July 28, 2004

Worldbuilding Light

A mini-review of M. John Harrison's novel Light.

Most magic tricks are uninteresting in themselves. Seeing a handkerchief disappear is in itself not very interesting, it is the framing that makes it interesting: the build-up of suspense, the ritual of the magic trick, the intention to surprise. In the same way it is quite possible to have a story that is all suspense and style – a quite successful story – and yet the core events are not in themselves very interesting. John Harrison’s Light thrives on weirdness, vivid scenery, odd characters and throwaway details that hint at a greater world. But the core story is at the end not very impressive: it doesn’t need to be, it is the handkerchief magically disappearing and re-appearing.

The setting is partly present-day England, where a disturbed physicist flounders through life, partly in a future where mankind has spread through the galaxy towards the Kefahuchi Tract. The Tract is an immense astrophysical anomaly, something so different from everything else that countless alien species have gone there to study it over the last billennia. They left behind artefacts and megascale engineering the humans could mine, producing a dynamic and somewhat violent economy. In this setting the book follows a confused man who has spent several years in virtual reality and a renegade starship pilot fused with her ship. Needless to say, their apparently random paths through the world of entradistas, reality circuses, romantically packed incomprehensible alien artefacts, murder and queer physics are actually entangled.

I prefer to read books for ideas and worldbuilding. And there are plenty of them here, from the shadow operators, AIs that behave like caring but neurotic elderly ladies, over the New Men who conquered the Earth and then mismanaged it in their friendly, ineffectual way until they ended up in ghettos themselves, to the possibility that every species invents its own hyperdrive based on incompatible physics. But by moving into a universe where literally anything seems to be possible the author gains too much freedom: things do not have to make sense, there is no need to be consistent. It is not just a matter of advanced technology appearing magical; there seems to be very literal infinite possibilities here. Light survives this as a novel by concentrating on the characters and their personalities, but it makes it rather weak in the worldbuilding department – many great concepts, but merely sketches of how the entire world hangs together. That probably doesn’t matter to most readers, but for me it feels like cheating. I want to know how the economics and society of Radio Bay hang together, and exactly what kind of bizarre orbits the artificial planets move along.

In the end I felt the same inventive energy as from an Iain M. Banks novel from Light, but I’m one of those people who think it is far more interesting to learn how a magic trick is performed than to actually just see it.

Posted by Anders2 at July 28, 2004 05:37 PM