Remain in Light
Light, by M. John Harrison I love Neil Gaiman. Mind you, I don't worship the parchment he writes on (Neverwhere had a bit of the bloat, and there were one or two dogs in Smoke and Mirrors), but he sits squarely in my category of Authors I Read So I Can Do Better Next Time. So when Neil Gaiman calls something "A remarkable book -- easily my favorite SF novel in the last decade, maybe longer", I listen up. I buy. I read. And Gaiman is in good company. Similar effusions abound in the first few unnumbered pages: from Stephen Baxter ("The first classic of the quantum century"), Iain Banks, China Miéville. Given that we live in an age where Margaret Atwood feels it necessary to disavow all connection with us SF geeks, Miéville's quote is worth repeating: M. John Harrison proves what only those crippled by respectability still doubt -- that science fiction can be literature, of the very greatest kind. Yay! Of course, he goes on to say that Light "puts modern fiction to shame" (I can't argue with him there) and "It's a magnificent book." Ahem. (You remember what ahem means, don't you, my minions?) Light is the sort of book that makes a satirist's fingers twitch in eager anticipation of a keyboard. Sixty pages into it, I began scribbling reminders on a post-it note: every last one of Harrison's stylistic tics which, if the Harry's Bar and American Grill folks ever tire of Hemingway and discover Harrison, will enable me to write one rippingly good lampoon. But you thought you were reading a book review. Light weaves the stories of three characters. Michael Kearney, a PhD researcher whom we discover on page 3 to be a not very nice man*, is pursued by the Shrander, a supernatural being from whom Kearney stole a pair of dice. Four hundred years later, Seria Mau Genlicher is a woman who has given up her humanity to merge with a K-ship, a primo-bitchin' enough craft that you would give up your humanity, too, if you had the chance. Lastly we meet Ed Chianese, AKA Chinese Ed, a pilot-adventurer whom we are given to understand has BEEN THERE, DONE THAT to such an extent he now seeks his kicks dreaming in a tank. Like Kearney, Seria Mau and Ed are also on the run: Seria Mau, by a pack of thoroughly creepy aliens; Chinese Ed, by the Cray sisters, a nasty pair whose names, I suspect, are meant to stir memories of the Brothers Kray. All of their paths lead to the Kefahuchi Tract: a thousand lights out of the galactic Core, the Kefahuchi Tract streams across half the sky, trailing its vast invisible plumes of dark matter. It's a mysterious region where physics ain't quite right, and where pirates like Seria Mau and plunderers like Ed love to hang out. The Kefahuchi Tract is one of the marvels and victories of this novel, largely because Harrison doesn't bother to spell it all out. Harrison is a show, don't tell kind of guy (a plus), and he puts due effort into character development (also a plus). He knows how to instill a sense of wonder. He can sometimes turn a phrase that is so pristine and elegant you'll want to weep. So, why am I pissed? It's those stylistic tics. Harrison isn't the kind of guy who believes in invisible prose. Words like cheongsam, aubade, and etiolated draw attention to themselves, particularly when they are repeated over and over again. Within a single line of dialog, phrases are often repeated again and again. (Sure, people talk like that, but it doesn't make for good dialog.) Characters call each other by their full names. Adverbs abound. Uneven lists abound. The stupidest things happen during sex. (Okay, I'll grant him that one.) Weird noises filter in like Vonnegut's pooteeweet: "Yoiy Yoiy Yoiy." "Er Er Er." I mean . . . huh? Various constructions keep reappearing like kudzu -- for example: She said (line of dialog). She said (line of dialog). Some constructions only have to show up once to be irksome. What happened was this: And so I ask you: do you have to be a writer to find this kind of thing annoying? Am I being (gasp) overly sensitive? Or am I simply in a jealous rage? There's so much goodness in Light. So much that makes you want to tip your hat, curtsy, clap your hands, you name it. Why did Harrison have to ruin it by shoving himself so firmly into view? Someone as obviously talented as Harrison could easily take the next step and tone himself down. Wasn't it Elmore Leonard who said, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it"? Before folks start egging me for wanting to turn M. John Harrison into Elmore Leonard, let me explain where I'm coming from -- what I consider the ideal of fiction. John Gardner is my guru. Gardner writes that fiction is a consensual dream, one shared between the author and his readers. Although this will brutalize Gardner's delightful words, I'll summarize: whatever promotes the dream is good; whatever breaks the dream is bad. Final verdict: I'm not sorry I bought Light. I'm not even sorry I read it. I may very well reread it. But . . . damn. D. *I promised myself: no spoilers this time.