Rush-That-Speaks (rushthatspeaks) wrote,

Light, M. John Harrison (365 Books, Day 365)

On the strength of two novels, M. John Harrison is really, really high on my list of favorite writers now working. I was blown away by The Course of the Heart, and I am blown away by Light. The ways Harrison uses structure make me cry. Literally.

On the surface, Light is a pretty complicated novel: three-stranded narration with no obvious connections between the strands, at least at first. Kearney is a physicist in late-twentieth-century England, a man broken in complex ways for complex reasons who is running fervently from everything and maintaining a mutually damaging-but-helpful relationship with his ex-wife. Seria Mau Genlicher is a spaceship, her body wired into state-of-the-art-for-the-far-future alien technology-- she can navigate in quantum dimensions and see particles no detector can register, but she desperately wants to be human again. And Ed Chianese, in that same far future, is addicted to a particular form of sensory-immersive virtual reality, and owes money to the wrong people about that.

The two future strands take place on the edge of the Kefahuchi Tract, a singularity so incomprehensible, so powerful, that its entire circumference (the Beach) is one giant layer of the detritus of observation stations from millions of years of now-extinct alien civilizations focused on understanding it. Artificial suns support wormholes aimed into the Tract, entire cultures subsist on the mining of the artifacts that can be found around the rim, the rather dystopian descendants of Earth military forces will experiment on anything or anybody to get one toehold of knowledge farther-- and the one thing that remains true of the Kefahuchi Tract, through the aeons, is that no one who goes into it ever comes out.

The obvious questions, of course, are why the modern strand, and what is actually going on, and whether anyone is going to make it into the Tract; but honestly these are the questions that one would expect to have come together in a moderately competent novel, the things which would break the book if they weren't present. The reason I love this book so much is that Harrison goes so far beyond that. This book is so much more complicated than it initially appears, and beautifully subtle.

For one thing, as he did in The Course of the Heart he is still working with myth. There's a white cat/black cat motif running through the book that is, I think, a loaded allusion to the old fairytale of the White Cat. It's no coincidence that Seria's ship's name is White Cat and her middle name is Mau, she the transformed lady, looking for the prince to turn her back again: then the fairytale eats itself, in a way that also serves as a beautifully upraised middle finger to Anne McCaffrey's Ship Who Sang books, and I laughed even as I sympathized and winced. (Those books deserve it.)

There's also a well-placed haunting that made me blink because the last time I saw that particular folkloric beastie it was in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, which is not what one might expect. The image works without knowing that set of folklore, I think, but the resonance made the entire thing spine-deep effective for me.

And in addition to the echoes and allusions and the outright criss-crosses between strand and strand, this is also one of those novels in which the strands parallel each other; the three protagonists are going through the same journey in some ways, and being asked the same question, and pass through geographical locations and encounters that are suspiciously similar to each other but different in outward detail and in the ways that the characters react. There is a set of scenes where two of the threads are at a place called Monster Beach, and they are not the two threads you would expect. That sort of thing. I think, based on the two books I've read of his, that Harrison loves this sort of deep underlying parallelism, throwing different types of characters at the same thing to see what they do, and I love him for it. (He also has a dislike of pretention that I am pretty down with; in both novels there's a self-described magician who dies in a totally pointless way after making nothing of his life, and each magician is tagged as one of the five best magicians in London. Am now vaguely wondering whether he kills the other three off as background in other books. I would find that really kind of hilarious.)

So yet again, this is an intricate, precise, beautiful, layered, caring, wise, sympathetic, funny novel which I enjoyed immoderately and which a lot of the reviewers seem to think is really depressing for reasons that totally and completely escape me. I think I like The Course of the Heart better because secret histories and magic ping me harder than space opera, but they're about equal in technical virtuosity, and I'm really looking forward to Nova Swing. (Light ends satisfyingly as a stand-alone, but for thematic reasons requires a sequel; it's the white cat book and needs a black cat book to go with it. I will be interested to see whether the rest of the motifs invert or reverse or what.)

And that's a year. Thank you all very much for reading. It means a great deal to me that so many people have read and enjoyed these reviews. Later in the week I hope to run some numbers on things like how many books I tagged as what genre, and maybe some general reflections on what the whole experience was like; in about a month, when I can stand to think about it, I'll start putting a manuscript of the reviews together, in hopes that someday they'll appear in book form. Here on this journal I will definitely keep reviewing books, when I come across books I would like to review-- it simply won't be as frequent, and I'll have more time to write about movies and travel and some other things that have gotten totally sidelined in the past year. And I'll keep writing reviews for Strange Horizons and linking to those as they go up.

Again, thank you. Without the book recommendations, boxes of books in the mail, encouragement, factual research, people who actually came to my reading at Readercon, and endlessly enjoyable comments this would have been a much more difficult and much less enjoyable thing to do. As it is, I'm glad it's over, I'm glad I proved to myself that I could do this, and I did enjoy a lot of it-- though it was a lot of work.

I'm going to go reread The Book of the New Sun. And see if my brain can process the idea of not writing a review tomorrow.

Happy birthday, me, from my past self. I picked a decade-closing year for this, birthday to birthday. It was a good birthday present and I'm glad I thought to give it.

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Tags: 365 books, author: harrison m. john, genre: f/sf

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