By Light Alone by Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts seems to be, in general, a writer with two modes.* He can write good ideas badly, and he can write bad ideas well. His last novel, New Model Army, was an Andy McNab-meets-Cory Doctorow future-military romp which unfortunately only worked if you assumed that teaching soldiers how to carry out first aid and basic repairs was a radical new idea that could destroy world politics as we know it. By Light Alone, the pendulum has swung back, and now a fundamentally interesting plot has been buried in a thick sludge of clumsy metaphor.
The basic setup is this: in the unspecified future, humans can be engineered to photosynthesise through their hair. The Bug, as it’s known, is essentially free (it’s passed from mother to child in breast milk) and has created a new class of people who have nothing and need nothing, except water and the odd handful of mud for minerals. There is a lot that can be done with that idea, and in Roberts’ case, he goes for the satirical angle. Faced with a world where food is unnecessary and the poor are rake-thin, the rich have become gastronomes of the highest order, flaunting their wealth by stuffing themselves with masses of shrimp-and-pomegranate purée and origami ham.
Some of the displays of conspicuous consumption work quite well. I do, for instance, love the idea of a ski slope made of ice cream – too sticky to ski on, too oily to eat, and yet people flock there simply to make a point of being seen amidst so much food. Others don’t hit the mark; the practice of decadently eating just to purge and eat even more goes back millennia, but the idea that people would spit their food up into buckets at the dining table pushes it into ridiculousness. I’m also not quite sure whether the idea that these people dedicate their lives to gastronomy yet somehow don’t know what an apple looks like is a deeply satirical attack on modern food production, or simply a hamfisted attempt to make the characters even more unsympathetic.
Anyway, the plot kicks off when a girl called Leah is abducted from this ice cream ski resort. The first half of the book is told from the perspective of her father George, a man so rich he no longer needs to work, and so passes the time by watching the news (an activity that is apparently well catered to yet also deeply unfashionable, since the news consists of little but rolling footage of massacres of the poor). George’s emotional response to losing his daughter is undoubtedly the best part of the book, and when, in the words of the back cover, “a girl arrives at the family home claiming to be their long lost daughter” (spoiler alert: it’s not their daughter) his reconnection with her is charmingly and affectingly written too.
Things go off the rails when the action shifts from the affectations of ludicrously loathsome New York aristocrats to the village of “longhairs” (i.e. those who use their hair to photosynthesise) on the Turkish-Kurdish border where Leah now lives. Since food is unnecessary, no-one has any reason to work – except, that is, for pregnant women, whose photosynthesising hair doesn’t give them enough energy or nutrition to bring a baby to term. It’s never really explained why no men ever feel attached enough either to their partners or to their potential children to provide for them, nor where so much food is coming from in a world where agriculture has collapsed, and it doesn’t really gel with what we’re also told about the longhairs’ numbers booming. There’s nothing wrong with scientifically implausible ideas in service of a bigger message – after all, I’m down with the idea of photosynthesising hair in the first place – but for a novel about society, being founded on such a rickety idea is very distracting.
As a result, the economy of the village consists of manual work and sexual favours. And here, the book takes a very clumsy detour into child prostitution. While New Model Army overcame the stumbling block of grindingly repetitive military fiction to become great in its last leg, for By Light Alone there is simply no recovery after twenty-plus pages of grindingly repetitive child rape. Leah sees a friend get shot, and in the true Roberts fashion (see Stalin in Yellow Blue Tibia and the boy-with-the-key-in-his-head from New Model Army), his hallucinatory ghost follows her around, providing her with in enlightenment and musing on the philosophical meaning of loneliness in an unusually eloquent and metaphysical way considering Leah lives in a world where no-one watches the news and books aren’t read but “watched”.
And the metaphors. Dear god. The metaphors.
It got cool in the valley, and then cold. Issa grew torpid. This was solitude. Only one bird remained, and this was not a real bird, this was a metaphorical bird. Its name was misery and it nested down for the night, inside her breast. (page 309)
Or how about this, describing the scene as George surveys the ski slope.
He had a vantage. A spaghetti of ski-trails leading down the mountain. These were braids of hair; they were Rapunzel paths. George looked around and around, amazed.
Strands of his soul were escaping out of his mouth. (page 1)
The book never seems willing to use a piece of imagery or symbolism without highlighting the hell out of it – at one point, a character tells us that strawberries were the fruit in the Garden of Eden, and the rest of the chapter contains characters eating strawberry ice cream, raiding the fridge for strawberries, discussing whether strawberries are made of straw, talking about “the strawberry that broke the camel’s back” and describing anything red as “strawberry coloured”. STRAWBERRIES. ORIGINAL SIN. DO YOU GET IT?
Adam Roberts has a reputation for literary sci-fi – not literary in the sense of, say, Margaret Atwood or China Miéville, who write sci-fi that also happens to have literary appeal, but literary in the sense that the book itself exists solely as a challenge to reviewers; a thing to be analysed, rather than read. Certainly, a lot of the rather glowing reviews online seem to think this way. This post has languished for months in my drafts as I’ve seesawed back-and-forth about whether to post this review. Perhaps the book’s badness is its point. Perhaps the metaphorical bird named misery was an intentionally clunky image, and if you think hard enough about the book, its meaning will fall perfectly into place. Perhaps the strands of soul are meant to drag you out of the scene as you try to piece together what’s actually happening. (My two leading theories: it’s either the condensation of his breath, or he’s slack-jawed enough that he’s started drooling). Perhaps the 2001: A Space Odyssey reference that inexplicably ends the book actually has a purpose beyond reminding you of other, better books and films.
But even if this is the case, and buried in the tortured writing is a gem of a story, it’s a shame it takes so much digging just to find it.
*Yellow Blue Tibia being the one exception, the one-in-a-million conjunction of plot and description that all came together perfectly.