By Light Alone by Adam Roberts

Reviewed by Nic Clarke

By Light Alone cover

It's generally unwise—if often tempting—to assume that an author shares opinions expressed by his or her characters. It is still less wise to take Adam Roberts's novels at face value. So, at least, goes the argument of much of the recent, and convincing, commentary surrounding his work: Roberts is a deeply self-aware—and self-reflexive—satirist, who seeks to challenge and even alienate as much as he does to entertain. It is not so much that he doesn't take his own characters and stories seriously, but rather that he is deeply invested in the project of deconstructing them before our eyes. He highlights the gaps that we are accustomed to skim over, or fill for ourselves with our boundless readerly empathy. As Lavie Tidhar put it last month, Roberts's modus operandi is to "defamiliarise the unfamiliar"; his work

does not seek to endear, to immerse, to make one a fan of. It is both affectionate and savage. It attempts a three-fold act of defamiliarisation: of science fiction, of science fiction's existence as a social world, and of the realist and non-realist modes of fiction themselves.

Viewed one way, then, the fact that we spend over half the narrative of By Light Alone in the company of the heroically crass and self-involved George and Marie is typical Roberts estrangement: find a sympathetic character in this little lot, readers! For much of the novel, George, Marie, and their unbearable friends have all the intellectual and emotional depths of fax paper. The advent of a new technology that enables human hair to photosynthesize, allowing people to live (but not thrive) on sunlight alone, has swung the pendulum of fashionable elite status display back towards visible public gluttony. The characters spend their days eating elaborately ridiculous meals and having self-congratulatory conversations about how poor people (dismissively called "longhairs") are just lazy and jealous. George's point of view narration uses phrases like "Ergaste took all the ribbing in good spirit" and "the sixsome waxed jolly" (p. 6) (despite George's apparently being an American); more or less the first thing we watch him do is take a fall on the ski slope and get "scalding snow" down his neck, before being compared to an insect, his pathetic helplessness driven home by repetition: "Writhed, he writhed, like an upended beetle" (p. 2).

In places it's very funny, but some of the satire is rather heavy-handed: oh, how vulgar they are, with their blasé attitudes to uninspiring adulterous sex! (The book really does contain some of the most—deliberately—offputting sex I've encountered in fiction in a while: "his belly sagging upon her own . . . [he] push[ed] his splodgy manhood into her over and over" (p. 241).) More plot-pertinent, but still rather overdone, are the episodes that seek to drive home how these awful, awful people ignore their children for days at a time, and then parade them as fashion accessories while pontificating about their maternal instincts:

At this point Marie decided abruptly that she must see Ezra. She had her Fwn out and had called up to his room before George could intervene. "It's his naptime, darling," he said. But it was too late. "I haven't seen him yesterday," she told him—or rather, she told Peter, pushing George's shoulder with her free hand. "A mother has emotional needs and instincts. Only a monster would stifle the free expression of my maternal instincts." (p. 9)

Not surprisingly, these people are every bit as glossy and impervious as fax paper, too. All of them experience the world through a screen of cultivated ignorance and emotional distance, and for all their vileness, they provide a marvelous writerly exercise in limited viewpoint narration: so total is their delusion that we can learn their world only in the rare pauses between smug diatribes. George is the closest we meet to someone who is aware that there is a world outside the ski resort bar, but even for him such knowledge is a token quirk, a hobby, rather than anything approaching engagement:

News was a dirty word, and the group flapped their hands. Life was too short for news. But news was one of George’s little eccentricities, and he was perfectly aware of the mild distinctiveness it gave his otherwise blandly unmemorable character. (p. 12)

Although he lays it all on a little thickly at times, Roberts does a very skilful job of juggling these obtuse narrative perspectives with glimpses of what might be termed the real world. The disappearance of George and Marie's daughter Leah while they are on holiday forces the pair to interact with people who live and work in less elevated (and enervated) circles than they do, allowing chinks of light to reach us through the gaps in their complacency:

"But the bosses make a point of not getting involved where child theft is concerned."

George was discomfited, though in a distant sort of way. It was some small thing that gnawed at his thoughts. Or else it was an ocean pivoting about on the hinge of its tide deep in his soul. He wanted to ignore it. He knew the way his world worked, which meant he knew the way the world worked. Surely. "It's," he said, searching for the right word, "monstrous." (p. 94)

There are other examples, which make it clear how George, Marie, and their ilk trample through the lives of others—notably those dependent on them for their incomes—with the oblivious, capricious impunity of the uber-rich: the near-hysterical tension of family physician Dr Baldwin as he dances around his professional and moral duty to explain that the Leah returned from her kidnapping might not really be Leah at all, for example, or the tear-streaked "grovelling" (p. 249) of Marie's therapist, Wiczek, when she dares to suggest that perhaps Marie does not need to obliterate her each and every emotion with medication.

