A singularity without an event horizon. A place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out, like cheap conjuror's stuff, magic that might work or it might not, undependable stuff in a retro shop window. You couldn't make anything of an idea like that, but you couldn't stop trying. You couldn't stop trying to engage it."
Back in 1974, M. John Harrison wrote the incredibly disgruntled deconstruction of the space-opera 'The Centauri Device'. The book is overwhelmingly cynical, and its focus on a desperate down-and-out antihero was refreshing. Instead of SF's standard focus on the heroic square-jawed pioneer, 'The Centauri Device' is explicitly about the disenfranchised, smugglers eking out a marginal living on the fringes of society. Reaching the stars hasn't changed fundamental human nature, with greed and paranoia motivating most of the characters. However, by the end the book collapses in on its own pissiness, with the author killing all his characters and destroying this quarter of the galaxy. After moving on to fantasy and literary fiction, Harrison returned to space opera with 'Light' in 2002. It builds on all the strengths of 'The Centauri Device', but with a more mature perspective. 'Light' is still a book deeply aware of the fundamental flaws in ourselves and under no illusions about our likelihood of overcoming them, but it is more generous in spirit than its predecessor. While it still manages to subvert a good many space opera tropes, at the end instead of ending the game by kicking over the board, Harrison grants his characters some reprieve and his readers some genuine, good old fashioned SF sense of wonder.
'Light' has a complex structure, following three separate narrative strands, one in the present day, two in the 2400s. In the present day strand, physicist Michael Kearney, who will invent the system of physics used to power spaceships in the future, tries to escape the attention of the mysterious and frightening Shrander - the shape of a horse's skull, but with ribbons streaming off of it - by murdering innocent women. One of the 2400 strands follows Seria Mau Genlicher, a girl surgically altered to merge with alien and human technology so she can pilot a K-ship, as she tries to unravel the mystery behind a strange package. The third is about Ed Chianese, a once infamous smuggler turned virtual reality addict on the run from his creditors. All three strands are linked by the Kefahuchi Tract, an impenetrable and uknowable ribbon of space weirdness that deposits untold alien wonders on its shores. At the end of the book, all of these narrative strands come elegantly together, as it is revealed that all three characters are being manipulated by the Shrander, which is the last survivor of an alien race that seeded humanity as a last-ditch attempt to create a race that might be able to investigate and understand the riddles of the universe that they were unable to.
|Like this, but with more ribbons.|
The three main characters of 'Light' are all damaged, at least as much as John Trunk, the protagonist of 'The Centauri Device'. Harrison succeeds in creating three very memorable, complex and well-rounded protagonists, who, while they aren't always likable, are always compelling. Michael Kearney is a brilliant physicist full of potential, and his ability to see links between the randomness of determined patterns and the determined patterns in seeming randomness provides humanity with the conceptual breakthrough that allows them to travel between the stars. However he is completely swallowed up and destroyed by his fear, eventually teeming up with a lunatic to go on a killing spree across Europe. Seria Mau Genlicher decided to abandon her physical body and become part of a K-ship when she was thirteen, following the death of her mother and her abuse at the hands of her father. Although she is now part of a powerful machine capable of operating across 14 dimensions, she is still at heart a lost and frightened girl, liable to lash out, which winds up having lethal consequences for her human crew. It is strongly implied that Ed Chianese is Seria Mau's long lost brother, carrying the same psychological scars, which has driven him to live a reckless life on the edge as a smuggler and eventually leading to his virtual reality addiction.
|Dr. Haends to surgery!|
The Shrander says of Kearney, "Now there was someone who fell back from himself... he was just too frightened of the things he knew." To some extent this describes all the characters, but whereas Kearney is beyond redemption, Seria Mau and Ed Chianese are, at the end, able to escape from their past to some extent. While there is no doubt the Shrander is manipulative, it also seems to deeply care about its human pawns. The events of the story are one long plot to get Ed Chianese in the correct place and frame of mind where he is ready to go and explore the Kefahuchi Tract, something no one has returned alive from. However the Shrander allows Seria Mau to escape from her ship and gain a new corporeal body, and gives Kearney a true moment of peace before his death. The Shrander says to each of them, "You can forgive yourself now," the first step towards acceptance and moving on from the past.
Acceptance is a major theme of 'Light'. As the Shrander says, "There will always be more in the universe. There will always be more after that." Even if humanity are able to understand more about the Kefahuchi Tract than the Shrander's people did, there will always be more things out there beyond human understanding, more than can ever be explored. 'Light' takes issue with the whole idea that the universe can actually ever be understood - it is too large, too varied and weird for that. Early on, Harrison explains what happened during humanity's first encounters with alien civilizations. Apparently every different alien species uses a different kind of faster-than-light drive, built on different and contradictory physical assumptions. While their attempts at understanding the universe have bought them no closer to the truth, the important thing is that they tried - they had that initial interest in their surroundings and the hunger for knowledge that drove them to attempt space travel in the first place. Seria Mau observes,
"Generally, it was impossible to understand the motives of aliens. 'Motives,' she thought, staring at the collection of legs and eyes in front of her, 'are a sensorum thing. They are an Umwelt thing. The cat has a hard job to imagine the motives of the housefly in its mouth.' She thought about this. 'The housefly has a harder job,' she decided."
But 'Light' is fundamentally about our desire to understand our place in the universe, and the universe around us, something shared by all the aliens and humans in the book. Even as they grossly misunderstand each other, use each other or kill each other, they are all held together by this saving grace. As Ed Chianese gears up to delve into the Tract, war is breaking out all around. But he is able to share a moment of empathy with the Shrander because of this universal desire towards greater understanding.