November 4th, 2002

The Monday Morning "Blew Me Away!" Review: Light

M. John Harrison has always been one of the greats of British SF. Starting with his work for New Worlds, and continuing through complex, deeply involving fantasies like Course Of The Heart and Signs Of Life. Now he's returned to space opera after many years, and given us Light. It could well be his finest work to date.

Light pours from the ravaged space that is the Kefahuchi Tract, a naked singularity ripping physics apart with every emanation. It is a dangerous, enthralling place, that attracts every race as they burst out into the galaxy, flourish, and fade away. It's a challange to humanity, and a symbol of what will be its ultimate failure. On the worlds of Radio Beach, in amongst the artificial suns, two stories are beginning that will end an old, old story, and start something new. It's a story that folds back to the end of the 20th century, and the discovery that gives mankind the stars.

Three stories: two from tomorrow, one from yesterday. Three strands that twist and turn, wrapping today's decaying London in the bright lights of the Kefahuchi Tract. Seria Mau Genlicher has stolen a K-ship, sealed inside its control tank, wrapped in the comforting mathematics that give the "White Cat" the stars. She's carrying a box of secrets, a box she must open. On New Venusport, VR-tank addict Ed Chianese is running from his past and its debts. He's running, but he doesn't know that someone is guiding him. He may think he's running from, but he's really running to. And in the morass of 1999, the tortured physicist Michael Kerney is exploring quantum computing, while running from an alien vision: the inscrutable Shrander. Three stories, but really one. Three stories that twist and turn, that move from the pebbles of a New England shore to the bloated jungles of Radio Beach, from cats on keyboards in London to fractal war in the deeps of space, where K-ships battle mathematics and throw violent light across the stars.

And as it all fades to light, we're left with three things, decaying on a barren asteroid, under that all exposing light: an empty ship; a pair of dice; a human skeleton. The ship may be about to leave, but now we know what brought them all here, what the Shrander was, and what it may well mean for the Tract. Harrison has given us a triumph, a novel where language sears through us like the radiation from the Kefahuchi Tract, illuminating today with a fractured, fractal, vision of a quantum tomorrow. This is what space opera is, this is what SF can be. This is why we read, to be thrust full length into dreams of light, and dreams of words.

The best SF novel of 2002 by a long, long way. Written with love and anger, a tale of passion and deep darkness, Harrison has given us a masterwork that will stand up to the greats of old, and show us a road to a new SF for a new century. Buy it, read it, and then buy another copy to give to your friends. You won't find a finer book inside or outside the genre for a long, long time.

Go Mike, go.
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The Monday Lunchtime Review "Another Death In Edo": The Concubine's Tattoo

As readers of these reviews will have noted, I've become a great fan of Laura Joh Rowland's series of 17th century Japanese mysteries. There's a certain attraction for a regular reader of genre SF: an alien civilisation in contact with an outside world, a contact that is forcing change on a weak leader and a resistant establishment.

The Concubine's Tattoo is the fourth volume in the series, and one that takes us deeper into the heart of the Shogun's palace, and its convoluted politics. Sano Ichiro has just married Reiko, the only child of Magistrate Ueda, when the wedding ceremony is disturbed by the death of one of the Shogun's concubines. Poisoned by the ink she was using for an intimate tatoo, her violent death plunges the Most Honorable Investigator Sano into the morass of palace politics. As suspects and alibis mount up, Sano must try and find his way through to the truth, while at the same time come to an understanding with his tempestuous and independent young bride. Even if it means possible death for them both. As it is, Sano ends the volume with a set of allies who will aid him in his rivalry with the Shogun's chamberlain.

Another entertaining mystery, with interesting motives and complex characters. It's easy to spot who the murderer is, but the complexities of the case and its politics make it difficult for Sano to realise just what has happened. With the addition of Reiko, Rowland has expanded her regular cast. Whether the independent Reiko is a true reflection of her times, or authorial fiat with a twentieth century spin, is another question - but she remains an intriguing character. It will be interesting to see how Rowland develops Reiko over the next few volumes in the series.

A gripping mystery, with a dynamic climax. Well worth reading, and like the rest a story that will stand alone.
  • Current Music
    Robert Miles - 23am - Flying Away