Skip to main content

Light (SF) - John Harrison ***

There's no doubt that John Harrison sets out to stretch the bounds in Light, the first of a trilogy. Nor is there any doubt that what Harrison does in this book is very clever. The result is something that is arguably both a great book and a mess, so the three stars is something of an average.

Some readers may be put off by the fact that the narrative starts out in a way that is highly disjointed. We've got three interlaced story strands, one in present day England and two in a distant future, though there is no obvious connection between them. You have to read a whole lot of the book without much clue as to what's going on before it all comes together. Done properly, and if the reader has a lot of patience, this technique can be stunning. Gene Wolfe does it to perfection in the fantasy classic There Are Doors. Here it sort of works.

The two future strands, with central characters who are respectively an addict of an immersive entertainment system and someone who has given up her humanity to be the sort-of controlling brain of a starship, have a clever premise that space travelling humans, and a couple of non-human races, make use of vastly older technology they don't really understand, found near a strange natural (or not) phenomenon in a kind of tech graveyard. This is certainly interesting, though the strand I found I was happiest to return to was the present day one.

In this, the central character is one of two physicists, apparently trying to develop a quantum computer in a strangely amateurish setting. What they're doing seems to bear little resemblance to anything in current quantum computer research, but somehow, in part thanks to something unnatural seen in a computer simulation, it seems to end up being a faster-than-light drive instead. Oh, and the main character is haunted by a creature with a horse's skull for a head, which he somehow assumes will stay away from him if he kills people.

It's hard to have any sympathy for any of the central characters - one more obstacle Harrison seems to have intentionally put in the way to make this book harder work to enjoy. There's also a lot of techno-glitter - the sort of clever wordplay that sounds like it should be meaningful but really isn't. This technique is probably best illustrated by Roy's 'I've seen things you people wouldn't believe,' speech towards the end of Blade Runner. Harrison seems particularly fond of terminology from chaos theory - we get at least three references to a strange attractor - but often it feels like the words wash over the reader, sounding as if they have more content than is really there.

To an extent it all comes together at the end, though a fair amount is left unexplained. There's no doubt that reading this book is an experience you will remember. Whether you will enjoy it or not, I'm not sure. Several weeks after reading it, I still can't decide whether or not to go onto the other books in the trilogy - there's a kind of 'Want to read on, despite yourself' feeling as you go through the book, and this urges me to continue to the next volume. But it's the same kind of appeal of picking a scab. Might be best not to.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…