The disappearance of Leah sets some changes in motion in both George and Marie, and there is a sensitivity in the portrait of two people struggling to cope with the complete upending of their world, and the utterly alien (to them) feeling of being vulnerable to forces and events outside their control. Even when Leah is apparently found, the dislocation is so strong that normal life cannot resume. The overriding reaction from both George and Marie is initially numbness—in Marie's case, at least, it is strongly implied that a cocktail of anti-depressants has much to do with this—but at length each makes tentative gestures towards accepting their grief. Marie opts for anger:

She wanted to convey to him how deadly, how harrowing it had been, the violation of the family. She wanted to say how, when she looked at her daughter now, she saw a stranger. . . . But all of this was too fiddly to express to express, there, then. Instead she howled. Wolf. (p. 241)

George's despair, though, is both quieter and more expressive:

And this is what George now understood, or rather (at any rate) what he now had some inkling of. Their marriage had once been a voluntary contract, but now they were joined by something much stronger than the will of either of them. Prison is a perdition, and perdition means something lost. That he and Marie, having previously been lightly connected by various somethings, were now, abruptly, terrifyingly welded much more solidly together by an absence, the nothing where their daughter had been. (p. 45)

Of the two, it is George who finds fulfillment in bonding with his returned daughter, and trying to become a parent in more than just name and biology. The joys and difficulties of the "fragile asymmetry, Leah's childishness and George’s adulthood" (p. 148)—lovely phrasing—are thoughtfully and touchingly shown. Again, though, Roberts undercuts this journey of emotional discovery even as he explores it. We can see, but George cannot—or will not—that Leah is not really Leah; he is parenting a real child, but not the one he thinks he is. George spots a "superfine wrongness" (p. 136)—"minuscule alterations" in her speech and her gestures ("the very un-Leah way she continually fiddled her long, knuckled fingers in amongst her short hair" (pp. 136-7))—but shies away from the implications, telling himself that these things are "indices of how deep the trauma of her abduction went" (p. 137). His cushioned approach to life is epitomized in these moments, even as he seems to be becoming more recognizably human: when Leah asks him to explain things she ought to already know, he chooses to "register no surprise" (p. 144).

So much for the rich, who are a soft target for mockery at the best of times; satirizing poverty is a different matter. It is here that the novel sees a shift in tone and setting, as we travel to the other side of the world to spend time in the company of the real Leah, who remains unrescued and is adapting to life in a dirt-poor Anatolian village.

One of the points By Light Alone makes, intentionally (!) or not, is that neither wealth nor poverty are measures of moral fiber. Rather, both of these things, and the inequality that they rest on, corrupt and distort: having so much wealth that it inures you to others' experiences and struggles to the point of callous, self-congratulatory rapaciousness; or being so poor that you literally don’t even have the caloric energy—still less the security—to take charge of your environment. By Light Alone punctures still-persistent myths about the better-off as a class: that they've got where they have by working harder, or that they benefit their communities with their greater spending power, magical job creation powers, and the obliviously condescending noblesse oblige of charity projects—like Marie's Gunesekara organization—aimed at giving the "deserving" (p. 209) poor what the rich think they ought to want. (Give them what they ought to want, that is, only to withdraw it in a fit of pique when the longhairs "bit[e] the hand that was trying to help them" (ibid) rather than responding to their benefactors with properly humbled awe.)

But the novel also challenges the impulse to romanticize poverty: being poor, it says, does not automatically make someone virtuous; suffering is not ennobling, it's just suffering. The fact that the haves are crass, ignorant and entitled beyond words does not mean that the have-nots are better or less shallow simply by virtue of having not. Rather, what we see in the novel is a series of nested worlds, whose hierarchies ape and echo each other even as they take on locally specific features. The issue is not (or not just) whether someone is rich or poor on some global absolute scale, but their standing relative to those around them, and how the wealthier in any given milieu parlay that inequality—sometimes unwittingly—into power over the poor.

The difference between the village waalis (headman) forcing women into sexual servitude and the Maries and Georges bestowing their patronage only on minions who are prepared to tell them what they want to hear (or, in the case of their nannies, effectively surrender their own lives to their jobs) is arguably one of degree, not kind. Waalis display their superiority by buying young women and supplying them with enough food that they can sustain pregnancies; Abda, the waali to whom Leah belongs, has "a proper Jabbahutt laugh" (p. 280), and on their first encounter he establishes his power over her by feeding her in front of his assembled dependents and subordinates ("'Have a taste,' he instructed her, and he dipped the handle-end of the big wooden spoon in the soup, and slipped it into her mouth like a dick" (ibid)). George and his social circle do the same through their conspicuous consumption, their loud parenting by live-in nannies, and their comfortable reassurances to each other that they, unlike the horrible lower orders, are stratospherically above the need to care about that money thing. "We're an island of Enough in an ocean of Poverty," says George's friend Ergaste at one point, with a truly astonishing lack of a sense of scale; "And the poor, you mark my words, young George, the poor only ever want one thing. Money" (p. 38).

