Light by M. John Harrison

Now this is one of the weirdest ass books I’ve read in a long while. This is not a criticism, just an observation. It’s really defying me to encapsulate the story and themes in 50 words or less, but I’ll try to give it a whirl. Three different plots lines follow three different people in three different times. This is not really accurate either: two of these time periods are the same, or overlap, and one of these people is not really a person anymore, but a sentient space ship working on the purpose for a weirdass alien artifact. The contemporary story follows a serial killer who is working on quantum computing. The third follows a man who has just been dumped out of a tank and is running about in something approximating a Noir plot, but with lots of cyberpunkery as ornament. 

This book made me have a couple revelations about genre, and for that I thank it. I don’t generally enjoy super hard science fiction because it’s really weird and schematic. The authors tend to get their duuuuuude on about concepts, and then they forget about good writing and character and all that. I’m up for this occasionally, as I have humanities-type person aversion to reading about science, so I enjoy hard sf for the narrative wrapper that it puts around scientific thought. I’d rather eat glass than read something written non-fictionally about the Technological Singularity (c.f. Kurtzweil, et al.) but it’s cool as a bit of play in a story. (Also, I know, please don’t freak out, that the TS is more bullshit and masturbation than *actual* scientific thought. It was just the first thing I thought of that I would rather see in fiction than in a treatise or similar.)

Anyway, I think it might be time for a massive digression. I recently watched a pretty fascinating conversation go down on Goodreads between a romance novelist and a reader who doesn’t generally read romance. The author spent a lot of time explaining where she was coming from in terms of the characters, how she was trying to say something about sex addiction within the confines of the romance genre. This got me thinking, why did she confine herself to the romance genre? She talked about the editing process, how her publisher edited pretty hard, and how some things got lost in the mix. Why not try to publish something that would break out of the romance ghetto? 

I’m going to answer my own questions in true asshole fashion. She wrote a romance because that’s the genre she enjoys. I read Light because a friend of mine, who is also an sf nerd, gave this to me for my birthday, and he must have thought I’d enjoy this. And I did. The language is totally killer, slick with a sort of cyberpunky Noir damage, but with these quick sketches which nail character in short, hard strokes. I hadn’t really seen the relationship between Noir and cyberpunk before I read this; the way both tend to rely on hard-luck and the image of the Street; the chase and the mystery; the beauty of the flickering neon and ugly marketing of a gutter-level view on things. 

The code parlors, the tattoo parlors – all run by one-eyed poets sixty years old, loaded on Carmody Rose bourbon – the store-front tailor operations and chop joints, their tiny show windows stuffed with animated designs like postage stamps or campaign badges from imaginary wars or bags of innocent-coloured candy, were already crowded with customers; while from the corporate enclaves terraced above the Corniche, men and women in designer clothes sauntered confidently towards the harbour restaurants, lifting their heads in anticipation of Earth cuisine, harbour lights on the wine-dark seas, then a late-night trip to Moneytown – wealth creators, prosperity makers, a little too good for it all by all their own account, yet mysteriously energised by everything cheap and tasteless. Voices rose. Laughter rose above them.

But then the real heart of this story has to do with sex, and it’s totally uncomfortable and tricky as hell within a genre that doesn’t really lend itself to that. I love science fiction like the brother I never had, but space opera, cyberpunk, doesn’t generally have much to say about early childhood trauma, internalized body issues, sexual abuse. Or if it does, it says it in ways that are stupid and juvenile. (Sorry, science fiction. *arm punch* You know I love you.) Why did Harrison choose to write about this in this genre? Who the fuck knows? But probably because this is a genre he enjoys, and he clearly has fun in it & knows the idiom like a fever dream. 

