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Saturday, August 27, 2011

"By Light Alone" by Adam Roberts (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Adam Roberts Website
Read FBC Review of Yellow Blue Tibia
Read FBC Review of New Model Army
Read FBC Review of Anticopernicus
Order "By Light Alone" HERE

INTRODUCTION: After recently reading and enjoying Adam Roberts first experiment in independent publishing, the "dwarf novel" Anticopernicus, his main 2011 novel By Light Alone became even a bigger expectation book than before and I got it on its publishing day on August 18. I will present its blurb below though I want to note that while generally accurate, it does not convey the power and richness of By Light Alone which turned out to be the best of the author's more literary offerings and climbed to my top three overall of his generally superb body of work alongside Land of the Headless and Stone which are both huge favorites of mine.

"In a world where we have been genetically engineered so that we can photosynthesise sunlight with our hair hunger is a thing of the past, food an indulgence. The poor grow their hair, the rich affect baldness and flaunt their wealth by still eating. But other hungers remain ...The young daughter of an affluent New York family is kidnapped. The ransom demands are refused. Years later a young women arrives at the family home claiming to be their long lost daughter. She has changed so much, she has lived on light, can anyone be sure that she has come home? Adam Roberts' new novel is yet another amazing melding of startling ideas and beautiful prose. Set in a New York of the future it nevertheless has echoes of a Fitzgeraldesque affluence and art-deco style. It charts his further progress as one of the most important writers of his generation."
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: By Light Alone is a difficult novel to review because most of its power resides in the main characters and their interactions between themselves and the interesting but weird world the author postulates once a genius geneticist had offered humanity the gift of the "hair bug", allowing people to grow special hair which synthesizes food from sunlight, gift which turned out to be a mixed blessing to say the least.

"Preacher said: ‘Hair’s made all men preachers, now. Made all men preachers or else lazy dogs in the sun. Hair took our work, which had sustained us for millennial generations. It took our power over women and our power over the things of the Earth. These things were ours, and the Hair took them away.’"

So the book strongly depends on style and your enjoyment will correlate with how much you will appreciate the rich and luxuriant prose of the author. In the first part of the book that takes roughly a third of the total number of pages, we meet George Denoone, an aimless and bored member of the super wealthy class that regards Earth as its playground even more than usually in the past, disdaining both what has remained of the middle classes aka the "jobsuckers" and the poor aka "the longhairs".

"He swept out, past his upended and absorbed daughter. A flash of ArsinĂ©e’s aghast face. And, in the elevator going back up to the penthouse bar, he did feel a little better. These footling little humps of up-and-down emotion. Demeaning really. Not for the first time in his life he was aware of the sense that he needed some project. It didn’t really matter what, of course; only to find something purposeful to help elevate him, keep him on a more noble emotional level."

Married with a rich woman on her own, Marie Lewinsky and having two kids, 11 year old Leah and five year old Ezra, George is drifting through life, occasionally seducing the wives of his wealthy companions while paying scant attention to his wife or children. Until on a skiing vacation on Mount Ararat's slopes, the incredible happens and Leah is kidnapped, crime that is the only one authorities cannot solve however much money George throws at them, for the reasons explained below, reasons that have a lot to do with the way the world has rearranged itself once most people starting feeding on light:

"Dot nodded, as if this were fair comment. ‘Now, the bosses aren’t stupid,’ she went on. ‘And women aren’t stupid. Easier to grab a child than carry it two thirds of a year in your womb. The women get a kid; the bosses get their population of serfs renewed. That’s why they’re so reluctant to intervene. If a Turk or Iranian had stolen your gold-plated Fwn, then the police would’ve run the news round the local villages, a boss would have shaved a couple of heads, pocketed the reward and the trinket would have come back to you. But the bosses make a point of not getting involved where child theft is concerned.’"

In the second part of the book, we follow the retrieved Leah adjusting to her life back in New York, while then the novel continues for some time with Marie's tale only to end in the fourth revelatory part with the tale of Issa, a strange girl from the underclass with a true odyssey of her own.

So By Light Alone is structured as the consecutive tales of four characters where pov follows pov and illuminates what happens before while also moving the story forward, and once this structure is understood everything falls into place and the novel comes together perfectly well in a very powerful ending that first threw me off a bit since I did not expect it...

Of course as an Adam Roberts novel you get a lot of musings through the characters voices and there is a lot of interesting stuff thrown almost casually in there, stuff about the nature of historical inquiry, the whys and how the world works in addition to sfnal speculation and ideas.

And there is action too since from about half on, the novel changes pace somewhat starting with Marie's tale, only to accelerate with Issa's pov in a crescendo till the powerful finale. There is romance, revolution, brutality, joy and sorrow, all in a superb weave it truly pays to reread at least once.

Overall By Light Alone (A++, top 25 novel of 2011) is a masterpiece of literary sf and a book that could stand proudly alongside any literary novel of 2011. The novel's pieces fit perfectly together and I strongly recommend to reread it once you finish it since you will appreciate it in a different way once you understand everything that has been going on.


Alyssa from Legends of Dune said...

Sounds like a really great book, I enjoy alternative future depictions.

Liviu said...

Yes it is a great book because it manages to combine a very good sfnal scenario with excellent characters and prose. In the later category it is on par with the celebrated books by K. Ishiguro and M. Atwood or for that matter the 2011 Testament of Jessie Lamb, while in sfnal aspect it is way ahead of those


Wow. What a great Review. Bravo. Usually and for the most part, it is the book itself that sinks a hook in my jowls. This time, my dear fellow, it is the Review. Thank you.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words.


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