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.

I Wish Someone Like Me Lived in This World: Leviathan Wakes

As a reading experience, I loved Leviathan Wakes. I was sick when I started, looking for the literary equivalent to a Law & Order marathon. Space opera is the police procedural of the science fiction world, and this one has an actual police procedural embedded within. It’s a galactic billiards game, the ordinary made extraordinary through the right place, right time, a bunch of forensics/technology, a lot of fragility of life just on this side of the hard vacuum of space. I mean, gee whiz. 

There’s a Jim Anchower article, Jim being one of the “columnists” for the Onion, that describes Star Wars: Attack of the Clowns as “like watching C-SPAN on some other planet” – a bunch of boring imaginary politics playing out in the most expository way possible. Space opera can fall into this so, so easily. The ships embody the engines of society, and authors get caught up in the schematics, reading out the blueprints. Look at this nifty pinball game I made! That’s not what happens here. The characters here are more types than actual people, true, but the cultures they inhabit, they were well sketched. This is an alien-less environment (for the most part) – so the conflicts are between people, in social terms: the Belters, several generations out living in low-g on Saturnine moons or asteroids, stretched by weightlessness, grousing about tariffs and taxes imposed by the colonizing Earthers or Martians; the freedom-fighters/terrorists; the subtle pull of cultural gravities in different places. 

As befits a dual-author novel, this pings back and forth between two pov characters: a space ship captain cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Reynolds, with more high-handedness and less Han Solo, and a noir-ish cop who getting to old for this shit. The individual sections tend to be beautifully arced, little vignettes which build from one of those “he didn’t know that his day could get any worse” and then ramping up furiously until you hit the next commercial break section totally leaned in, freaking out. Maybe it sounds like I’m making fun of this, and I am just a little, but affectionately so. There is something to be said for this kind of masterful genre writing, the guns laid onto the table in deliberate, methodical gestures, and fired one at a time, hitting their targets with a casualness that belies study, and lots of it. Bew bew! The book is masterfully plotted, and absolutely joyful to read. 

But, two things stuck in my craw starting at about half-way point. Miller, our exhausted, alcoholic Belter cop who is in over his head, leaves the culture which props up his personality – types, as I said, more than people – and at this point his character falls apart for me. His motivations become laughable, his psychology almost literally unreal. You cannot take a type like Miller out of his world, because he is his world or the lens on it, the situated observer, the commentary though moving mouthpiece. And his relationship with Julie is squicky in a way I can’t put my finger on, but in a way that dovetails into my next complaint.

At about 3/4 through, two women have a conversation about going to the bar and playing a game together, and then have some teasing fun. This is (I’m pretty sure) the only conversation that keeps this entire 600ish page novel from failing the second two parameters of the Bechdel Test – and that just barely, because this was not a necessary or meaningful exchange. Now, yes, the Bechdel Test was developed for movies, and failing the test does not mean the book sucks. There’s all kinds of situations that fail the Bechdel Test because they are small, personal stories that take place with limited characters. But a tumbling active story taking place all over an entire freaking solar system? It is incredibly discouraging to me to find yet another fictional solar system in which women are only love interests or ball-busting superior officers, vague individuals in a universe peopled by men almost exclusively. Miller’s relationship with Julie, in this context, seems like that shitty thing where a girl becomes an emblem, a chit in a psychological game that moves a man, because a man is what moves. I don’t think I’m supposed to heart Miller and the way this plays out, but it doesn’t feel good to read. 

I don’t want to come down on this too hard or act like this book is somehow anti-feminist or anti-woman. It just feels like in riffing on these traditionally boys-only genres – the police procedural, the space opera, the cop show – no one bothered to notice the boys-onlyness. And there are, to make up for this lack, a pretty subtle sense of politics and societal tendencies, and vomit zombies. Vomit zombies! I’m not going to explain, because explanations is spoilers, yo, but the vomit zombies were part of a general inventiveness and genre-specific yee-haw! that I really enjoy reading. This is a first in a series, I am given to understand, and although this one ties off in a way that doesn’t dot-dot-dot to the sequel, I would totally read the next one. Gee whiz! 

Edit: I’m feeling a little defensive for bringing up the Bechdel test, for no good reason, because it’s not like anyone has called me on it or something. I went and looked at the books on my space opera shelf, and at least half of them fail this test, as far as I can recall. It’s a pretty common thing. The names thing is little easier to pass in books, because it isn’t hard to name a female character on the page, even if she is throwaway and tangential. The rest though – that happens much less frequently. I would just like us all to image a boy version of the Bechdel test, where we look for a book that fails that, a book where there are not two male characters who have names, they don’t talk to each other, and when they do, they only talk about women. Can you think of even one book or movie that fails this test? I don’t think so. And sure as shit, you can’t think of a hundred.