conceptual
fiction
Light

by M. John Harrison

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

One of the peculiar burdens of the science fiction
genre—both in film and fiction—has been to uphold
ideals of heroism in a society skeptical of the concept.   
During the very period in which literary fiction was
purging itself of heroes, or embracing edgy anti-
heroes, science fiction was dishing up
simple, stereotypical champions of
truth, justice and the American way.  

Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, John
Carter of Mars—such figures defined
the genre, and both created and ful-
filled certain expectations among the
audience for sci-fi.  Maybe these
characters  didn't wear a white hat,
like the "good guys" in cowboy films,
and flew a spaceship rather than ride
a horse, but beneath these superficial
differences, the conventions of sci-fi
genre followed in lockstep the rule
book established by creators of Westerns and
adventure stories.  Commercial considerations
demanded that these tales reflect the worldview and
dream life of the adolescent males who made up most
of the market for science fiction stories.  

This state of affairs persisted, more or less
unchallenged, until the so-called "New Wave" in
science fiction of the 1960s.   During this period, the
younger generation was challenging the assumptions
of their elders in every field, and sci-fi was no
exception.  The rules changed under the onslaught of
authors such as J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock,
Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Harlan Ellison and
Brian Aldiss.  Not only were heroes put out to pasture,
but most of the values they espoused were questioned
and found wanting.   The fascination with new
technologies was displaced by an obsession with new
lifestyles, codes of behavior and social structures.  
Indeed, a novel such as J.G. Ballard's
Crash could
dispense with science and technology entirely—
nothing more advanced than the automobile was
required to propel this story of car crash fetishists—
yet still seem  stranger and creepier than anything a
1930s sci-fi author had ever imagined.

But like so much else from the 1960s, a movement
that promised to define the future merely epitomized
the passing spirit of an era.  By the mid-1970s, the age
of sci-fi heroism had returned with a vengeance.
 
Star Wars (1977) became the highest grossing motion
picture of all time, and spawned a mini-industry of
books, merchandise and follow-up films unprecedented
in cinema history.  The
Star Trek movie (1979) would
also set a record (for largest gross receipts from an
opening weekend), and even if this franchise lagged
somewhat behind Star Wars in commercial impact, it
set the gold standard for fan support.  To this day, the
word "trekkie" summons up images of devotion and
obsession that only cults and religions can match.  

Science fiction books inevitably felt the impact of this
return to the heroic notions of an earlier day.  
Star
Wars
books were huge sellers—sales fueled by the
immense success of the films—and no doubt influenced
how other genre authors conceived and executed their
own works.   Who could be surprised that Frederik
Pohl's
Gateway, Hugo winner from 1978, essentially
returned to the borrowed cowboy themes of an earlier
day?  Orson Scott Card's
Ender's Game, which ranks
alongside William Gibson’s
Neuromancer as a defining
sci-fi works of the 1980s, brought a new level of
conceptual intricacy to the proceedings, but the young-
man-saves-the-universe concept would be
quite familiar to sci-fi fans who had already
encountered Luke Skywalker…or, for that matter,
Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.   For all intents and
purposes, the rebellion of the New Wave in science
fiction had been overwhelmed and almost forgotten
after little more than a decade.

This lengthy preamble is necessary to understand the
impact and importance of M. John Harrison’s 2002
novel
Light.   Here Harrison takes on board the ethos
of the 1960s New Wave, updating the settings and
softening some of the rougher edges—but not too
many, since rough edges were inevitably defining
qualities of this movement—and showing what the
"anything goes" ethos of the Summer of Love might
look like in the new millennium.  

At the most superficial level Harrison applies this
sense of "anything goes" to the scientific principles at
work in his book—although readers will soon discover
that they are equally applicable to the ethical
imperatives and lifestyle choices of virtually every
character in the work.   Harrison outlines these
prevailing scientific concepts as not so much a matter
of human design but rather a core part of the essence
of an amazingly flexible universe:

"Every race they met on their way through the Core
had a star drive based on a different theory. All those
theories worked, even when they ruled out one
another's basic assumptions. You could travel between
the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything.  If
your theory gave you a foamy space to work with—if
you had to catch a wave—that didn't preclude some
other engine, running on a perfectly smooth Einsteinian
surface, from surfing the same tranche of empty space.  
It was even possible to build drives on the basis of
superstring-style theories, which, despite, their
promise four hundred years ago, had never really
worked at all."

Those familiar with the theory—or perhaps anti-
theory is a better term—of science developed by
philosophy Paul Feyerabend in his book
Against
Method will find a kindred spirit in Harrison.  Feyer-
abend attacked Thomas Kuhn's influential theory of
scientific paradigms and Karl Popper's concept of
falsifiability with an extravagant and almost anarchic
view of science that embraced every possible approach
and system.  In Feyerabend's world, you could achieve
results by following standard scientific procedure, but
you might also achieve breakthroughs from studying
voodoo or delving into mysticism.  Harrison adopts a
similar perspective here, offering up the extravagant
idea that almost any scientific theory will work if you
believe in it deeply enough.

