Light

Light

by M. John Harrison

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Overview

In M. John Harrison’s dangerously illuminating new novel, three quantum outlaws face a universe of their own creation, a universe where you make up the rules as you go along and break them just as fast, where there’s only one thing more mysterious than darkness.

In contemporary London, Michael Kearney is a serial killer on the run from the entity that drives him to kill. He is seeking escape in a future that doesn’t yet exist—a quantum world that he and his physicist partner hope to access through a breach of time and space itself. In this future, Seria Mau Genlicher has already sacrificed her body to merge into the systems of her starship, the White Cat. But the “inhuman” K-ship captain has gone rogue, pirating the galaxy while playing cat and mouse with the authorities who made her what she is. In this future, Ed Chianese, a drifter and adventurer, has ridden dynaflow ships, run old alien mazes, surfed stellar envelopes. He “went deep”—and lived to tell about it. Once crazy for life, he’s now just a twink on New Venusport, addicted to the bizarre alternate realities found in the tanks—and in debt to all the wrong people.

Haunting them all through this maze of menace and mystery is the shadowy presence of the Shrander—and three enigmatic clues left on the barren surface of an asteroid under an ocean of light known as the Kefahuchi Tract: a deserted spaceship, a pair of bone dice, and a human skeleton.

Praise for Light

“Uproarious, breath-taking, exhilarating . . . This is a novel of full spectrum literary dominance. . . . It is a work of—and about—the highest order.”Guardian

“An increasingly complex and dazzling narrative . . . Light depicts its author as a wit, an awesomely fluent and versatile prose stylist, and an SF thinker as dedicated to probing beneath surfaces as William Gibson is to describing how the world looks when reflected in them. . . . SF fans and skeptics alike are advised to head towards this Light.”Independent

Light is a literary singularity: at one and the same time a grim, gaudy space opera that respects the physics, and a contemporary novel that unflinchingly revisits the choices that warp a life. It’s almost unbearably good.”—Ken MacLeod, author of Engine City 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553382952
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/31/2004
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 637,229
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

M. John Harrison is the award-winning author of eight previous novels and four collections of short stories. His fifth novel, In Viriconium, was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and his sixth, Climbers, won the Boardman Tasker Award. Light was recently awarded the James Tiptree Jr. Award and shortlisted for the 2002 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Disillusioned by the Actual


1999: Towards the end of things, someone asked Michael Kearney, “How do you see yourself spending the first minute of the new millennium?” This was their idea of an after-dinner game up in some bleak Midlands town where he had gone to give a talk. Wintry rain dashed at the windows of the private dining room and ran down them in the orange streetlight. Answers followed one another round the table with a luminous predictability, some sly, some decent, all optimistic. They would drink until they fell down, have sex, watch fireworks or the endless sunrise from a moving jet. Then someone volunteered:

“With the bloody children, I expect.”

This caused a shout of laughter, and was followed immediately by: “With somebody young enough to be one of my children.”

More laughter. General applause.

Of the dozen people at the table, most of them had some idea like that. Kearney didn’t think much of any of them, and he wanted them to know it; he was angry with the woman who had brought him there, and he wanted her to know that. So when it came to his turn, he said:

“Driving someone else’s car between two cities I don’t know.”

He let the silence develop, then added deliberately, “It would have to be a good car.”

There was a scatter of laughter.

“Oh dear,” someone said. She smiled round the table. “How dour.”

Someone else changed the subject.

Kearney let them go. He lit a cigarette and considered the idea, which had rather surprised him. In the moment of articulating it—of admitting it to himself—he had recognised how corrosive it was. Not because of the loneliness, the egocentricity, of the image, here in this enclave of mild academic and political self-satisfaction: but because of its puerility. The freedoms represented—the warmth and emptiness of the car, its smell of plastic and cigarettes, the sound of a radio playing softly in the night, the green glow of dials, the sense of it as an instrument or a series of instrumental decisions, aimed and made use of at every turn in the road—were as puerile as they were satisfying. They were a description of his life to that date.

As they were leaving, his companion said:

“Well, that wasn’t very grown-up.”

Kearney gave her his most boyish smile. “It wasn’t, was it?”

