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– In a universe where there’s only one thing more mysterious than darkness…
It’s difficult to know how to describe this book, let alone pigeon-hole it into any category. Some have described Light – the first novel in M. John Harrison’s Empty Space trilogy – as a work of literary science-fiction, others more a condensed space opera. More recently it has been described as an example of quantum fiction. That is to say, a story that ‘reflects modern experience of the material world and reality as influenced by quantum theory and new principles in quantum physics.’ It is a label that the author seems quite happy with.
The first of three interlocking strands is set in England, 1999, the following two in the post-Earth future of 2400. Pre-millennium, we learn of Michael Kearney – a physicist and serial killer – whose spent all of his adult life running from the Shrander, a mysterious entity complete with a horse’s skull for its head. Michael murders women to keep it at bay but the Shrander’s never satisfied. Involved with his partner, Brian Tate, on a research project that appears ready to break under the weight of its own uncertainty, Kearney keeps running away from the Shrander with his psychologically frail ex-wife, Anna, for company.
Fast-forward to 2400 and Tate-Kearney transformations are used widely for space travel. Human civilisation is smeared across a host of planets surrounding the Kefahuchi Tract, a space-time anomaly described as a ‘naked singularity without an event horizon.’ The K-tract has beguiled every race that has ever encountered it, a phenomenon that takes no notice of conventional physics and where you can expect to find ancient artefacts and alien technology that can’t be understood.
Seria Mau Genlicher pilots her ship, The White Cat, around the K-Tract, the craft bristling with weapons and capabilities beyond most thanks to this abundance of this alien hardware. It’s run by sentient mathematics and algorithms – known as Shadow Operators – that possess a life of their own and which allow Seria to spend much of her time plugged into the ship. She’s just acquired an mysterious artefact that gets the attention of the authorities because it promises the kind of opportunities that humanity has long lusted after.
On the planet below, in the city of New Venusport, ‘twink’ Ed Chianese – a once famous explorer – is washed up and spending his days in a tank playing out clichéd old-Earth scenarios in virtual reality. Ed’s forced back into the real world when his evil debtors come looking for him, chasing his sorry soul into a strange new life as a visionary in the circus. There, he starts a relationship with a genetically modified rickshaw girl by the name of Annie Glyph as he searches for some kind of redemption.
Into this delightfully twisted and surreal pleat of narratives, the reader is left trying to find out how it all might tie together. About halfway through, though, it becomes apparent it probably won’t, at least not conventionally. At best, objects and circumstances mirror over, such as the white cat in Tate’s apartment becoming the name of Seria’s vessel. It is, however, the nature of the Tract, that unites the overriding theme of senselessness throughout.
The pleasure of this novel, then, comes in the craft of its construction. Harrison’s prose is regularly exquisite, operating at a refined level that demands re-reading, sometimes to unpack hidden meaning but often just for the sheer hell of it. Every word is expertly placed and it becomes hard not to wallow in sentences so evocative and poetic, succinct and packed brimming with wonder.
One criticism of the novel concerns a set of characters which are flawed but also rather unpleasant. However, if it becomes hard to develop much in the way of sympathy for the protagonists, the atmosphere is leavened by a shot of dark humour that enhances the sense of anarchy and fun.
The end, as you’d expect from a novel described as the first in a trilogy of quantum fiction, does not end in the traditional sense. By exploring the idea of quantum physics in such a nuanced way, however, Harrison creates a brilliant, vivid and unsettling work that lives long in the memory. It’s the type of book you want to take some time with, because you can’t help feeling it raises the bar – be it for space opera, quantum fiction or anything else – quite considerably.
Have you read Light or any works by M. John Harrison? Please share your comments below, and don’t forget to click on the yellow stars at the top of this post to share your rating (1-5 stars) of Light.
About Reviewer, Ol Wilson
Born in Kenya but raised in England to British parents, Ol wrote comedy and science fiction as a kid before studying Film & Television at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Moving back home to Nottingham, he penned film scripts in the evenings whilst working a succession of day jobs. It was during this time that he rekindled his love for science fiction and started reading and writing it as much as he could.
Ol’s published a number of short stories since, both online and on this website. He also writes reviews for Twisted Scifi.com and continues to work on his forthcoming novel, The Iron Gate. He’s just started working as a freelance proofreader and is currently studying for an accreditation in publishing.
He supports Nottingham Forest, has a love of crazy music and lives wherever he can.