Sunday Reading

Posted by Niall Harrison

So, my extended Christmas break is finally over, and I return to work properly tomorrow; and as you would hope, I managed to get through a good few books. Most of them deserve to be written about. I'm going to start with a brief skim over Adam Roberts' By Light Alone, since I nominated it as a best of the year.

Reading it now, I read it in the context of recent-ish posts by Paul Kincaid, Rich Puchalsky and Lavie Tidhar about how to read Adam Roberts novels. Kincaid and Tidhar settle, for different reasons, on the notion that Adam Roberts novels are critiques of science fiction. Puchalsky is more general: "His novels seem to me to be characterized by a high degree of formal structure coupled with underdetermination of what that structure means." So it's perhaps not surprising that science fiction readers see criticism of science fiction; but you can also arrange the pieces in different ways. I think all three posts are correct, in some ways. I can see critique of sf in almost every Roberts novel, but I think I also see a general principle of which the critique of sf is a limited case.

Adam Roberts novels, it seems to me today, often worry at questions of sincerity and insincerity -- or authenticity and inauthenticity, per Tidhar's gloss on Catherynne Valente's critique of Yellow Blue Tibia. For someone often pegged as a quite cynical, sardonic commentator, Roberts' fiction concerns itself quite often with what you might call verities of "the human condition", as conventionally understood -- there are essays to be written about love in Adam Roberts novels, and war in Adam Roberts novels -- albeit rarely in conventional forms, indeed usually deliberately contrary or challenging: the emotional arcs in Swiftly most infamously, perhaps. And more significantly, science fiction as published today is a fundamentally sincere genre: earnest, even, both politically and stylistically. Because Adam Roberts novels are only ever sincere in backhanded ways, and frequently insincere in obvious ways, it's easy to see them as critiquing science fiction; and they usually are; but per Puchalsky they're usually doing more than that as well, I think.

And so to By Light Alone, in which the availability of photosynthetic hair has almost eradicated starvation, but only exaggerated the gap between the wealthy and the poor -- the latter growing their hair long and spreading it out to maximise surface area, to get enough energy to get through the day; the former engaging in ever more ostentatious consumption in lives insulated from the bulk of the world. The first two-thirds of the novel follows the viewpoints of some of the haves; the final third switches to one of the have-nots. Gwyneth Jones says of this final section: "Maybe it's just a little rushed, but it felt like the end of the completely different novel." I think the disjunction is deliberate, and the way I'd put it is that the final third is more sincere than what has come before. The narrative in the early parts of the novel, most of which is devoted to the experience of a wealthy man whose daughter is abducted (by the poor), is gassy and arch, constantly fussing and pedantic about casual idioms: "George and Marie continued in their usual round. But isn't 'round' a strange way of putting it? Their lives, though in every respect metaphorically upholstered, lacked precisely the three-dimensionality implied by that idiom" (72). This acquires bite when George hires an investigator to find his daughter, and she tries to educate him in the realities of the world, but we're told: "He heard the words and understood them, but only on what you might call a semantic level" (83). What's real, how to talk about the world accurately, what the precise words we use mean is a central concern; George's life is unreal because it is childishly ignorant, leaving him morally stunted, and the central decision in his narrative is whether he is willing to allow himself to become "laughably genuine" (170). When we switch to George's wife Marie, we find that she's working on a project to rewild the Queens Garden in New York, but in a self-interested manner that reads like nothing so much as a harsh parody of a Kim Stanley Robinson novel. And so when we switch to the final section of narrative, which is as Jones says something like "a straightforward apocalyptic global-warming adventure story", it is a shock; in fact it seems unreal; the conventional science fiction narrative has been made untrustworthy by the conditioning that came before it.

But there is a way in which this final section remains insincere. In another excellent piece on the novel, Martin McGrath comments on the representation of rich and poor:

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.


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?

There is a partial answer from the worldbuilding on this point, I think: as I read it, the climate change in By Light Alone has increased desertification around the tropics -- which is where the poor congregate, because it has the best sunlight -- making agriculture an even more marginal proposition than it already is, and outright impossible in much of their territory. More importantly I don't think Roberts' point is so straightforward as "the wealthy are different from the rest of us." The decadence of his ultra-rich is so advanced as to be cartoonish; they are an exaggeration; although the force of the criticism of them is sincere, surely they are themselves not sincerely meant. But there is something similar to be said of Roberts' poor. As Martin writes, the novel is quite clearly and emphatically on the side of the poor, and yet they are often awful. (The disjunction between the gender egalitarianism claimed for the poor world, and the gender dynamics actually shown in the poor world, is pretty caustic, for instance.) My gloss for this is that the novel does not allow the poor to be (en masse) better or more noble people than the rich; and yet they do organise and achieve things, even as George gropes towards empathy. Both the poor and the rich in By Light Alone denounce the other side as "barely human"; both statements are lies; but the extremity of their situation has deformed the character of both groups. Human beings are made by their circumstances, and all the circumstances in By Light Alone are bad ones.

As Martin notes, By Light Alone is a timely book; I think it's the first time I could possibly say that reading an Adam Roberts novel has felt zeitgeisty, like a vastly more sophisticated version of In Time. It's a corrective to narratives like -- much as I enjoyed it -- The Highest Frontier, with its presumption of a benevolent upper class. But its righteousness is not comfortable.


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