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Review: Light

A friend recently lent me the M. John Harrison novel Light. Sadly, it didn't work for me…

Light comes highly lauded by a variety of sources, and my friend really liked it, so apparently I just don't get it.

Perhaps my problem is more with the works Light borrows from. Imagine an amalgamation of Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Dick's Ubik, Simmons' Hyperion series, and Pohl's Heechee Saga. At least I think you should imagine that. I enjoyed the Heechee, but I hated Cat and Hyperion. I didn't even make it all the way through Ubik, although I enjoy Phillip Dick's work in general. So what do I know?

Perhaps my problem is with the weakish science. It's really difficult to write a good SF novel with any hard science in it these days—it requires mastering esoteric fields. When the implication comes around that the Tarot must be related to quantum mechanics, because they both have randomness and describe the universe, then I get really uncomfortable. In fact, my view of "quantum" has become quite Terry Pratchett.

Although the novel is called Light, and there are many descriptions of and allusions to light in the book, I never quite got why light played such an important role that it deserved the title. Harrison seemed to think that light had something important to do with QM, but never really articulated it well enough to make it interesting.

The book could have been called Cats. Cats and cat metaphors are everywhere. There are times when I curse Schrödinger for putting a cat in the box (with the poison gas!) rather than some less mystical animal. If he had used a rat, would SF have been spared countless gratuitous QM-related animals?

Speaking of gratuitous, the sex, violence and death in Light was definitely in the "yes this is a novel for adults, dammit" range. Serial killers and odd sexual kinks, whee!

Finally, the plot left a lot unresolved. I don't feel like tackling all the plot holes I found, but the ending left me with a lot of annoying questions.

Like I say, maybe it's all just me. But I can't in good conscience recommend Light. If you want a similar but more cleanly written set of novels, I recommend starting with Frederik Pohl's Gateway. Fob