Thursday, October 11, 2007

Seeing the Light

There are some books where it is easy to identify why you like. In Berlin Noir, Philip Kerr builds claustrophobic feelings about life in Nazi Germany. In Straight Man, Richard Russo manages to be hilarious while providing deep character studies. It's much harder to pin down what is great about M John Harrison's Light.

It is pitched as space opera, but it isn't really a space opera book, despite a few well-written space battles and a wild future frontier built around a singularity. It is much more about three characters and their struggles to deal with themselves. None of them is particularly appealing, one is a serial killer, one is emotionally stunted personality integrated into one of most powerful warships in human space and the third is a virtual reality junkie.

The serial killer exists in 1999 and the other two stories are told in 2400. The connections between the three are slowly revealed and are not obvious. Harrison is not one to spell things out for you. He leaves much unclear, about the people, the future and even the state of reality.

It is Harrison's abilities as a stylist that sing here. He is as excellent describing a lonely beach as he is at aliens, and he is just as happy to write as each. The ideal audience for him is a relative rarity, appreciators of good writing who are comfortable reading science fiction. Mainline science fiction fans may balk at his many diversions, while sci fi hating lit readers will have a hard time getting past the space scenes.

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