[GUEST REVIEW] Niall Alexander on ‘By Light Alone’ by Adam Roberts
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a world where we can photosynthesise sunlight into energy with just a new do, the rich are richer, and the poor poorer, so when the daughter of an affluent family on holiday in a resort surrounded by slums disappears, her parents fear the worst. A rescue effort is mounted, with no expenses spared, but it comes to nothing. A year later, however, the girl is returned…
PROS: Adam Roberts’ prose is as sharp and smart as it’s ever been; his vision of class warfare a century hence is quite incredible yet completely credible; and his characters, though they are almost all horrible, seem truthful, too.
CONS: A seemingly superfluous middle third lets the side down some, and careful readers will see the rug-from-under revelation of the last act coming a mile off.
VERDICT: A Sterling specimen of standalone, satirical science fiction, brilliantly conceived and beautifully composed.
So what do we have here?
Well, we have the haves, and the have-nots. But do we ever! In the too-close-for-comfort futurescape of Adam Roberts’ eleventh novel, a breakthrough in genetic engineering – whereby anyone can take a pill to live forever after on sunlight alone – a breakthrough intended to bridge the gulf between the rich and the poor, once and for all, has only, perversely, served to widen the divide. Since the advent of photosynthetic hair, the haves have had more, and the have-nots have had to make do with even less.
A new order, same as the old order, has arisen in the world.
Now: there are the shorthairs, and the longhairs. The rich, who shave their skulls as a symbol of their status and eat exceedingly expensive hardfoods such as “shredded swan in yoghurt,” (p.23) and the poor, who are treated still more abominably than they were because – what with the cost of living now that no-one need eat at an all-time low, which is to say nearly nil – there is no longer a perceived need for a living wage. Thus the revolution is not televised. The revolution doesn’t even make it onto the radio.
“That’s the thing, actually. Understanding that nothing changes changes everything. There’s no such thing as revolution. Revolution is just another way for things to stay the same. So, there were a few years of violence, but quick enough things settled down into a new pattern – a variation of a very old pattern. The oldest pattern, I suppose.” (pp.87-88)
By Light Alone begins far from home, with a well-off family holidaying on the ice cream ski slopes – seriously – of a resort where longhairs have a barely negligible presence; there but for the grace of the shorthairs they serve… shorthairs who have little grace in any case. Among them, George and Marie have precious little to do with their children Ezra and Leah whether they are in New York or not, but they are, all the same, ever-so-slightly inconvenienced when their eldest daughter is kidnapped, no doubt by some nefarious poor people.
George and Maria make a fuss – but of course they make a fuss! With their utter ignorance of the world, never mind how it works, an almighty flap and a fuss is all they can make – alas, little comes of their efforts, not to mention (though they often do mention) their expenditure. Leah is simply gone, and a year later, the unhappy couple’s harrowing experience has become no more than a story for them to tell: an anecdote they’ll surely share over cocktails, certain to win them sympathy for their plight, and of course admiration for their superhuman strength, to have lived through such a thing. Can you imagine?
At this point, inevitably enough, Leah is finally found. All the money George and Maria have poured into locating the subject of the greatest story they’ll ever tell – for want of anything better to do about her inexplicable abduction than spend spend spend – has bought the parents a new daughter. But the Leah that returns from the slums around Mount Ararat seems much changed from the girl they lost… oh, a lifetime or so ago.
Gollancz sells Adam Roberts as “one of the most important writers of his generation,” and on the strength on By Light Alone alone – never mind last year’s New Model Army, or Salt, or Gradisil – it’s a sentiment I’m given to agree with. He might not be quite so experimentally inclined as China Mieville, nor so winningly English as The Prestige’s Christopher Priest, but in the space he occupies, which borders on the territories of both the aforementioned authors, Roberts stands head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries, pushing this and that genre every which way but loose, year in and year out. For shame, I have not, I confess, read them all, but no two of the novels of his that I have read have been in the least alike, except insofar as I’ve found them all alarmingly literate books about the little people the Big Ideas of science fiction affect.
