Light - M. John Harrison FAIR WARNING: There are spoilers galore below and for the "faint of heart" I do get a bit more sexually graphic in describing parts of the book than is my wont, so take care if you like to read these things with your kids :-)

I liked this book...I think.

All right, I won't be so namby-pamby: I liked this book (period).

Light is, however, not an easily comprehensible book nor one you can simply race through in an afternoon. The plot is rather simple ("nonexistent" in the opinion of some GR reviewers): Late in the 20th century (1999), Michael Kearney is a physicist and serial killer, who, with his partner, have stumbled on the beginnings of a Theory of Everything. He's also haunted by a creature he calls "the Shrander" that drives him to murder as he desperately tries to escape it. Interwoven with the modern-day story are those of Seria Mau and Ed Chianese in the late 25th (2400). Humans have spread throughout the galaxy but the novel focuses on an "impossible" phenomenon known as the Kefahuchi Tract, where all the laws of physics are bent if not broken and the relics of thousands of alien civilizations give mute testimony to intelligences' attempts to understand the phenomenon. Seria Mau is a sentient starship, a once-human girl overlaid on the technology of the earliest known race to investigate the Tract. (These enigmatic aliens were simply designated "Kefahuchi" and their technology, K-tech.) Ed, who turns out to be Seria's brother, became one of those humans who court death by exploring the Tract and getting as close to the singularity at its heart, though never going "all the way." We're introduced to him at the lowest point in his life, when he's become a "twink," addicted to VR. Unknown to these two, the Shrander has been manipulating their lives as well in order to bring events to a culmination where humans can begin to get a handle on the Tract.

Ah, the Tract. It turns out that the universe is, quite literally, what we make it. When humans ventured out into space they discovered a host of alien civilizations, most with physics that were incompatible with their own - sometimes in direct contradiction to "established" fact. The Tract is a mad place of dark energies & matter, weird energies and a naked singularity down which many have gone but none returned.

The Shrander is the last relic of K-tech. It's been manipulating alien cultures for 65 million years (at least) because it too needs to know what the Tract is. The original K aliens were "defeated" by the Tract. They came, they saw, but they couldn't conquer it so they made intelligent life more probable on a number of worlds and hoped that one of their "descendants" would understand it. (In a way, it's like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: a super-advanced race of beings creates the ultimate computer to answer the ultimate question.) The 65-million-year figure is interesting because that's when the last dinosaurs went extinct on Earth, opening up all those juicy ecological niches to our family - the mammals.

And then there's the sex. Having had twenty-four hours to mull over the book, I'm beginning to see where the sex fits in to the story as a whole. None of the three protagonists are very well adjusted, and their sexual hang-ups explain many of their actions. Kearney has sublimated his sexual desires into a fantasy house where he masturbates to his cousins' sexual play. It's only late in the book when he's able to have "normal" sex with his ex-wife Anne that he's able to face the Shrander and his phobias. Seria Mau was molested as a girl by a father who couldn't handle his wife's death; and there are two episodes in the novel where she murders her human passengers in a jealous fit of pique because they're having sex. Again, it's when she's able to reinhabit a physical body and at least have the opportunity for sex that she conquers her fears. I haven't quite figured out all sexual connection in terms of Ed's character, though his sex life is certainly far from normal, and seems to fixate around mother figures and dependency.

I was annoyed by the Shrander - another near-omnipotent, alien deus ex machina that's been subtly manipulating mankind for eons - stepping in at just the right moment. And it made the ending a bit too hopeful, considering all that had come before. Outside of that, though, I thought the book was worth reading. It's an intuitive guess at this point but I'm leaning toward the opinion that this is a "failed" novel. Harrison is trying to say something profound about "life, the universe & everything" but this book isn't strong enough to carry that weight.