But the science here is just a veneer.  For Harrison’s
real fixation is how the ethos of "anything goes"
applies to the characters of his novel.  At the very
beginning of
Light, readers encounter a scientist,
Michael Kearney, who murders a woman for no
immediately apparent reason.  We later learn that he
is a serial killer, and two plot lines—one a standard sci-
fi tale about a scientist researching a new technology,
and the other about a crazy killer on the loose—coexist
uneasily throughout the course of the novel.  As
subsequent events will prove, the unfolding plot does
not require that this scientist to be a serial killer—
Harrison just adds it for "color."  But it’s color of shade
that fits with the overall scheme of this novel, which is
designed to adorn psychopathy in the most pleasing
patterns possible.  

Then, just ten pages into the novel, Harrison changes
the scene—jumping 400 years into the future, and
introducing a completely different cast of characters.  
These disruptions occur periodically in this novel, and
one of its strong points is Harrison’s ability to connect
the dots in the final pages—far beyond the point at
which most readers will have despaired of the story
lines ever converging.  Or at least most of the dots:
the reader is left with some heavy lifting to do in
brining a coherent structure to this novel.   Don't
expect to have all of your questions answered.  But,
by the conclusion of
Light, you may at least know
what you are asking about.  

Some things remain the same, even if our author
changes the century, galaxy and characters.  The
moral ambivalence of the book’s opening persists
unabated through the entire duration of the novel.   
Starship commander Seria Mau Genlicher takes the
center stage for about a third of the book, and her
personal antipathies are even more destructive than
Michael Kearney’s.  Our first encounter with Seria
Mau finds her ruthlessly killing men, women and
children in a predatory space battle.  Even an allied
warship commander is puzzled enough to tell her:  
"We wonder why you kill your own kind so ruthlessly."

The scenes and characters continue to change with
rapidity throughout
Light.   But you will never have
to worry about distinguishing between the good guys
and the bad guys.   It’s all relative in Harrison’s
universe, and any hypothesis you might have about
the possible moral underpinning at play here will be
disappointed by the final outcome.  There is no moral
framework at work—just as there is no reigning
scientific paradigm—and if there is a "hero" here, it is
merely the universe which allows you to "be anything
you want to be."  In fact, that very slogan appears on
advertising posters in Harrison’s novel.  

The posters show up at a "tank farm"—a place where
addicts hooked on virtual reality are immersed in vats,
with their brains and nervous systems manipulated to
give them imaginary experiences of various sorts.  
Why go to a movie if you can be part of a movie?    
We've seen this device before, in
The Matrix for
example, but in
Light this substitution of wish
fulfillment for lived reality is emblematic of the entire
ethos of the book.  When the foundations of reality are
shaken enough, make believe rises in status, if only by
comparison.

These distinctive factors of
Light—the undermining of
the concrete, the negation of the heroic, the shattering
of traditional codes of behavior—will raise objections
from many readers.  At first glance, these objections
might seem to be primarily moralistic in nature.  But
the issues involved here are much more complex than
just a case of competing value systems.   Any author
needs to be cautious in presenting a story as nihilistic
and solipsistic as this one.  Readers are drawn into
works of fiction by a sense of identification and
empathetic connection with characters.  Not with every
character, of course—but a novel that is populated
solely by narcissistic killers and deluded addicts risks
collapsing into the literary equivalent of an amusement
park ride.   The audience gets thrills and chills, and
moments of titillation, but not much more.

I give Harrison credit for working hard to avoid this
dead-end.  Symbols and themes are etched into this
book at a very high level of sophistication—a
sophistication all the more striking when compared
with the seediness and absence of self-reflection of
the players on stage.  At first glance, you may think
that this author relies too heavily on habitual phrases
and pet concepts, literary mannerisms that appear
again and again, almost as a crutch or tic.  Why are
characters always picking bits of tobacco off their
lips?  Why are so many people in this book climbing
into tanks—no, not tanks like the Sherman and Panzer,
used in warfare—but, as in the "tank farm" example
above, more like the ones you need to display exotic
fish?   Why do cats constantly show up in scene after
scene?   But what appears to be lazy repetition begins
to take on different overtones as
Light progresses.   
Some of the connections and symbolic resonances are
explained in the text, many others are left for readers
to mull over after finishing the book.  Indeed, few
genre works of recent memory are more ambitious in
their use of symbols.  

Harrison is less daring in manipulating words than in
upsetting value’s systems.  But, at his best, his writing
sparkles.  Here is his description of a traveling circus
of the 25th century: "In a time like that, who needed
a circus?...Circus was in the streets.  It was inside
people's heads.  Eat fire?  Everyone was a fire-eater.  
Everyone had geek genes and a story to tell.  Sentient
tattoos made everyone the
Illustrated Man.  Everyone
was high on some flying trapeze issue of their own….
They were their own audience, too."

This could sum up
Light as a whole—a story about a
society that has become a circus, and where the
dividing line between normal observer and bizarre
performer is nullified, and sometimes flip-flopped.  
And how you react to this book will ultimately be
determined by how much you would enjoy immersion
into a 24/7 real world circus.  If the idea of "anything
goes" excites and delights you, Harrison's novel will
give you an adrenalin rush and plenty to ponder.  But
if you look in fiction for characters with whom to
identify, figures to cheer on and admire, you will
probably find that this author’s
Light offers
illumination, but not much warmth.



Publication Date: June 9, 2011
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley


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