I’m going to spend some of this review taking issue with elements of Adam Roberts’ new novel, By Light Alone, so I think I should start off by staying up front that I thought this was both a thought-provoking and immensely enjoyable book. Indeed one of the reasons I’m going to spend so much time picking at bits of the book is that this it forces you to think about stuff, big stuff, big political stuff and I like books that do that.
It is also fair to declare that I have a bit of a peculiar relationship with Adam Roberts’ work. Ever since I first read Salt when it was published back in 2000 I’ve been convinced that he’s had the potential to be a very important author. I’ve bought and read all the novels and much of the short fiction he’s written under his own name since then (which excludes the many parodies he’s written under pseudonyms and excepting Swiftly, which I bought and never got around to reading – I still plan to get to it, one day). He’s a writer I greatly admire for his willingness to take on the aforementioned big stuff, for his willingness to explore different structures and styles and for the way in which he conducts a conversation with genre history without being bound by it. But I have to confess he isn’t always a writer whose books I’ve loved – see this review of Land of the Headless (2007) as an example. None of his novels have, for me, ever quite delivered what I have always believed he is capable of achieving, but some of them have contained moments of astonishing writing – for example the falling spaceman sequence in Gradisil. And lately Roberts has been on a roll, Yellow Blue Tibia and New Model Army were both hugely impressive novels – I especially liked New Model Army, and I’m still threatening to write an essay about the issues of democratic theory that book raises.
By Light Alone continues that exceptionally strong run of books – in some ways I think it might be Roberts’ best novel yet – I certainly found it the most satisfying and purely enjoyable read. In his earlier works Roberts’ plotting has sometimes been a little wonky – character motivations aren’t always as convincing as they should be, there’s the occasional non sequiter in cause and effect and his endings have a tendency to crumble under the weight of the high concepts he’s become so (in)famous for. To be fair to Roberts, I think he might concede that plot isn’t the thing that interests him most in his writing and, more often than not, his books have enough energy and quality to carry him over any bumpy bits of storytelling.
In By Light Alone he delivers a more successfully rounded novel. The book returns to a trick that he used in Gradisil, which is that rather than tell a linear story he splits the novel up into four parts, focussing on four different characters who rather circle around the plot rather than charge straight through it. The first section tells the story from the point of view of George – rich, fat, complacent – who must deal with the abduction of his daughter Leah and her subsequent recovery, eleven months later. It’s an incident that profoundly affects George and his marriage. Another, very brief, section shows us the world of the rich from the returned Leah’s point of view. Then the story moves to Marie, George’s shrewish, self-obsessed and now ex-wife, as she starts her new life. Finally we see the world from the point of view of Issa, one of the underclass, as she survives traumatic events to make her way to New York where apocalyptic events ensue.
As a narrative strategy this breaking up of the novel (effectively it becomes three linked novellas and a short story all driven by the consequences that follow Leah’s abduction) has weaknesses. In Gradisil this strategy didn’t fully work because we never got a convincing picture of the character at the centre of the book – whose charisma was supposed to have driven all the action – but it is much more effective here. In By Light Alone Roberts uses the technique to allow us to explore his world from a variety of angles, gives depth to that world and reveals more about his characters. There’s an unavoidable unevenness of tone (especially when you hit Issa’s story) which is jarring, but overall it successfully gives us a rounded insight into the world Roberts has created. In addition, the cast of characters in By Light Alone is much better balanced than in Gradisil. As I got started with this book I began to worry that I was going to hate it because the wealthy characters were so universally vile. I suspect that at least one of the pieces of grit around which this novel grew is the often misquoted line from F Scott Fitzgerald[i]:
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” (from “The Rich Boy”)[ii]
While I’m willing to accept that the rich are, indeed, different – I found it harder to accept that they could be so utterly inhumane as they are presented in the opening chapters of By Light Alone. And, even if they were so different, and even if that was a point worth making, I still quickly found that I was growing tired of reading about them. But George emerges from under the burden of his wealth to develop into a real human boy – the loss of his daughter changes him. Always more interested in the world around him than his contemporaries, George gradually becomes dissatisfied with his place in the world. He divorces his wife, cherishes his daughter, though it is a peculiarly self-centred kind of love – powered by the affect it has on his own development. He gets involved with the political underground. George remains a dithering figure, but he’s a well-meaning ditherer and he, at least, gets a kind of redemption.
