Light – M John Harrison

23 February 2009
Aside from some trusty Philip K Dick re-reads, this is the only science fiction I’ve read this decade. Fine. It’s written in 3-chapter clusters, following three troubled consciousnesses. There are little teasing links between at least two of the narratives, but Harrison keeps everything obscure. We don’t even know if the chapters set in the 25th Century are real, or simply inside the mind of serial killer Michael: Seria Mau, the disembodied consciousness in one strand, is as prone to mindless acts of killing as Michael is, and bits of random vocabulary from his life as a cutting-edge cosmologist appear in her story…. In the other 25th Century strand Harrison gives us a big hint – which is just as likely to be a red herring, of course: one of the two characters in it starts off inside what has been a trusty standby of science fiction since good old Philip K: a total-immersion virtual reality tank. If there’s such a thing as popular metaphysics, the issues raised by these machines about the nature of reality and existence have been done almost to death. Red Dwarf was taking the piss in the mid-1990s, but raised just as many questions as Harrison does a decade years later. And if Harrison is being satirical, he’s not as good as Grant and Naylor.

In fact, nothing we’ve come across so far in the 25th Century chapters is unfamiliar. It’s like when you read one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels: you know exactly where you are. Obscure terminology from quantum physics or other difficult scientific fields takes us where we’ve been before: surfing the Galaxy at speeds which, the arcane jargon persuades us, aren’t impossible at all. In Seria Mau’s ship, ‘the mathematics’ is the magic. Seria herself has conversations lasting only nanoseconds with this other disembodied entity and… and it’s ok because we’re on safe ground.

The same goes for the terraformed planets we get washed up on to. It’s Blade Runner land: everything’s shit, and you can’t tell the real people from the clones. Harrison calls them cultivars – I don’t know if this is a term he’s invented – and he has fun with the idea of tailors cutting and patching whatever genetic bits and pieces you might want. In the planet-bound chapters concerning Tig and Ed, despite the presence of beings we can’t quite visualise and clones waiting to pounce, we’re really in a Dashiell Hammett novel: everybody’s out to get everybody else in a universe corrupted by money. It’s another cliché. (Does it help that Harrison gives some of the characters comedy names? Tig’s surname is Vesicle, ho ho, and the people out to get him and Ed are – wait for it – the Cray sisters. Seria Mau is looking for Billy – presumably William, or W – Anker. And one planet is called Yulgrave – based on the name of village in the Peak District, where Harrison used to live. He‘s a caution, isn‘t he?)

Anything happening yet? There’s a lot of sex – which is as seedy as everything else in Harrison-land. (The New Men – not-quite-human aliens like Tig – masturbate all the time. Obviously, Harrison has to tell us about it.) But the main plot-driver is the Chase. Michael is pursued by a demon, despite his efforts to evade it with a combination of science and the Tarot. He’s either struggling on some arcane metaphysical plane or he’s a nutter. I’m going for the latter. Meanwhile, Seria Mau is being pursued by a big ship that keeps nearly catching her. Serve her right if it does. Ed is being chased by the sisters. And, reader, we’ve had some plot: in a plausibility-wrenching episode, Ed has just killed one of them. Yeh, sure.

26 February
Chapters 16-21
Two three-chapter clusters – and Reader, something’s happened. I don’t mean in the plots – something’s happening in the plots all the time – but in the novel. Chapters 16, 17 and 18 are all long, and Harrison brings in something new in all of them. In the Kearney chapter it’s two things: a much fuller explanation of Kearney’s murderous habits, followed by some magic science: the strange computer-monitor phenomenon that’s been disturbing the cats starts to leak out impossibly. In the Seria Mau chapter it’s the rescue of Billy Anker, which Harrison signals as the thing that will breathe some real life into that particular plotline. In Ed’s chapter, well, he’s not on his own after all, and he starts trying to come to terms with what a lost soul he really is. And in all of them, dreams are some kind of key. After another triplet of chapters – to the point where I am now – I found myself becoming really interested. Well flipping heck.

