Michael Kearny is a particle physicist working on developing quantum computing. He’s also a serial killer haunted by a horse-headed apparition he calls the Shrander. Ed Chianese is a washed-up space pilot, a ‘twink’ in 2400-AD New Venusport who’s addicted to simulated reality tanks. Seria Mau is captain of the K-Ship White Cat, irreversibly plugged into her ship and controlled just as much as the ship is by the ‘mathematics’ that allow it to traverse the shoals of the Kefahuchi Tract — a black hole without an event horizon. The fate of these three lost souls is woven together in British SF author M John Harrison’s novel Light, Book One of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy.*
If Light sounds deliriously disorienting, it is at first. But don’t be put off. The best science fiction thrusts readers into worlds that defy mundane understanding, but the skilful writer feeds readers enough to enable them to make sense of this fictional reality. That’s exactly what Harrison does here, and the Michael Kearney chapters, set in London in 1999, provide early relief from the more outlandish episodes of Ed Chianese lying in his rented reality and Seria Mau moving through dimensions we don’t have a name for yet.
There’s a quiet desperation that suffuses Light. Kearney is desperate to avoid the Shrander, constantly on the move and killing to buy himself time whenever he feels the frighteningly strange life-form moving closer. Ed Chianese and Seria Mau inhabit a future where the initial exuberance of space flight has been all but spent on the shores of the Kefahuchi Tract. All progress seems to have halted. Humanity is content to trawl through the detritus of long-dead space-going civilisations hoping to profit from the technology it finds — or at least not obliterate itself. And all the while the Tract gleams above them, a deadly place that no one has yet been able to penetrate. This is the same kind of desperation Frederik Pohl portrayed in his award-winning novel Gateway, where ‘pilots’ played the Heechee Lottery by boarding fully automated alien ships hoping they’d be taken to untold riches, or at the very least a short round trip to nowhere before the air ran out.
It sounds like an uninspiring narrative, but desperate as they are, the characters in Light are not defeated. They still strive. In that respect Harrison’s work shares a lot with the novels of Phillip K Dick, illuminating humanity in the face of the dehumanising, and downright alien. And, as with Dick, the future Light shows us, while strange and nightmarish at times, is one that still contains hope: the Tract may not be as impenetrable as it seems.
The connection between Kearney, Chianese and Mau is also central to the story, and Harrison deftly weaves linking references through the different narrative strands in a dreamlike way, enabling readers, almost subconsciously at times, to make and reorder connections as we move towards the novel’s revelatory climax.
Winning the Tiptree Award and making the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke and British Science Fiction awards, Light isn’t a typical space-opera narrative which, at the lower end of the science fiction scale, tends to concern itself with alien threats and blowing stuff up. Harrison’s writing is by turns worldly and hallucinogenic and consistently entertaining. Time and memory shift and change. People are not who or what they appear to be. Intentions are misinterpreted with far-reaching consequences. Dead-end jobs are anything but.
Light is a story of reversal and redemption, with more to say about the human condition than a lot of modern speculative fiction. In a sense it’s a throwback to the more psychological speculative fiction of the 1970s, but as it’s written with a modern sensibility it’s far more accessible to the mainstream reader.
*Book Two, Nova Swing, and Book Three, Empty Space, are currently teetering on my virtual Kindle nightstand.
M John Harrison Light: Book One of the Kefahuchi Tract Gollanccz 2007 PB 418pp $19.99
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