Phoenixfalls's Reviews > Light

Light by M. John Harrison
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's review
Jul 07, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: aliens, male-author, science-fiction, sf-challenge, space-opera
Read from July 04 to 07, 2010

This is a difficult novel. Harrison's prose is meaty, but that is not where the difficulty lies; his characters are unlikeable, and while that is a challenge, it is not insurmountable. The main difficulty lies in the novel's structure -- much of it is an elaborate smoke screen, ultimately having little to no effect on the resolution. This also makes the novel particularly difficult to review, as its true nature doesn't become evident until the last four chapters, but any mention of what is in those chapters (and what is in those chapters will make or break the novel for most readers) constitutes a giant spoiler.

Alas, I am committed to writing reviews that are as spoiler-free as possible, so I will focus on what the novel focuses on, which is that smoke screen.

The novel consists of alternating chapters from three perspectives, two sociopaths and one junkie. All three are running from something, and most of the novel is spent figuring out what they are running from and what turned them into sociopaths/junkies. In this sense the novel is akin to a character study, and I suspect it will work best for those people who generally like character studies. (I am one of those people, but I will admit it didn't work particularly well for me in this aspect because I'm not a big fan of sociopaths and junkies.) One perspective is set in contemporary England & America, with just enough detail to be immediately recognizable, and the other two are set in 2400 A.D., which is a future with plenty of SF world-building that Harrison spends very little time describing -- the world is catch-as-you-can, and readers who aren't used to hard SF will likely be hopelessly confused at points while readers who are used to these sort of milieus will be able to fill in the blanks fairly easily. There is some action, but most of the novel is spent getting into these peoples' heads.

But at its heart, and despite the first 350 pages, Light isn't a character study. It's a Big Idea story, and its Big Idea is what constitutes the spoiler, so I have to talk around it. The jacket description actually does as much as it can to help readers to that Big Idea -- it doesn't describe the set-up and first act like most jacket descriptions, but instead provides clues to the elements astute readers need to keep track of in order to decipher the resolution. That resolution will determine whether the novel succeeds or fails for most readers, so anyone who attempts this novel needs to be prepared to read it to the end to give it a fair shot, and unfortunately even reading to the end will not guarantee that you will like it. Ultimately, I decided I did not like the resolution Harrison provides, but I get it, and I can see why other people love it, and I will defend his pure craft that went into making this book. This is the rare novel I will recommend despite not having enjoyed it.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Amanda well put!

Phoenixfalls Thanks! This review was hard to write!

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