Her name was Clara. She was in her late thirties, red-haired, still quite young in the body but with a face already beginning to be lined and haggard with the effort of keeping up. She had to be busy in her career. She had to be a successful single parent. She had to jog five miles every morning. She had to be good at sex, and still need it, and enjoy it, and know how to say, in a kind of whin- ing murmur, “Oh. That. Yes, that. Oh yes,” in the night. Was she puzzled to find herself here in a redbrick-and-terracotta Victorian hotel with a man who didn’t seem to understand any of these achievements? Kearney didn’t know. He looked round at the shiny off-white corridor walls, which reminded him of the junior schools of his childhood.

“This is a sad dump,” he said.

He took her by the hand and made her run down the stairs with him, then pulled her into an empty room which contained two or three billiard tables, where he killed her as quickly as he had all the others. She looked up at him, puzzlement replacing interest in her eyes before they filmed over. He had known her for perhaps four months. Early on in their relationship, she had described him as a “serial monogamist,” and he hoped perhaps she could now see the irony of this term, if not the linguistic inflation it represented.

In the street outside—shrugging, wiping one hand quickly and repeatedly across his mouth—he thought he saw a movement, a shadow on the wall, the suggestion of a movement in the orange streetlight. Rain, sleet and snow all seemed to be falling at once. In the mix, he thought he saw dozens of small motes of light. Sparks, he thought. Sparks in everything. Then he turned up the collar of his coat and quickly walked away. Looking for the place he had parked his car, he was soon lost in the maze of roads and pedestrian malls that led to the railway station. So he took a train instead, and didn’t return for some days. When he did, the car was still there, a red Lancia Integrale he had rather enjoyed owning.

Kearney dropped his luggage—an old laptop computer, two volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time—on to the rear seat of the Integrale and drove it back to London, where he abandoned it in a South Tottenham street, making sure to leave its doors unlocked and the key in the ignition. Then he took the tube over to the research suite where he did most of his work. Funding complexities too byzantine to unpack had caused this to be sited in a side street between Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road. There, he and a physicist called Brian Tate had three long rooms filled with Beowulf system computers bolted to equipment which, Tate hoped, would eventually isolate paired-ion interactions from ambient magnetic noise. Theoretically this would allow them to encode data in quantum events. Kearney had his doubts; but Tate had come from Cambridge via MIT and, perhaps more importantly, Los Alamos, so he had his expectations too.

In the days when it housed a team of neurobiologists working on live cats, the suite had been set on fire repeatedly by extreme animal rights factions. On wet mornings it still smelled faintly of charred wood and plastic. Kearney, aware of the science community’s sense of moral outrage at this, had let it be known he subscribed to the ALF and added fuel to the fire by importing a pair of oriental kittens, one black and male, the other white and female. With their long legs and savagely thin bodies, they prowled about as unassuagedly as fashion models, striking bizarre poses and getting under Tate’s feet.

Kearney picked the female up. She struggled for a second, then purred and allowed herself to settle on his shoulder. The male, eyeing Kearney as if it had never seen him before, flattened its ears and retreated under a bench.

“They’re nervous today,” he said.

“Gordon Meadows was here. They know he doesn’t like them.”

“Gordon? What did he want?”

“He wondered if we felt up to a presentation.”

“Is that how he put it?” Kearney asked, and when Tate laughed, went on: “Who for?”

“Some people from Sony, I think.”

It was Kearney’s turn to laugh.

“Gordon is a prat,” he said.

“Gordon,” said Tate, “is the funding. Shall I spell that for you? It starts F-U.”

“Fuck you too,” Kearney told him. “Sony could swallow Gordon with a glass of water.” He looked round at the equipment. “They must be desperate. Have we achieved anything this week?”

Tate shrugged.

“It’s always the same problem,” he said.

He was a tallish man with mild eyes who spent his free time, to the extent he had any, devising a complexity-based architectural system, full of shapes and curves he described as “natural.” He lived in Croydon, and his wife, who was older than him by a decade, had two children from her previous marriage. Perhaps as a reminder of his Los Alamos past, Tate favoured bowling shirts, horn-rimmed glasses and a careful haircut which made him look like Buddy Holly.

“We can slow down the rate at which the q-bits pick up phase. We’re actually doing better than Kielpinski there—I’ve had factors of four and up this week.”

He shrugged.

“After that, noise wins. No q-bit. No quantum computer.”

“And that’s it?”

“That’s it.” Tate took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Oh. There was one thing.”

“What?”

“Come and look at this.”

Tate had installed a thirty-inch superflat display on a credenza at the back of the room. He did something to a keyboard and it lit up an icy blue colour. Somewhere off in its parallel mazes, the Beowulf system began modelling the decoherence-free subspace—the Kielpinski space—of an ion-pair. Its filmy, energetic extensions reminded Kearney of the aurora borealis. “We’ve seen this before,” he said.

