientist with A Terrible Secret who is searching quantum theory for answers about “Kielpinski space.” Kearney’s story butts up to that of Seria Mau, who, four hundred years into the future, is the human pilot at the heart of a stolen spaceship and dodging her enemies. In another corner of the galaxy, a drifter, who is more than he appears, falls further into his addiction to alternate realties. At the start, these characters don’t feel like they should be in the same book, but then it all starts to hang together and, at times, approaches brilliance.
Part of what keeps it humming along are Harrison’s fantastic visions of the future, which include mind-blowing carnivals and free-thinking swarms of mathematics and Ph.D-holding serial killers. Once the story really gets started, you can’t help but want to know where it will go next, simply because it won’t be where you’d imagined it would go. And it is the sort of book that leaves you wondering, in the best way possible, what the heck really happened. While all of the plots do resolve, Harrison seems to be pointing to something much grander that requires some puzzlingly out by the reader in order to fully understand. In the end, it makes for a wild, satisfying ride, despite the fact that Harrison’s language still leaves me out in the cold.
Light by M. John Harrison