Scuzzily Stylistic

light-m-john-harrison-paperback-cover-artM. John Harrison’s 2002 SF novel Light follows three main characters, one in 1999 and two in 2400: the modern-day quantum physicist Michael Kearney, haunted by a mysterious entity called the Shrander that can only be held at bay by murder; Chinese Ed, a 25th-century down-and-out pilot addicted to virtual reality; and Seria Mau, a woman who has a touchy symbiotic existence as/with the space vessel the White Cat.

On the novel’s Amazon detail page, you’ll find a whole slew of one-star customer reviews complaining that the author tosses around a lot of unfamiliar terms and concepts without much explanation. This is undeniably true:

Seria Mau had the data piped into her tank in the form of a signature diagram and studied them. What she saw was limited by the White Cat’s ability to represent ten spatial dimensions as four: an irradiated-looking grey space, near the center of which you could see, knotted together, some worms of spectral yellow light, constantly shifting, pulsing, bifurcating and changing colour. Various grids could be laid over this model, to represent different regimes and analyses.

But a paragraph like this is less half-assed info dump than evocative impressionism. For a reader willing to dwell in uncertainties and to trust a writer’s intentions (and if you’re not willing, why are you reading novels?) the passage shouldn’t be particularly traumatizing. Even if you can’t tell exactly what’s going on, you can see that he’s trying to convey the sense of a suite of complicated technologies that can do complicated things.

The complaint ultimately seems to be that he doesn’t engage in enough worldbuilding. Harrison has famously stated his opposition to the dense, detail-heavy worldbuilding in SFF, calling it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”, and he has made eloquent pleas for its demise. But it’s indisputably the ruling dogma among SFF fandom right now, and a writer spits in its face at his own reputation’s peril.

Aside from that, though, a passage like this sounds right. Why would you want the concepts he alludes to vivisected for your understanding, even if they could be? I don’t want to know what he means by “regimes” any more than I need explained to me the intricacies of a sentence like: “Somewhere off in its parallel mazes, the Beowulf system began modelling the decoherence-free subspace — the Kielpinski space — of an ion-pair.” This is meant to be the bleeding edge of applied physics. Ignoring the question of whether it’s actual real-world science, it would be dispiriting if it was something that could easily be broken down for the layman, and it would work against the book. Technology in SF should always have a bit of bullshit built in — though Harrison isn’t necessarily a proponent of hard science fiction either:

Space was big, and the boys from Earth were awed despite themselves by the things they found there: but worse, their science was a mess. Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything. If your theory gave you a foamy space to work with — if you had to catch a wave — that didn’t preclude some other engine, running on a perfectly smooth Einsteinian surface, from surfing the same tranche of empty space. It was even possible to build drives on the basis of superstring-style theories, which, despite their promise four hundred years ago, had never really worked at all.

This is almost a cheerful two-finger salute to the hard SF movement (another very vocal subset of fandom) and it made me laugh out loud. Fiction can do this, man, he seems to be buoyantly declaring. A novel is not a textbook.

The colon in that passage’s first sentence, used where a semicolon or dash would conventionally be, is pure Martin Amis. There’s a fair sprinking of Amis here, and William Gibson is obviously a huge influence as well: we get a lot of brittle-yet-tough characters and dialogue, as well as a distinctly scuzzy, down-at-heel aura — for instance, when Chinese Ed comforts an apparently dying female rickshaw driver who suddenly comes back to life:

“You were dead,” Ed whispered.

She shrugged. “Too much speed. I can fix that with more speed. You wanna go somewhere?”

Ed got up and backed away.

“No thanks.”

“Hey, climb in, man. It’s free. You got a ride.” She looked up at the stars, then slowly around at the waste ground, as if she wasn’t sure how she came to be there. “I owe you, I can’t remember why.”

This is a rare sentimental scene in the novel — really, almost an iconic narrative sentimental moment, ministrations to a dying lost cause. It’s reminiscent of Bill Murray’s character tending to the old homeless man in Groundhog Day, or e.e. cummings’s poem “a man who had fallen among thieves”:

Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars

And there really is a lot of puke in this book. Nearly every chapter has someone throwing up from emotion, or G-induced nausea, or just to punctuate a particularly dry passage. The novel starts to feel like a sort of sequel to Viriconium, Harrison’s earlier classic of the genre: Vomitorium. Possibly it’s intended as an internal echo across characters and settings, like the shred of tobacco various characters remove from their lips — but it seems more like a cheap and unnecessary effect to both heighten the emotional import of a scene and emphasize the incessant scuzziness of the milieu.

The Gibson influence really is a bit of a shame — the style and settings start to feel awfully derivative and “post-cyberpunk” early in the proceedings. But Harrison has literary chops without a doubt. His dialogue, when it’s not influenced by Gibson’s noirish pasticherie, is allusive without being willfully gnomic, especially in the modern day scenes with the quantum researcher/serial killer Michael Kearney and his ex-wife Anna. And almost every paragraph holds a striking metaphor or image:

He saw himself driving through the heartlands trying to read a Triple A map in the dark; or staring out of a train window like someone in a Richard Ford story, someone whose life has long ago pivoted onto its bad side and is being held down by its own weight.


Fierce annular shockwaves in no detectable medium were spilling back along the White Cat’s course. They were the colour of mercury. A moment or two later she reached the point where Einstein’s universe would no longer put up with her, and vanished.

Despite some painfully familiar SF tropes (the advanced tech left behind by a long-dead alien intelligence, as well as a few other tropes the listing of which would spoil the book’s ending) and a somewhat derivative narrative texture, Harrison’s filigree prose style and literary sensibility come together to make Light a very enjoyable read.

Stray observations:

  • The Shrander feels very, very similar to the Shrike from Dan Simmons’s Hyperion (at least to someone who only read the first twenty pages of Hyperion before getting a dodgy feeling and turning to the last page to confirm that that instinct was sound).
  • Presumably it’s intentional, but Harrison misspells Alcubierre as Alcubiere.
  • There’s an interesting continuity error where Valentine Sprake’s sister first has “olive skin”, then later “very white skin”.
  • Proteome might now be my favorite word, to the point where I would rename this blog with some sort of variation on it if I weren’t so lazy. I get the feeling it’s also one of Harrison’s favorite words, along with actinic, protino, and throw up.
  • The serial killer angle ultimately feels very sensationalistic and unnecessary — Kearney never really explains why he believes it will stop the Shrander, and the Shrander seems baffled by it as well.