“Watch, though,” Tate warned him. “Just before it decays. I’ve slowed it down about a million times, but it’s still hard to catch—there!”

A cascade of fractals like a bird’s wing, so tiny Kearney barely noticed it. But the female oriental, whose sensory-motor uptake times had been engineered by different biological considerations, was off his shoulder in an instant. She approached the screen, which was now blank, and batted it repeatedly with her front paws, stopping every so often to look into them as though she expected to have caught something. After a moment the male cat came out from wherever it had been hiding and tried to join in. She looked down at it, chattering angrily.

Tate laughed and switched the display off.

“She does that every time,” he said.

“She can see something we can’t. Whatever it is goes on after the part we can see.”

“There’s not really anything there at all.”

“Run it again.”

“It’s just some artefact,” Tate insisted. “It’s not in the actual data. I wouldn’t have shown you if I thought it was.”

Kearney laughed.

“That’s encouraging,” he said. “Will it slow down any further?”

“I could try, I suppose. But why bother? It’s a bug.”

“Try,” said Kearney. “Just for fun.” He stroked the cat. She jumped back onto his shoulder. “You’re a good girl,” he said absently. He pulled some things out of a desk-drawer. Among them was a little discoloured leather bag which contained the dice he had stolen from the Shrander twenty-three years before. He put his hand inside. The dice felt warm against his fingers. Kearney shivered over a sudden clear image of the woman in the Midlands, kneeling on a bed and whispering “I want so much to come” to herself in the middle of the night. To Tate, he said: “I might have to go away for a while.”

“You’ve only just come back,” Tate reminded him. “We’d get on quicker if you were here more often. The cold gas people are on our heels. They can get robust states where we can’t: if they make any more progress it’s us who’ll become the backwater. You know?”

“I know.”

Kearney, at the door, offered him the white cat. She twisted about in his hands. Her brother was still looking at the empty display.

“Have you got names for them yet?”

Tate looked embarrassed.

“Only the female,” he said. “I thought we could call her Justine.”

“Very apt,” Kearney admitted. That evening, rather than face an empty house, he called his first wife, Anna.

