Like chocolate ice cream, space opera is a flavor of science fiction that seems will always be. Churned out in endlessly formulaic fashion, there is no end to the “new” titles appearing. Barry Malzberg deconstructed space opera in 1974with his superb Galaxies. But more a work of meta-fiction, one might say he cheated by depending heavily on means beyond pure fiction. With M. John Harrison’s Light (2002), however, no such complaint is available. Creator of The Centauri Device and the Viriconium sequence, what better a writer to use the tools of the sub-genre to expose underlying realities in superb story?
Split into three strands (united in strange fashion at the denouement), Light is told across light years (literally and figuratively) of time and the universe. The opening story is present day London and tells of Micheal Kearney, a brilliant scientist in public and psychotic in private. Caught in a troubled relationship and burdened with visions of a demonic thing he calls the Shrander, murder and his bone dice seem his only comforts. Seria Mau is a K-boat captain. Giving up her humanity to be able to pilot the esoteric piece of Kefahuchi alien tech, her physical form resides in a tank connected virtually to the real world via wires and cables. Almost a perfect place to hide, she is on the run from several Galactic entities, but perhaps mostly herself. And lastly is Ed Chianese. Once a daredevil space pilot, he now lives his days in virtual reality tanks—and over his ears in debt because of it. When people come knocking to collect, something’s gotta give.
Light is a novel that feels years in the making. Firstly there are numerous references to science fiction of yesteryear, from the yellow rubber duckies of PKD to the characters of Samuel Delaney, the indecipherable alien tech of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic to a general cyberpunk feel of Gibson, Cadigan, and others in certain scenes. Secondly is the understanding of not only the space opera aesthetic, but the evolution of it, specifically to create something at the very peak of the sub-genre’s uniqueness. (Only Iain Banks’ Culture series is comparable.) And lastly, the prose is honed down to a bone shine, the wording masterful.
Interestingly, Light was winner of the 2002 James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award. The reasons not obvious at first blush, delving deeper, however, particularly into the story parallels between Sheldon/Tiptree Jr.’s work and the Harrison’s, and similarities begin to appear. Kearney’s menace toward women and outright murder of them has echoes of “The Screwfly Solution,” particularly the Cult of Adam. Seria Mau’s story, about a young woman sexually abused as a child and now a paranoid recluse running from everything and everybody, has more than a few twinges of “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” I probably never would have made the connection between Light and Tiptree Jr., but once the award was given, the echoes of Tiptree Jr.’s work are apparent. An interesting potential difference, however, is that the underlying paranoia which appears part of Tiptree Jr.’s own personality appears only as part of Harrison’s characters, the underlying narrative oriented differently.
In the end, Light is a superb novel that both deconstructs and embraces the concept of space opera, or, as as Jeff VanderMeer states in his brilliant review of Light, “I cannot think of a SF novel in recent memory that has both mocked the stereotypical ‘sense of wonder’ and yet simultaneously created a sense of wonder.” (Dear reader, my apologies for linking to VanderMeer’s review at the end of my review rather than the beginning. Do go read it now, as it is miles better.) Generally not belying the title (though the ending does justify it), Light is a dark novel that lurks in oft-unexplored shadows and recesses of the human psyche, all through a space opera aesthetic that is bar none. The prose perfect word after word, Harrison’s sensawunda is as sharp as his observations on humanity.