That’s not the path for Marie. The loss and recovery of her daughter only reinforces Marie’s sense of entitlement. Marie possesses no self-insight, or rather every insight she has about herself, the men in her life, her children and her society is disastrously wrong. She, the boyfriend/ spy she clings to after George and, indeed, her whole class, are every inch Fitzgerald’s “careless people… they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” (The Great Gatsby).
The recovered Leah gets little time in the spotlight. A cameo. But it’s enough to warn us about the revelations to come and to give us in insight into the gap between rich and poor.
Issa, by contrast, is a fully formed character, with a mission of sorts and a “journey” that takes the book full circle. I’ve mentioned that this section of the book is initially jarring – it suddenly dumps the reader in quite a different world with an, at first, apparently unconnected group of characters. I confess I found the first twenty or thirty pages of this disorientating and annoying. However, in Roberts’ defence and on reflection, I believe that at least part of this is deliberate. This section is intended to be revelatory – to pull the wool from our eyes about the nature of the world Roberts has created and the rug from beneath our feet in relation the story Roberts has been telling us. It’s supposed to make our heads swim, at least a bit, as Leah beats on in her “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.
Taken together these threads of the story succeed in giving us an encompassing view of the world Roberts has created. They give us rounded characters who we by turns like and detest. As a structure it works, as a story it is pleasingly complete and as an attempt at a satire or criticism of our modern world, it certainly makes powerful points without drowning the reader in rhetoric.
But, and I did warn that there were buts, I do have a couple of areas of concern.
The first is nitpicking. In her review in The Guardian, Gwyneth Jones says that the science behind By Light Alone’s central conceit – synthetic, photosynthesising hair that has spread amongst the poor and leaves them able to subsist on sunlight alone – makes no sense. A quick glance at the surface area of leaves a tree needs to deploy to gain enough energy just to stand still and sway in the wind suggests that Jones is right. But this didn’t bother me. As far as I’m concerned the science in sf only needs to be internally consistent and, within By Light Alone, Roberts obeys that rule. But other elements of the “New Hair” didn’t quite hold together for me.
I couldn’t quite nail down the timescales involved but Issa and Leah appear to be in at least the second or, possibly, the third generation of poor born since the “New Hair” was unleashed upon the world. There is a character still alive who was a contemporary of the inventor of the hair – and who has taken on a mythical, semi-religious character for some of the poor – but he is described as unusually old in a society where the rich have access to very advanced medical care and some limited life extension technologies. There have been revolutions and upheavals but enough time has passed for the entire world to have changed, for the new relationship between rich and poor to have become bedded down and taken for granted, and for vast population movements to have taken place.
The lot of the long-haired poor is not easy. Roberts makes that abundantly clear. The sunlight provides just enough calories for subsistence but without additional food the poor are capable of doing little. There appear to be very few old amongst the poor, reflecting this difficult existence, and women are unable to bring children to term without substantial reserves of real food. Having a child is, we are told again and again, very difficult for poor women so children are scarce and greatly sought after commodities – hence Leah’s theft.
Which leads me to the nit-picky question: Given that we are at least two generations into this New Hair revolution, and given that life expectancy seems to be short and having children is exceptionally hard, where do all these poor people come from?
They don’t come in dribs and drabs in By Light Alone, they throng and swarm in vast numbers, coating hillsides, sweeping across landmasses, swarming over defences. There are so many that the rich have taken to creating specially targeted plagues to thin their numbers. The real nit-picky problem with the detail of By Light Alone isn’t that the long-hair doesn’t make sense, it’s that the sums don’t seem to add up in relation to the population of the poor.
That said, and as with the photosynthesising hair, having scribbled notes in the margin of the book about it, the masses of poor serve the story and allow Roberts to make the points he needs to within the novel and so the inconsistency can be forgiven and ignored. I can’t pretend it didn’t niggle that slightly obsessive side of my character though.
But my more substantial problem with By Light Alone isn’t the number of poor but the way in which the book portrays them.
Now let me start by saying that I’m sure that the books (and Adam Roberts) sympathies are with the masses in this tale of the rich versus the poor.
But did they have to be quite so downtrodden?
Throughout the novel the poor are portrayed as stupid, lazy and feckless. This is okay, I think, in the sections presented from the point of view of the rich characters but when we get to see things from Issa’s point of view in the final section, when we see the poor from their own perspective, this remains the case. They are morally debased, unable to organise themselves, unable to take constructive action on their own behalf and the vast majority are portrayed more like animals than humans.