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Light 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read the whole book to find out what it was about and was very dissatisfied with the entire book. Difficult to read, and lacks direction while it jumps around.
TEST NOOKUSER More than 1 year ago
Harrison is an incredible talent, with perhaps the strongest command of the english language of any writer living. He is definitely the most vividly visual writer going, and his characters are satisfyingly human, all of them mad, broken, and learning. This is perhaps Harrisons most accessible work, and all around entertaining.
PhoenixFalls More than 1 year ago
This is a difficult novel. Harrison's prose is meaty, but that is not where the difficulty lies; his characters are unlikeable, and while that is a challenge, it is not insurmountable. The main difficulty lies in the novel's structure -- much of it is an elaborate smoke screen, ultimately having little to no effect on the resolution. This also makes the novel particularly difficult to review, as its true nature doesn't become evident until the last four chapters, but any mention of what is in those chapters (and what is in those chapters will make or break the novel for most readers) constitutes a giant spoiler. Alas, I am committed to writing reviews that are as spoiler-free as possible, so I will focus on what the novel focuses on, which is that smoke screen. The novel consists of alternating chapters from three perspectives, two sociopaths and one junkie. All three are running from something, and most of the novel is spent figuring out what they are running from and what turned them into sociopaths/junkies. In this sense the novel is akin to a character study, and I suspect it will work best for those people who generally like character studies. (I am one of those people, but I will admit it didn't work particularly well for me in this aspect because I'm not a big fan of sociopaths and junkies.) One perspective is set in contemporary England & America, with just enough detail to be immediately recognizable, and the other two are set in 2400 A.D., which is a future with plenty of SF world-building that Harrison spends very little time describing -- the world is catch-as-you-can, and readers who aren't used to hard SF will likely be hopelessly confused at points while readers who are used to these sort of milieus will be able to fill in the blanks fairly easily. There is some action, but most of the novel is spent getting into these peoples' heads. But at its heart, and despite the first 350 pages, Light isn't a character study. It's a Big Idea story, and its Big Idea is what constitutes the spoiler, so I have to talk around it. The jacket description actually does as much as it can to help readers to that Big Idea -- it doesn't describe the set-up and first act like most jacket descriptions, but instead provides clues to the elements astute readers need to keep track of in order to decipher the resolution. That resolution will determine whether the novel succeeds or fails for most readers, so anyone who attempts this novel needs to be prepared to read it to the end to give it a fair shot, and unfortunately even reading to the end will not guarantee that you will like it. Ultimately, I decided I did not like the resolution Harrison provides, but I get it, and I can see why other people love it, and I will defend his pure craft that went into making this book. This is the rare novel I will recommend despite not having enjoyed it.
tnt-tek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is opaque on its first reading. There is an expectation that it will progress like a plot-driven thriller, moving us through disconnected story-lines, picking up clues and dropping a nice tidy conclusion on us at the end. By the time I realized this is a character study, I'd missed the points of interest, glazing over them looking for nuggets of plot in the narrative. It was on the second take that the nature of this book really revealed itself. It's a study in paranoia, missed opportunity, retreat from the harsh light of reality. Each of the characters mourn the loss of their former selves. Each of them seeking redemption for their hostile reactions to the world, though in very different ways. If you approach this book from the standpoint that you are going to witness character evolution rather than space opera, Light will reward you with it's enigmatic yet poetic ending. Recommended.
gonzobrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For those with even the slightest interest in reading Light by M. John Harrison, two words of caution¿be patient. Be patient with three seemingly (and I stress seemingly) unrelated (in time or space) storylines, be patient with the author¿s constant digressions into the semi-erotic genre, and be especially patient with the endless stream-of-consciousness like spew of space-pop jargon, regurgitated with often scant explanation. Be patient with it all. Or, think of it as a roller coaster ride, whereby one can enjoy the rush of it all in their face rather than getting caught up in any one loop or curve. Do that, and you might just find a handful of brilliance in this work, other than referencing the title. What Harrison does really well in this novel is his ability to provide glimpses of a future where everything looks different, but retains the essential human condition. For all the advances in quantum physics and popular chemistry, the hazy lure of the twink-tanks, interstellar travel and adventures of the K-captain, Harrison essentially writes of the frailty and fear that humanity just can¿t seem to shake. That, and the sheer wonder of the connections between time, space and the human brain¿s potential. Unfortunately, what Harrison takes for granted is the casual reader¿s attention span given an ultra thick space-stew of components that comprise the mystery of the Kefahuchi Tract. While it still remains mysterious after reading, I don¿t think he quite pulled it off by rapid-firing its components rather than aiming at the whole. The impulse and insanity of human beings is accelerated to the nanosecond, but the Tract in its obscurity remains. That being said, if one is patient, there is a fine reward in seeing the connections blossom between Seria Mau, Ed Chianese, and Kearney, culminating in the mystery surrounding everything around and beyond The Shrander. It¿s a really imaginatively conceived story, if you are willing to survive the whole ride.
isabelx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a hard book to get into. When I picked it up the day after starting it, I had to start reading from the beginning again, as I couldn¿t remember what was going on in two of the three plot threads. It was interesting but I was still left slightly baffled at the end.
kd9 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Any description of a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from gibberish. Start with an amoral serial killer haunted by a being from the far future, add a virtual reality addict on a planet days from war, and finish with a sexually abused girl who has been joined to a spaceship run by mathematics. You have now been introduced to a cast of characters who it is impossible to identify with and impossible to like in any form. I might have given this book just a single star, but I did finish it. Maybe I thought it would turn into something more meaningful. I was wrong.I can't imagine what the 56 people who gave this book 4 stars or better were thinking. Does Harrison have such a large family?
