The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 8: Light (M. John Harrison, 2002)

Books remaining: 18. Weeks left to read them: 35 (could be worse).

There will always be more in the universe. The will always be more after that.

Cover of M. John Harrison's Light

Earth, 1999: mathematician and murderer Michael Kearney is tantalised by the truth of a universe that remains just beyond his understanding, and terrified by the approach of a monster he cannot escape.

The Kefahuchi Tract, 2400: White Cat pilot Seria Mau Genlicher casually destroys the humans who cross her path as she trolls through space. She is trying to uncover the function of a mysterious package that just might alter her future, by releasing her from the fallout of a fateful decision.

Meanwhile, twink and tank addict Ed Chianese is on the run from the evil Cray sisters, hopping from planet to planet to escape his debts – and the memory of a childhood mistake that haunts him.

They weave through a galaxy drenched in a kind of dirty eroticism, populated with cultivars, unafraid of death because they can always come back; rickshaw girls pumped with testosterone and built to run forever; eight-year-old gun punks and their accountants; flame-haired, masturbation-addled New Men; Earth Military Corporation stooges; clones, fetches, shadow operators and the gene tailor, Uncle Zip. Little cats weave their way through everything.

The lights had gone on in those ridiculous glass towers which spring up wherever the human male does business. The streets of the port below were filled with a warm pleasant smoky twilight, through which all intelligent life in Carmody was drifting, along Moneytown and the Corniche, towards the stream of the noodle bars on Free Key Avenue. Cultivars and high-end chimerae of every size and type – huge and tusked or dwarfed and tinted, with cocks the size of an elephant’s, the wings of dragonflies or swans, bare chests patched according to fashion with live tattoos of treasure maps – swaggered the pavements, eyeing one another’s smart piercings. Rickshaw girls, calves and quadriceps modified to have the long-twitch muscle fibre of a mare and the ATP transport protocols of a speeding cheetah, sprinted here and there between them, comforted by opium, strung out on cafe electrique. Shadow boys were everywhere, of course, faster than you could see, flickering in corners, materialising in alleys, whispering their ceaseless invitation: we can get you what you want.

I particularly love the shadow operators, who spend the book trying to care for Seria Mau, their scornful boss, while being soundly rejected.

The shadow operators mopped and mowed. They hung in corners, whispering and clasping their hands in a kind of bony delight.

What were they? They were algorithms with a life of their own. You found them in vacuum ships like the White Cat, in cities, wherever people were. They did the work. Had they always been there in the galaxy, waiting for human beings to take residence? Aliens who had uploaded themselves into empty space? Ancient computer programmes, dispossessed by their own hardware, to roam about, half lost, half useful, hoping for someone to look after? In just a few hundred years they had got inside the machinery of things. Nothing worked without them  

They could even run on biological tissue, as shadow boys full of crime and beauty and inexplicable motives. They could, if they wanted, they sometimes whispered to Seria Mau, run on valves.

It’s not all flashes and bangs. An idea is nothing without its communication and Harrison is a writer who makes you see his ideas for yourself. Pictures arrive in your mind. You know what his cities look like, feel like – just another sulphur dioxide town, a town without hope full of the black mist of engines – while inhabitants are similarly detailed.

It squatted in front of the tank where Seria Mau lived, leaking realistically from the joints of its several yellowish legs, stridulating every so often for no reason she could see. Its bony-looking head had more palps, mosaic eyes and ropes of mucous than she preferred to look at. It wasn’t something you could ignore.

Despite the proliferation of decidedly inhuman creatures, the ever-present threads of fear, escape, hope and redemption make this a very human story. The scale and detail of Harrison’s creation, the complexity of his plot and the beauty and wit of his prose fill me with admiration.

It reminds me of China Mieville, but with more, well, space. It’s bloody good sci-fi/literature, a book I hesitate to categorize for fear of diminishing its importance.

I’ll pass it on – perhaps I can find a roomful of first-year uni students and force them to study it. In a win for the Project, too, while choosing the H book, I realised with a happy lack of guilt that I was Just Never going to read Hugo’s Les Miserables and gave both volumes to an op-shop in a spasm of decisiveness. Don’t gasp in horror, they were those $5 Wordsworth Classics paperbacks they used to sell at Collins. Good for a kid who wants to read EVERYTHING, as I was, but ugly and not worth as collectors’ items if you’ve got no immediate intention to read them.


1 thought on “The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 8: Light (M. John Harrison, 2002)

  1. Pingback: Ready, Player Two? Ernest Cline’s Armada and how it measures up | DAMAGE CATASTROPHIC

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