SPOILERS BELOW

So my mention of the technological singularity in the first part of the review wasn’t a total accident, although my equation it with scientific thought mostly was. Harrison brushed up against the singularity in the almost god-like Shrander, and in the ways that bodies are replaced and renewed, put on ice, cloned, proxied, etc. Science is often a collection of data, but those data are put into narrative by scientific thought and theories; the hypothesis is a story looking for causality. Sometimes I think all the ridiculous “theorizing” that goes on about the singularity – how it is already here, how it will make human life perfect or something, is this strange narrative that says more about our discomfort with our bodies than anything. Harrison kind of rips this apart. Seria Mau becomes disembodied because of childhood sexual abuse, but taking the body away doesn’t take away her trauma. She keeps murdering her human cargo – sorry for this bad phrase, but it kind of works – because they keep having sex. The narrative, fractured though it is, drives her to heal her own fractures and get her body back. Her brother twinks out in a tank, living in stories that play for him in the cliched idiom of the Noir plot, and his non-seeing is part of his not-seeing in childhood, not understanding what was happening to the sister he loves.

END SPOILERS

I guess I’ll just say one last thing, not under cover of spoiler  This book does not make a lot of sense in the end, in terms of plot-lines, and lots of reviews seem to grumble and imply that you need multiple reads to dig it all. Maybe. But I think it’s pretty cool how the symbols just sort of rolled together like the patterns on dice, and didn’t slip-knot into a hard conclusion, but into the impression of a conclusion, the bones held in the hand for the next hard throw. Inside the hand is bones too. Ah.

Review: Glass Houses

I suffer from intermittent insomnia. I go to bed at the usual hour, no problem, and then awake and squint at the clock which reads something between 2 and 4 and think, “Damn.” After I find my glasses, things are clearer, but I’m still awake. The television is no good at this time of night, although I do play a game where I try to count how many stations are running “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials. The record stands at four. (Not that this has anything to do with the review, but this is the thing I don’t get about Joe Francis’s titty empire: if you want to buy porn, then why not just buy porn?)

So I read Glass Housesby Laura J. Mixon in the strange hours between too late and too early, and I was happy for it’s company: not overly taxing, stylish, and driving toward some smaller human truth. My step-mom uses the term “little movies” when she refers to films that set out to accomplish some narrow thing and then succeed; in this way, this book is a “little book.” (And to be clear, this term is not a dig; success on any scale is success, and sometimes art fails because its reach exceeds its grasp.) It was written in the early 90s, and its cyberpunk sensibilities feel worn and frayed, too indebted to its sources to really make the genre new and vital. Mostly, I didn’t mind, but then I like cyberpunk. My real complaint is that the stylishness of the setting, the window-dressing of global warming as global apocalypse, the sense of technology driving the breach between haves and have-nots had little to do with the actual emotional heart of the book. Why dress it as cyberpunk at all?

Our protagonist, an agoraphobic scavenger using a proxy-device, almost rescues a very important man from his rather gruesome death. She steals his newly-written will off of his body, and then decides, due to the assholery of his family, to deliver the will to the rightful heir. Well and good; this will serve as plot. The real story is about her coming to terms with her roommate and sometimes lover Melissa. Her relationship with Melissa is the soul of the book, and the thing I responded to the most, even if the revelations felt forced at times, and the protagonist’s changes incomplete or untrue. I have fallen in love with users. At some point you realize that thee concept of unconditional love is something of a trick designed by people who have been keeping score. It’s not unfair to count the points yourself. 

I say that this is a little book, but I wonder if these things are little at all. It’s hard to say. I read this as my twilight self, companioned by the audible silence of the house and my frustrations with my continued awakeness. This is the odd thing I felt when I finished this book: I might have liked this better had it been billed as young adult, not that I disliked it. It’s fun to complain about marketing; I do it all the time. And I don’t want to fall into the the trap of thinking fiction written for the younger set is somehow smaller and less important. But there is something fundamentally young in the awakenings found within its pages, a young that isn’t naive exactly, but a young that keeps trusting the prostitute she loves despite the obvious metaphorics of her profession. It’s a good first book, worthy of a look at Mixon’s later work. And a good book for the edgy hours before dawn.