clong on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a strange book, a sort of space opera, as seen through a cyberpunk lens, with elements of urban fantasy thrown in for good measure. Light is highly atmospheric. Harrison takes us through a series of dark, compelling, and fantastic settings. This is a future where "people" struggle to survive in a purposeless, ugly, and dreary high-tech universe. The storyline jumps back and forth between three parallel stories, one set in the present, and two set in the distant future. It takes quite a while to make sense of how the three stories fit together. This is a book where nobody is what they seem, and everybody's motivations are dark. The three main characters are challenging. One, Michael Kearney, is a haunted, physicist, serial killer (this isn't much of a spoiler--he kills someone on the third page of the book). The second, Seria Mau Genlicher, is a psychopathic, cyborg space pirate, haunted by a dark past. The third, Ed Chianese is a space thrillseeker turned virtual reality addict. We eventually learn about how Chianese's dark past intersects with Seria Mau's. The characters are haunted by dreams, dreams in which they relive the past and run from their future. There is lots of sex, none of it "normal." I can easily see why this is not going to be a book for everyone, but I would definitely recommend it to fans of Samuel R. Delany and China Mieville. If Mieville had written Delany's Nova it might well have turned out something like M. John Harrison's Light.
incognito on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Disappointing. Something about the language was strangely cold, which unfortunately I find happens in a lot of science fiction. For all of its fantastic situations, Light came across as dry and... cerebral. I thought the premise(s) were interesting, but not enough time was spent showing me who any of these people were. Or, at least, the wrong questions were being answered. I also was bored by the more sexual and violent aspects, and thought they were unskillfully dealt with. Not that there's anything wrong with sex and violence; some of my favorite books are filled with it. I just couldn't connect with Michael Kearney's motivations here, or see why the story needed the New Men to be so needy and clinical. Interesting premise, boring and strangely executed story.
bililoquy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The landscape Harrison creates in Light is the book's greatest boon--a gleaming, dirty, likely milieu, electric with disposable bodies, chemical realities, hardscrabble circuses and living quantum spacecraft. Light's protaganists, unfortunately, are not so engaging. Lead characters need not conform to our standards of morality--they must, however, exhibit more than occasional glimmers of character. Even with the book split between them, Light's three anti-heroes cannot carry their own narratives.It's worth noting that Harrison's short story "Tourists," available in Science Fiction: The Best of 2004, is a much more successful utilization of the universe created in Light.
Shrike58 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While this novel has it's virtues, I never really understood what a shaggy dog story was till I finished up this work; at that point I had to groan. To his credit, Harrison has created an interesting melieu, but at the end of the day none of his characters captured my imagination and there was insufficient suspense to grab me plot-wise; that I was reading this for a book club was my main motivation in pushing to the end. To put it another way, having three main characters who are smucks (or worse) was just a little too much to take. This is particularly the case with the character of present-day scientist Michael Kearney, the sort of person who if you saw them drowning you'd throw them a large rock. As for future characters Seria Mau Genlicher & Ed Chianese, their glamour wears off quickly and after a certain point they simply become annoying, not tragic.
selfnoise on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Definitely full of interesting ideas, but I found it a bit too cold to be engaging.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Harrison lays out a complex tale that is actually three separate stories. Though the three stories span significant space and time, Harrison smartly ties them all together to provide a very satisfying ending. There are moments when he sheds light on why someone might commit the most heinous of acts and be able to fully rationalize them. Everyone has a part to play in the complexity of our universe and M. John Harrison picks fallen angels and the never do wells to tell a riveting story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The best part of this book is the cover art, which is spectacular. Once you crack the cover, the writing doesn't flow smoothly and it is almost impossible to track the author as he leaps from subject to subject.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was our book club selection based on the recommendation of Neil Gaiman on the front. No one in the book club read the book through to the end, I still have 120 pages to read and still am not sure what it is about. It is like trying to read 3 separate stories that the author tried to tie together and never really managed to do. Good luck if you choose this book, maybe you can make sense of it.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1999, research scientists Michael Kearney and Brian Tate work to encode data in quantum events. Recent results are not what they expected, but look more promising than they imagined when they started. However, Michael is turning psychotic, as an internal essence pressures him to commit murder. In 2400 New Venusport, Ed Chianese daily struggles to survive with his only solace being virtual reality escapes unlike his former glory days of surfing black holes. However, his woes turn bleaker with no escape available when it seems as if half the city wants a piece of him because he owes money to the wrong lenders. Several years since the Golddiggers of 2400 AD, White Cat Captain Seria Mau Genlicher is linked directly to the mathematics of her spaceship as if her mind is the vessel¿s AI. On the run, she has problems with her new woman body and her tailor Uncle Zip offers little help.---- The woes of these three and other losers will ¿merge¿ in a quantum realm at the 'Beach', a segment of space abutting the impenetrable Kefahuchi Tract. Here nothing works properly and space debris and the occasional treasure exist, many from before the beginnings of time.---- Ironically LIGHT is a dark gritty tale told predominately on three fronts. The story line is not a Star Wars action thriller (even with plenty of violence), but instead a complex cerebral and gloomy science fiction with prime players seemingly doomed to tragic lives. Paradoxically Michael (and Tate) is recognized four centuries later as the fathers of interstellar space. Not everyone will enjoy this tense multifaceted novel that contrasts the intricacies of life past, present, and future.---- Harriet Klausner
erzulieloo More than 1 year ago
brilliant.