I wasn’t convinced – I’m still not – by the serial killing strand of the Kearney plotline. In Chapter 16 we even find out there’s an accomplice, somebody else who recognises that the murders are necessary to – what? – appease the ‘Shrander’ demon. Is that supposed to lend credibility to Harrison’s ‘more things in heaven and earth’ argument? Or, to put it another way: it’s as though Harrison wants us to take on board the idea that one of the unknown unknowns of the universe is that Tarot, magic dice, and everything else that Newtonian or Einsteinian science would dismiss as mumbo-jumbo, has at least as much validity as quantum physics. (One of Harrison’s jokes is that alien cultures choose whichever kind of science they like to power their technologies. They might be mutually exclusive, but it doesn’t stop them working so long – wait for it – as you put your faith in them.)

These six central chapters (they occupy the middle 90-odd pages of the novel) take us into a similar kind of universe to Pullman’s in Northern Lights. Kearney’s dice are like Lyra’s alethiometer, or whatever it’s called. (In one chapter, and I can’t remember exactly where, some alethio-based science is mentioned among the flotsam of jargon.) Seria Mau’s ‘fetch’ – a kind of real/not-real hologram – is like a Northern Lights daemon, a cat that behaves like a cat, almost separate from the human being behind it. And in the last chapter I read, Ed finally turns out to be a prophet. He’s not a loser after all, he was merely lost – because he didn’t recognise his own calling. (He is Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, a film that seems to have influenced this novel in other ways as well. When, for instance, Billy Anker begins to feel the workings of the ancient technology on the planet he’s discovered it sounds just like Keanu Reeves’ growing awareness of whatever it is that lies behind our everyday perception of reality. Ok, another character – Kearney, I think – has already reminded us that at a quantum level absolutely nothing exists in the way we think it does; but Billy Anker begins to feel it.)

And instead of Philip Pullman’s Dust, we have Light. The other-worldly phenomenon leaking out of the computers is light, the stuff that comes out of his boss’s eyes and the mystic energies Ed sees in his visions are in the form of lights….

Having said all this, I’m not sure I’ve mentioned what might be the real interest of these chapters. It might sound like the corniest pair of plot devices there are, but they seem to be working for me: all the characters have the job of saving the universe, and none of them can do it on their own. Like Dr Who, they all seem to need some kind of (gulp) relationship – or, at least, some kind of association with another person, preferably of the opposite sex – in order to understand what they’ve got to do. Seria Mau – more isolated than any human being should ever be, psychically locked into the electronic consciousness of the ship she has somehow become – needs Billy Anker. It’s no accident that her feline fetch rubs itself against his legs like that: it’s the nearest she ever gets to affection. Ed has two women, one a genetically patched mutant as big as a horse who fulfils, well, various needs, not all of them sexual; and Sandra Shen, the shape-shifting shadow – the product of some kind of magic science – who is Ed’s Obi Wan Kenobe. And who does Kearney have? Nobody at all, you’d think – except, however many times he leaves her, he keeps finding his way back to Anna. She’s a shape-shifter too, holding herself together not through science but through self-help post-it notes. And her particular brand of shape-shifting is down to anorexia. Harrison does like a laugh, doesn‘t he?

[Later]
While I was out for a run – wonderful, Parkwood Springs in Sheffield, since you ask – I remembered three Big Clues I forgot to mention. First, the Kefahuchi culture, the ancient ones who reached the secrets of the universe that Billy Anker has partly uncovered, were short in stature. And so are all the shapes that Sandra Shen takes on…. So is she one of them, despite their having become extinct 65 million years ago? (If coelacanths can jump out of the archaeological hat like that, why can’t aliens?) Second, every bit of earth culture mentioned in the future is late 20th Century – shit, the whole planet Ed is stuck on is a circa late-90s theme park – which suggests the intelligence it’s part of is in fact a late-20th Century bloke. Somebody like seria – sorry, serial-killer M Kearney. Third: Ed and Seria are brother and sister. Ok, we don’t know this, but we do really. They share the same dream of childhood – involving cats, inevitably – you know, the animals who can see what our clunky human perceptions can’t – and each has a lost opposite-sex sibling. And before he was a loser, Ed was a remarkable, instinctive starship pilot – using, presumably, the kind of spooky spiritual connection that makes alien technology unnecessary. Maybe he was a cat in a former life, like his sister is now when she makes herself visible. Reincarnation, that’s all we need.

Of course, I can never tell the difference between big clues and red herrings, so don’t listen to me.

