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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


M. John Harrison

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To purchase Light

Title: Light
Author: M. John Harrison
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 320 pages
Availability: Light - US
Light - UK
Light - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : dark, challenging, exuberant science fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A+ 2/11/2002 Iain Banks
The Independent A 9/12/2002 Charles Shaar Murray
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/9/2004 Gerald Jonas
San Francisco Chronicle . 15/8/2004 Michael Berry
TLS A 25/10/2002 Henry Hitchings

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "The ride is uproarious, breath-taking, exhilarating. Sentences flitter and flare into prominences, sudden foci of meaning in the drifts of sparely elegant prose (...) This is a novel of full-spectrum literary dominance, making the transition from the grainily commonplace now to a wild far future seem not just easy but natural, and connecting the minimal and the spectacular with grace and elegance. It is a work of - and about - the highest order." - Iain Banks, The Guardian

  • "Light depicts its author as a wit (...), an awesomely fluent and versatile prose stylist, and an SF thinker as dedicated to probing beneath surfaces as William Gibson is to describing how the world seems when reflected in them." - Charles Shaar Murray, The Independent

  • "Harrison brings an up-to-date sensibility to the hoary conceits of science fiction. (...) What's extraordinary is that Harrison's tale, for all its unflinching candor, succeeds in evoking the sense of wonder that science fiction readers look for in the best of the genre." - Gerald Jonas, The New York Times Book Review

  • "At first, Light proves more than a little daunting, serving up one protagonist who seems utterly reprehensible and a futuristic setting where both the language and the laws of physics seem to have been rewritten. As the book progresses, however, and the reader grows acclimated to its vocabulary and narrative rhythms, the elegance of Harrison's scheme becomes apparent." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The novel's style alternates between terse pointillisme and a lyrical intensity that is almost hallucinogenic. (...) (At) its best, Light is a novel of visionary power, alert both to the discontents of the modern world and the tubercular condition of the future." - Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The first word of Light is "1999:", the second chapter heading is: "Gold Diggers of 2400 AD". There's almost reassurance in this specificity, localizing events, letting readers know at least when (and then also where) they are situated. But in fact, soon enough, uncertainty prevails -- appropriate, perhaps, for a novel that fully embraces the quantum world and offers technology (and more) based largely on it.
       The book is filled with uncertainty: characters acting on what often seems like little more than desperate impulse. There's a restlessness, too: the central characters are always, at least in some respect, on the move -- and often they are clearly fleeing (though it's not always clear what they are fleeing).
       The book alternates chapters, focussing on three different characters. First there is Michael Kearney, a contemporary scientist involved in a privately-funded project that is beginning to show some inexplicable results. Kearney also has some personal demons to deal with -- as well as some trouble with women .....
       Some four hundred years in the future there's Ed Chianese, who suddenly finds that there are lot of people after him. Down on his luck in New Venusport, he continues to manage to get by, somehow, without understanding much of the world he is facing.
       Finally, there is Seria Mau Genlicher, spaceship captain of the White Cat. She has quite remarkable abilities, as she essentially is her ship, connected directly to the mathematics and able to do incredible things. She too is on the run -- and, like the others, less successfully so than she would like.
       Harrison's future isn't, for the most part, that unusual for a work of science fiction. Earth was taken over by the New Men in the middle 2100s -- but in a typical touch something like this is hardly significant, good for a page of some comic relief (in what is -- the title notwithstanding -- a dark book) but otherwise just a minor note in this much larger picture. What Harrison does so well is describe his future-world (and the present one too, for that matter) -- he offers specifics but doesn't bog down in detail, and is able to convey a good sense of these worlds (especially the central Kefahuchi Tract) and all the characters that populate them, while also maintaining a sense of mystery about them. (The mystery and lack of answers can, however, get to be a bit much at times.)
       All -- or most of it, anyway -- is eventually explained, much of it very well: the quantum possibilities, the pair of dice, the connexions between these different stories.
       Light is a dark novel. Atmospheric, too, but mostly dark and desperate, relentlessly, from the shocking first (and what appears to be completely gratuitous) act of violence on. It's a burden for the book: its wearing for the reader to be dragged along with these characters who are running away from what they can't escape.
       But Harrison does keep the reader hooked. His writing is remarkable -- it often seems almost off-hand, so easily does he convey everything (from complex fourteen-dimensional ways of looking at space-time to simple human lust) and move between stories, fates, and ideas. Part of his art is how convincingly his fictional world is a given: many science fiction writers feel the need to construct elaborate worlds, showing readers each piece of the puzzle and too often thus making too obvious how artificial these fictions are; Harrison is certain of his inventions and feels no need to destroy the illusion by justifying them.
       Light is filled with chance and destiny -- elusive and obvious and, for much of the book, simply too much for the characters to grasp. It's difficult material, but Harrison conveys it well. Ultimately, the story is also tied together nicely, as the three strands come together.

       Light isn't a simple, breezy read. It's dense and complex -- but also action-packed and fast-paced. It's an impressive novel, rare proof of what science fiction can be. Recommended.

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Light: Reviews: M. John Harrison: Other books by M. John Harrison under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       M. John Harrison is a British author.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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