By Light Alone is every inch an instance of that; that focus on narratives caught up in characters rather than one or the other, or one and the other the other way around. On this occasion, out story is told from four distinct points of view. In the first, George – of George and Marie fame – slowly but surely comes to terms with the loss of his daughter, and the meaninglessness of his life without her. He awakens from the witless bliss of his ignorance like the light after a long night, and begins to engage, to a certain extent, with the wider world of Earth about a hundred years hence. George takes baby steps away from the boundaries of his ivory tower; and we are delighted to take up his pace, to become acquainted, as he does, with this place, which few could truly embrace.
Our view is of course obscured in book one of By Light Alone, and in books two and three it is similarly, if differently restricted. Having had her homecoming, Leah is first to inherit her father’s third-person perspective. Her chapter, as short as it is sweet, all explosive energy and limited insight, comes as a real relief after the agonising languidness of George’s POV, but Leah has her secrets, too; her secrets, and her lies. Speaking of which, Marie: Marie, who in the third part of By Light Alone drowns her sharply observed sorrows in an affair with a ghastly manchild who thinks himself a spy. Marie, whose dogged pursuit of happiness – or happiness as she sees it, or as she sees other people see it – leads her to fall further and further from the world, tumbling end over end down and around the rabbit hole just as George seeks to clamber up out of its immeasurable depths.
Luckily enough, the other most substantial book of By Light Alone, beside that which we spend in George’s exasperating company, also so happens to be the novel’s other most remarkable part, for in the last of this dazzling narrative’s four fragments – a single breathless, desperate chapter, 150-odd pages long – we meet Issa, the adolescent sex-slave of a Walla in the slums a world away from new New York. There is more to this emaciated innocent than meets the eye: but for the inexplicable conviction that she is some sort of Queen, Issa’s memories are in tatters, and her mind in kind.
It is alas impossible to talk much about Issa’s story without tainting one of By Light Alone‘s most potent moments – though Roberts telegraphs this twist a touch transparently – but suffice it to say that while we begin on the inside, with George, then Leah, then Marie, the monster, we end, instead, on the outside; moreover we end on the outside looking in, remembering (not exactly fondly) what it was and how it felt to be on the inside, looking out.
By Light Alone begins, I think, brilliantly, with a credibly incredible world one part WALL-E and one part F. Scott Fitzgerald, filtered through the lens of a man amidst the great and terrible crisis that is mid-life – so that most mid-class catastrophe – in a future not so very far-flung from our era. By Light Alone begins, then, in a manner of speaking (not to speak of eating), with a man who has, and it ends with a girl who has not, with a firework flash and a blinding bang. The middle sags somewhat; I can see no other reason for Marie’s chapters, and to a lesser extent Leah’s, than balance. Indeed I began to feel as George does when at last he has rescued his daughter:
The pure state of heightened Being he had experienced [...] started to fade. The reality of day-to-day existence began to reassert itself. This was mournful, but also, he saw, needful. A human could no more live at that peak of metaphysical insight than they could live under the regime of a continually sustained orgasm. (p.119)
Saying that, “the afterglow of the illumination was not unpleasant. There was nothing harsh or assonant to it. It was a gentle slide down towards the bottom of the mountain,” (ibid) from which low Roberts mounts a determined ascent, back up to the top, to a vantage point whereupon a new peak is revealed. So we do what we must do: we follow in his footsteps, up, up and away, and in this author’s exceptionally capable hands, the sky’s the limit.
Or is it?
Niall Alexander admits ignorance with alarming regularity in reviews of books, movies, video games – you name it – for Strange Horizons, tor.com and Starburst Magazine, amongst a myriad other genre resources. Failing that, you can always find him burbling away on his blog, The Speculative Scotsman. He tweets as @niallalot and writes at the slightest provocation.
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