Sunday, November 21, 2004

Some "Light" Reading

I just finished reading Light by M. John Harrison. I'm not quite sure what the light of the title is referring to unless it is the light glow from the Kefahuchi Tract. I suppose it could be as simple as that, but is it? The Tract is a vast expanse of space no one has even been inside and those who have gone in have never returned. It is the one impenetrable piece of the universe that no sentient life form has been able to understand. It's outer edge, known as The Beach, is sort of like the Old West. It is made up of planets inhabited with fresh faced prospectors eager to make it big, washed out adventurers who were so close but lost it all, and everything in between. There are chop shops where you can go and get a new body, tailor made to your specifications. Genetic manipulation, clones, cultivars, if you have the money anything can be yours. But this isn't the whole story. There are three stories here. There is the story of Michael Kearney who, with his partner Brian Tate, are trying to create the world's first quantum computer. Their story takes place in 1999. Kearney is the focus. He is being chased, by the Shrander, a creature from whom he stole some strange dice long ago and whom he imagines is going to kill him when it catches him. To slow it down, to appease it, Kearney murders women. He doesn't do this all the time, just one here and one there and only when he thinks the Shrander is about to find him. Still, the bodies add up. He is not very careful about his killing and always expects to be caught but never is. Then in the far distant future, sometime after 2400, we have the story of Ed Chianese. Ed used to be a hot shot pilot, flying on the edge of the Kefahuchi Tract. But now he is a twink, a tank addict. A tank is a sort of virtual reality environment, only it is your mind that creates the reality. You can be and do anything you want and while you are there is it all real. When you come out of the tank you go through withdrawal and have trouble telling what is real life memory and experiences and what are tank memories and experiences. Ed is down on his luck, out of money and in trouble with the Cray Sisters who run the local mafia-like operation. And finally, taking place at the same time as Ed's story, is that of Seria Mau. She is a K-ship. Seria Mau used to be human. But humanity found a very old technology out by the Tract. No one knew what it was or how it worked. They did figure out that you could hardwire a human into it so that together, human and technology made a hard to beat team. Of course K-ships were used for military purposes, but Seria Mau and her ship, the White Cat, went rogue. Now she works as a sort of mercenary. She is tired of being a K-ship and wants what she can never have--to be human again. Light is science fiction with the emphasis on the science. I enjoy science fiction but generally stick to the books that are more fiction than science. I had a hard time when I first started reading Light, trying to understand the science part of it--quantum physics, event horizons, singularities, mathematics that are alive, and all the attendant slang and jargon. But somewhere around page 40 I gave up trying to understand the science and focused instead on the story. Then things got interesting. I gave my attention to the three story lines and wondering what the connection between them was. Harrison is very good and stringing you along and giving up the secrets only a little at a time, just enough to keep you going. By the end though it was like the finale to a fireworks show and before I could grasp and appreciate one revelation another one would be upon me. That was fun. It kept me reading last night well past when I should have turned off the light and gone to bed. In that regard the book was great, until I got to the final revelation, the reason for it all, and was so disappointed I groaned. The end was such a complete cliche I couldn't help it. I enjoyed the book so much up to that point that I even went back and re-read the last few pages to make sure I had followed it all. I had. I don't want to give away the ending because maybe to some it might not be cliche; some might find it uplifting, enlightening. I wanted something else, something different than I got. Don't let my disappointment in the ending keep you from reading the book. As I said, I enjoyed the long middle portion very much. It is a well written book, solid science fiction, and worth a read.