The men lounge about unwilling to do anything unless forced, happy just to subsist on the bare minimum energy available to them and stirring only in the hope of momentary gratification – primarily through sex. The women are generally somewhat more motivated to take action – because they want to bear and raise children – but nowhere is there any sign of them being capable of organising their own lives or their own communities to make themselves independent – even though we see them living in societies that are more-or-less ignored by the rich.
This struck me as odd. The poor across the world have been organising themselves and feeding themselves for millennia. Yet in By Light Alone they can’t manage a field of rice or wheat or to care for a goat or cow between millions of them.
Yes their long-hair provides them with a basic level of sustenance, but Roberts makes it clear throughout that it is not enough to satisfy their appetites. They are always thinking about food. To put it in crude economic terms there are plenty of incentives for the poor to organise themselves to grow food and improve their communities and there are opportunities for them to satisfy their needs and to profit from satisfying the needs of others, which, for some at least, would seem to outweigh potential costs in exerting themselves.
For individuals there’s the incentive of satisfying personal hunger and there’s the knowledge that in their community the person with a supply of food has power that might motivate someone of entrepreneurial (to use a horrible word) spirit to organise agriculture. At a collective level there’s the fact that it would support children, strengthen communities, allow a more comfortable environment.
True Roberts makes clear that the rich world no longer has any interest in feeding the poor, there’s no profit in it for them. But, for the poor, subsistence farming and the potential to go beyond that to develop their own economy outside the one dominated by the rich never appears to occur to anyone – or where it is tried (there is a mention in Issa’s story of an attempt to grow food next to a sewage pipe) it is done so ineptly that the poor seem dim-witted beyond reason.
Yes, Roberts is trying to make a point about how the wealthy are different from the rest of us. About how greed, and the corruption that comes with it, causes suffering and estrangement and debases both the rich and the poor. It’s a good point. It’s a timely point.
But why do his poor have to be such victims?
My experience of communities that have little and that feel themselves punished for it, is that, yes, there are those who revel in the filth, but also that there are also those who seek to build things, to construct alternative ways out, to make a life that is bearable and has opportunities not just for themselves but for their friends and their families.
In the end, Roberts’ poor get their revolution, they sweep over the defences of the rich and bring mayhem. But what does it get them? It’s a dramatic moment, to be sure, and a fantastic ending to the novel, but the further I get from the reading the book the less convinced I am of the point of this revolutionary moment. What do the long-haired get from taking New York, cold and dark as it is in the winter? There’s brief material gain in looting, there’s the elation of destruction, but how are they better off? Their power is entirely negative. There’s no indication that this moment of liberation will actually change things for the majority because there’s no indication that the majority are capable of constructing anything in the absence of the rich. And as Roberts flies his characters out and away from the aftermath – reconstructing relationships but ultimately lifting them up and out of the masses – the book suggests that the poor, the long-haired, really are the monsters that the rich feared, that they cannot be reasoned with, that they bring only disaster and destruction.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. As I say it’s clear where By Light Alone’s sympathies lie, but for me it also lies within a tradition of British writing and film-making that seeks to highlight the predicament of the “underclass” with good intentions but in which they are portrayed solely as victims – incapable of any response to their predicament that is not ultimately self-destructive. Such portrayals are, at worst, examples of a prurient pornography of poverty designed to provide the middle and upper classes with the thrill of day-tripping to the exotically dangerous and brutal places that they imagine are inhabited by the people they pass on the streets. These stories offer nothing to those that they purport to represent – the poor, the downtrodden – because they simply reinforce the idea that they are helpless beneath the crushing weight of their position in society. There’s no hope for change or improvement. By Light Alone is not in that category, not by a long, long way, but its underclass aren’t shown to be capable of anything positive.
I have wandered off the point slightly. By Light Alone is an excellent book, a thoughtful, intelligent, well-written novel that takes on big ideas. Roberts is often referred to as the master of “high concept” novels, but where much “high concept” science fiction simply uses big ideas to stop thought through the inspiration of mind-numbing awe, Roberts in By Light Alone creates a structure that encourages the reader to consider the world around them and the divisions in it.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this is his best work yet.
[i] The novel contains a number of references to Fitzgerald and Roberts’ adoption of a dense, occasionally florid writing style isn’t, quite, a pastiche of Fitzgerald’s but it comes close in places.
[ii] The mistaken version, involving Hemmingway, is shorter, funnier and more to the point: Fitzgerald: “The rich are different than you and me.” Hemmingway: “Yes, they have more money.”