The division of humanity into a tiny rich elite, a desperate working class, and a massive underclass, is offset and problematized by the two Leahs, both of whom get their own viewpoint sections. The "fake" Leah is a particularly interesting mass of contradictions; initially, she appears to have slipped quickly and easily into the gilded privilege of her new life, ignoring the outside world in favor of spending hours at a time lost in her "books" (narrative films or soap operas) just as the "real" Leah used to, and sharing impenetrable slang and attitudes to fashion with her school friends:

Everybody agreed—all of Leah's friends, anyhow—that holidays in the tropics were totally over. It was uncool, all the swarming poor with their long black hair, clustering on the beaches like a beard of bees. The resorts were cleared of them by security, of course, except for those few vetted for work as, you know, waiters and that. But you saw them as you flew over. Papusza made an 'eew' sound that was higher-pitched than you would believe. It was almost up where only dogs could hear it, oh my god. (p. 196)

But she cannot overcome her uneasy amazement at the wasteful over-abundance of food in the household ("The god of the house's peculiar, New World plenitude of silence. The Fri. The Idge" (pp. 193-4)), and one of the last things we hear from her before the novel's end is a heartfelt request to Marie to let her get involved in her charity work on behalf of the poor. The "real" Leah, meanwhile—or Issa, as she calls herself—becomes gradually more smart and self-reliant, with a good line in snark, a streak of pragmatism, and the closest thing to real friendships that we encounter in the novel. Many of the people she meets, though, are every bit as absorbed in pie-in-the-sky thinking about the world as Marie and her Gunesekara friends; Leah goes to rallies and listens to speeches, but finds everything a bit woolly:

"Oh," scoffed Sergei. "Detail! Where's the passion and romance in your heart?"

"What about storms?" Issa pointed out. "And how are we to raise children on rafts, with nothing but a piece of string to catch a fish every three months?"

"Details!" (p. 330)

Reinforcing the economic hierarchies, and occasionally cutting across them, are hierarchies based on gender. This particular inequality is more pronounced among the poor; we see no female waalis, and to the extent that we see women with power, that power resides almost entirely in their influence with a male waali, bartered for with their bodies. Not that this stops the men lower down the wealth hierarchy from feeling that they are disempowered by their lack of ability to tell women what to do, and generalizing their experiences into some sort of malaise of masculinity:

Preacher said: "Hair's made all men preachers, now. Made all men preachers or else lazy dogs in the sun. Hair took our work, which had sustained us for millennial generations. It took our power over women and our power over the things of the Earth. These things were ours, and the Hair took them away."

Issa was ready to yawn at all this chatter. But Rageh loved it. He was amazed. He wanted it unpacked; which is to say, he wanted it elaborated, so as to make it more real in his imagination. "We used to have power over women?" he asked.

"Surely we did. We said go, and a woman go."

"And if she did not?"

"We strike her with our hand," said the Preacher, gravely. "And she do it." (p. 261)

This, clearly, is pointed and meant. But there is some unexamined (or insufficiently examined) gender essentialism elsewhere, as well as a wearying reliance on rape and the threat of rape as a shorthand for the danger Leah/Issa faces in the world of the poor. Among the poor, the women scrape and save calories because they're desperate to have babies, regardless of the cost to themselves, while their menfolk exhibit no interest in offspring whatsoever (unless they're waalis and want to show their power to other men). Meanwhile, among the rich, as noted above, the women are uniformly uninterested in their children as anything other than fashion accessories. It is difficult not to see this difference between rich and poor women as an index of their relative humanity—rich women are out of touch with themselves, while poor women will still sacrifice for others—particularly since it is George, rather than Marie, who gets the character development of actually trying to be a parent.

Marie, in general, is somewhat shortchanged by the balance of viewpoint narrative duties. But there are hints of more behind the bluster: the howl quoted above, for example, and an episode in which inflicting violence on a sexual partner "wrung a twist of delight from her sluggish soul" (p. 241). Throw in her repeated inability to recognize her emotions for what they are—through a combination of lack of experience and being medicated to within an inch of zombification—and the overall picture is a bleak one: "If she were any happier, if it were even possible to be happier, then she would break down in a blizzard of cold tears" (p. 252).

By Light Alone starts out as a more difficult book to like than, say, the infectiously charming high concept of Yellow Blue Tibia; more than once in the first thirty pages I rolled my eyes at the farcically stupid George and friends, and wondered when the novel was going to get over its fascination with its own grotesques. But By Light Alone is more than the sum of its parts, and needs to be viewed as a complete piece; each character's viewpoint brings new layers to the story and its central issues. Taken together, the world as seen through the eyes of George, Marie, and the two Leahs resembles nothing so much as an absurdist tragedy. Even ending world hunger, it turns out, just gives people more ways in which to not be excellent to each other.


Nic Clarke lectures in medieval Islamic history at Lancaster University and is also a research fellow at the University of Oxford, largely but not exclusively because of the additional storage space a two-centre life offers for the ever-growing pile of books-to-be-read. She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.