Light, M. John Harrison

Gollancz, 2002, 320 pages, C$24.99 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07026-9

I seldom check other reviews of a book before I write the first draft of my own reviews: doing so could compromise the integrity of my thoughts as they’re initially set down. (I have no such qualms checking other reviews between the first and final draft, if only to see if I haven’t missed anything, so it’s not as if I’m a purist about this.) The exception in this case is that I read a lot of reviews about M. John Harrison’s Light well before purchasing the book. It was hard not to, given how the book was uniformly lauded by just about every member of the online SF critic community. From Cheryl Morgan to Matthew Cheney, sfsite to scifiweekly, Light scored reviews that read a lot like “Buy it, read it, it’s the best book of the decade, in fact it’s so good that I’ll never read anything as good, aaargh, I might as well kill myself now.”

Wow. How do you resist such unanimous applause? So I chose not to.

But a caveat came attached to just about every recommendation: Light was a difficult book. A stylist’s book. A stylistic hologram where every sentence was linked to some other part of the novel.

Now this is exactly the kind of warning that would mollify my enthusiasm. I’m not a very patient reader, nor much of a stylist. In fact, years of reading have revealed that I have something like a tin ear whenever prose quality is concerned: I’d rather wade through journalistic prose to get to a dozen ideas than to read twelve finely crafted sentences containing a single concept.

So I set aside an afternoon and waded in Light with a certain amount of apprehension. I ended up satisfied and relieved, though I fear that my own take on the book will prove to be a lot less enthusiastic than the Big Boys (and Girls) of SF Criticism.

Light is made of three strands of story. The first stars a physicist who murders more people than he does science. The second is all about a starship pilot who, in essence, is so melded to the ship that she barely qualifies as human (and flippantly kills even more people than the physicist). The third is about a burnt-out explorer who lives on the run from the mob. The last two story lines take place in 2400; the first in 1999. But they’re all related, oh yes.

The first few pages make it clear that we’re in for a long read despite the book’s short length and big typeface: the density of the prose is quite amazing, and Harrison had honed the prose for maximum efficiency. It’s a style that requires some unpacking, so don’t be surprised to rewind and read a few sentences a few times to understand what’s going on.

And yet, it’s not a bad read. Despite my own problems with fine writing, I had no problems making my way through the book, despite the unpleasant characters, tortured psychodramas and alternating viewpoints. I grew worried that the three strands of the narrative wouldn’t mesh together beyond the obvious ironic value, but the last few pages managed to bring everything in a satisfying whole.

But as I closed the book, I found myself wondering if that was it. Competent, sure. Satisfying, yes, but hardly worthy of all the hype. Re-reading the raves, I belatedly noticed that most reviewers had far more affection for the previous works of Harrison than I did (whereas I approached it as, essentially, a first novel by an unknown author), which probably had something to do with it.

But at the same time, I would myself agreeing with some of the most laudatory statements about things I may have dismissed too easily upon first reading. Light increasingly seems like one of those novels that appreciate with time: You find yourself reflecting on what had seemed like an easy trick at the time and realizing that it was, in fact, fiendishly clever of him. Harrison makes it all appear effortless, even matter-of-fact, but isn’t that the mark of great art; to make it seem natural?

Clearly, my opinion of the book is shifting upward even as I write this. Should Light come bundled with a reader’s guide? Maybe reading a few other reviews could help…

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