27 February
Chapters 22-30…
…which take us up to, but not including, the final triplet of Chapters. It’s all become a bit hectic. The bright foam – the rather unsatisfactory way Harrison has of describing the weird Light that somehow holds the key to all quantum mythologies – is leaking out in all three strands. In 1999, ever closer to what Harrison called ‘the end of things’ in line 1 of the novel, it has leaked out of the computer monitor and is pixilating Kearney’s research collaborator (and the cat) into some altered state. Seria Mau, magically transformed (ok, scientifically transformed) into her 12-year-old pre-starship self, has opened the Pandora’s box and let the same foam turn her ship into something that can sail properly in post-Einsteinian space. And Ed, a pilot again, sees it flow out of the fish-tank that was never what he thought it was and do the same for his ship at almost the same time. Talk about a coming together – which also happens for Kearney and the hapless Anna before he’s whisked away, presumably by a K-ship from the future.

There are quotations and hommages. We get the whizzy star-gate techno-flume from 2001 – Harrison wants us to remember that very scene – as Ed approaches the same wormhole as his sister. Sandra Shen quotes the same bit of Hamlet that I did the last time I wrote, but patched: there are more kinds of physics than we dream of in our philosophy, as Harrison has been keen to argue almost from page 1.

And… and what? It always comes down to relationships in the end. Sandra Shen reveals herself to have been all the important people in Ed’s life on the armpit planet he’s been stuck on – except the horse-sized love of his life. Kearney, despite her certainty that he’ll do it, doesn’t kill Anna – he shags her for the first time instead. And Seria Mau, having stupidly dumped Billy Anker on a planet that will eat him at a subatomic level, tries to go back and save him. She fails, and is sad about it: as near as she’s ever got to love.

Most of the hectic stuff is from the starship SF sections. The battle between Seria Mau and the man who’s been chasing her all along is a soup of techno-jargon, no easier to visualise or understand than the bright foam or Sandra Shen’s conceptual fish-tank. Bu..ut it gets us to where we’re going, through the vulva-shaped opening of the wormhole (I’m not making this up) and then inside the wormhole itself, with its soft, contracting sides exactly like the birth-canal it has magically become. (I‘m not making this up either.) The hommage to 2001 is complete. What childhoods will the three lost souls discover when they are re-born? Dunno.

15 March
Chapters 30-33
It’s all become a bit tame after the last time I wrote. Sandra Shen, who is everybody in Ed’s life, is also the weird creature pursuing Kearney. Except she’s not after him and was never looking for him to sacrifice all his lovers to her: she just wanted to let him know he was The One and to show him the wonders of the Tallahatchie Bridge. So she was the one who whisked him off from Monster Beach – and left him where he couldn’t survive. So…

…four centuries later he’s still there, or his bones are, when Sandra Shen, in the guise of the Mandrake the Magician figure who’s haunted Seria’s dreams for years – yes, reader, that was our Sandra as well – turns Seria’s atrophied body into a space-bird so she can flap about the galaxy just as he always wanted. Who is this Sandra anyway? She’s the last survivor of the old race who seeded the galaxy with technological marvels – and it turns out the whole humanity thing was a project by this race to evolve a species who could do the things in space that they couldn’t. Yeh, sure.

And Ed? He always wanted to be a starship captain like his sister, so… Sandra surgically fixes him into his sister‘s old crate, and he sails off into the Tract, which looks like a cosmic-scale Aurora Borealis with particularly baroque knobs on. So everybody’s happy – except the mindless serial killer (who also discovered, with Sandra’s help, the secrets of the universe). He’s dead. And serve him right: Sandra Shen never wanted him to go on his psychopathic murder spree – and the dice he used to throw were nothing but pretty souvenirs, she tells us.

Ok. But, if Kearney is whisked off to die in space, and his assistant is pixilated into fairy-dust… how did all the information about their discoveries get turned into the technology that seems to power the 25th Century? And if Sandra Shen is omniscient and otherwise god-like enough to do all those whizzy things she does… why can’t she just tell her prophets on (or not on) Earth about herself, and not appear in fancy dress? So fancy they don’t know who the bleeding hell she is, so fancy that her prophets, terminally confused, keep doing all the wrong things? She must have been reading the wrong books – the Old Testament, Ovid’s Metamorphoses – so she’s a god, Jim, but definitely not as we know it.

Cue sequel, which I’m not aiming to read.

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