Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan

Reviewed by Farah Mendlesohn

Lightborn UK cover

The fall has happened, and zombies roam the city. It’s the hottest theme in the field right now. But what I want to know is not what happens during the fall, when people are falling into zombiedom in their thousands, or even how all the zombies are killed but our hero is left standing in an abattoir, clutching her double barrelled shotgun and wondering if she should keep the last bullet for herself. What I want to know is, what happens next? How exactly do you live with zombies if you can’t live without them?

Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn takes place several years after the citizens of Los Sombres have been turned into zombies by a rogue AI manipulating the latest in hot interconnectivity brain implants, which are carried by light flashes in a kind of insidious semaphore. They aren’t your traditional zombies, in that their brains may have been eaten by the lightborns (a puzzling name given they are messages borne by light, not messages born from light), but they aren’t into eating people. Instead they are nursing their malfunctioning brains and trying to cope with various versions of vicious OCD—anything from staring at the universe held in their own hands until they starve to death to being caught up in ecstatic dances or violent rages.

Naturally, because it is that kind of book, no one under thirteen has caught the lightborns because the brain doesn’t develop the appropriate receptors until puberty, which sort of doesn’t make sense given that the lightborns were originally developed to allow people to medicate and self-medicate for depression, but we know that babies' and children’s brains are extra responsive to anti-depression drugs in rather worrying ways. But the conceit of children unaffected, left to run the world with a few sane, and many insane, adults is an old one and the handwaving functions for what Sullivan then does with it. Other elements of “that kind of book” include an outside world which thinks Los Sombres is a starving, zombie haunted ghetto; a quarantine zone for refugees; a shoot on sight policy; and a government which wants to bomb Los Sombres into the ground to prevent the rogue AI from sneaking into the wider lightborn “field”.

However, that is as far as the “that sort of book” goes, for in many other ways Lightborn undercuts the contemporary zeitgeist of the survival novel. Unlike most Zombie fiction, and many of the very popular young adult post-survival novels—from O. T. Nelson’s The Girl Who Owned a City (1975) through to Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It (2006), Sullivan eschews the lies about survival being the responsibility of, or even a possibility for, the individual. This is a text that recognizes that one of the key features of human evolution is the degree to which cooperation enables us to climb beyond the limitations of soft hands and blunt teeth. Lightborn shows us a world in which the argument is about what kinds of cooperation work best (top down or bottom up, anarchic or authoritarian, amongst others), and has little truck with the more individualistic ends of the anarcho-libertarian spectrum.

The book is structured around two teens. There is Xavier, who lives on a ranch in a quarantine zone outside Los Sombres, and whose puberty is being held in check by Kiss, a drug that may be related to melatonin; and there is Roksana, daughter of one of the leading Riders of lightborns, who has gone insane with the rest of the adults of Los Sombres but is battling back to find a cure. Roksana is immune to lightborns, something which she resented as a teen, but is now using to help organize the damaged adults of her world into some kind of functioning polity, using lightborns to manipulate people into wanting to work communally. Xavier’s desperation to find more Kiss sends him into Los Sombres where he meets Roksana and discovers that The Parents are Wrong and that Los Sombres, while a very strange, damaged place, is one where—humans being humans—people have survived, and can organize themselves and reconstruct small-scale food production and wide-scale relief in the manner of the reclamation projects currently taking place in cities such as Detroit (see Urban Farming).

This raises the question of whether this is a YA novel, a question which seems to arise these days every time the age of the protagonists sinks much below twenty. The answer, I think, is “no”, for there is nothing of the coming-of-age narrative which so shapes the modern YA novel, nor is there any of the sexual discovery. Roksana has been sexually active for years, having found a very nice fuck buddy thank you very much, and having a clear sense that the last thing she needs is romance. Xavier doesn’t even have the equipment until late on, and his first sexual experience is with a worldly-wise AI in a way that might well put him off sex for years to come. These two people are simply not modern American teens with an adulthood so delayed that they have to fill it with pseudo romance, teen conspiracy, and worries about whether or not they “fit in”. Xavier and Roksana, for all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that shape their lives, have experiences and expectations far more in common with the juveniles of Heinlein and Norton in that they are more or less (Roksana more, Xavier less) operating as adults in a world in which adulthood is defined not through relationships but through responsibilities. Following directly from this is that neither thinks of themselves as all that significant, and when others try to convince them that they are the chosen one(s), there usually turns out to be a reason.

This takes me, finally, to the issue that this is clearly a post RaceFail book, an issue that Sullivan raises herself in an interview. I am not going to comment on whether Sullivan represents Native Americans “well” or not, although it is a relief to see the spiritual medicine woman Powaqa turn out to be a lot more complex a representation than that implies, or whether Sullivan succeeds in representing other cultures, but she clearly achieves three distinct things. First, her characters never formed as automatically “white” in my mind; second, because there is always more than one member of any one ethnic group no character was expected to act as representative; and third, unlike so many SF books I have read in the past few years, I could seriously imagine that this might be our future, that we could get there from here.


Farah Mendlesohn is the author of The Inter-Galactic Playground, and the editor of On Joanna Russ, both nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Related Book this year. She edited the journal Foundation for six years.