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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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