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New Releases: By Light Alone by Adam Roberts

By-Light-AloneTackling a review of one of Adam Roberts' novels seems a bit, well, foredoomed in light of his recent, epic review of MD Lachlan's novels Wolfangel and Fenrir. But, honestly, I've been sitting on the finished book for close to two weeks now. It's time!

We tell ourselves what the world is, even though we know it isn't, in order to live our lives with some degree of happiness and fulfillment. We live as though the world were what it should be, to show it what it can be. But, Roberts warns us, such delusions are as externally dangerous as they are internally satisfying. A quick caveat: I can't talk much about the latter two thirds of the novel without spoiling it. So this review is an effort to talk around that, and to discuss one of several of the novel's themes.

Fifty years ago some clever bloke engineered "new hair" - essentially, human hair that can photosynthesize. Everyone has it now, and world hunger is at an end. Bring on the whalesong and patchouli!

 Alas, things are not quite as rosy as all that. Food, no longer a necessity, has become the world's greatest luxury. The haves shave their heads, ski down ice-cream covered mountains, and cultivate robustly plump frames. The have-nots grow their hair out and live in grinding poverty. Everyone in-between, too poor to live on a diet of caviar and foamed lark's tongue but too proud to grow their hair out, exist as a servile underclass, "job-suckers" wholly dependent upon the whims of their thoughtless, super-rich overlords. No one (except the bajillionaires) is especially happy with the situation, but rebellion seems pretty unlikely given that the faceless masses require sunny weather to mount offensives.

Not that George and Marie Denoone give two shits about anything like that. They're on vacation in Turkey with their two children (and the au pair, naturally), enjoying all that wealth and privilege can offer: here, a jolly good time. There's skiing (down that ice-cream slope), extra-marital affairs, conspicuous consumption, child-exhibiting, and all that lovely food: blue grapes and compressed caviar dunked in creamed-chili sauce, Chianti and chococross. It's rather shocking to run into the leaf-headed employees of the resort with their hair so flagrantly unbound (so low, really), but you know how it is in third-world countries, or whatever.

This comfortable world comes crashing down when the Denoones' eldest child, twelve-year-old Leah, vanishes without a trace. Time passes, but no ransom-note appears. The local authorities seem reasonably competent, but the days stretch into weeks. George and Marie head home to New York City with their young son (the au pair must surely have been in on the kidnapping, so she remains behind in prison, of course). As months pass, George and Maria's marriage collapses around them. George goes back and forth between Turkey and New York while Marie.. well, he's not too sure what she gets up to, but she's gone rather a lot.

Eleven months after Leah's disappearance, George learns that his agent in Turkey has found her. The Denoones fly to Turkey to collect her, and the family is thus reunited. Being together with his daughter after so many months of loss and anguish and uncertainty changes George; it brings him new and wholly unprecedented feelings of love and happiness and satisfaction. Indeed, Leah's return changes the lives of everyone around her, even as the world around them begins to froth and heave with nascent revolution.

By Light Alone moves from perspective to perspective to tell its story, beginning with George and moving through the other major characters as the chronology unspools. In so doing, Roberts highlights his spectacular control over his story and his prose; each voice is unique, and each new point of view helps flesh out not only the plot, but the characters as well. Moving from point of view to point of view multiplies the novel's thematic impact, as the characters' self-deceptions pile up like a house of cards built on a gusty day. We know collapse is inevitable, and the wait becomes excruciating. It's clear to the reader pretty early on what happened with Leah, and even, sort of, why. But the novel's major characters blind themselves to it, as they've blinded themselves to the consequences of what was, conceivably, a humanitarian effort to end world hunger.

The novel is strongest in its first third, when the story is told though George's perspective. He undergoes the greatest change over the course of the novel, and becomes the most sympathetic of the point-of-view characters. We see him fall in love, for the first time in his life, and even learn to feel a little sorry for him, even for all his super-wealth and uber-privilege. He's trapped in a prison he barely understands, and while that's nothing compared to the immiseration and privation of the poverty-stricken masses, it is still comprehensible.

If I have a problem with By Light Alone, it's that the perspective of the younger characters seems a little forced. The lies and elisions of truth that the elder characters impose upon themselves work, because learning to lie, to eliding certain truths, and learning to live with those lies and those elisions, is all part of the grand tradition of adult compromise. But the lies and half-truths the younger characters live with strike a false note, soft though it is. The younger characters are just at  the age when kids begin to question their world, and call adults on their compromises and deceits. The young characters here are just a little too accepting for young teenagers. But this is a small complaint, and I can see why Roberts wrote the younger characters as he did.

The faint of heart should take note: there's some squicky sex in the novel. Although these scenes are written dispassionately and without the least hint of prurient interest, they're still pretty unsettling.

By Light Alone is a novel in the grand tradition of science fiction: it's a novel of social conscience, a novel that asks us not to get complacent, not to stop with slogans like "world peace" or "an end to world hunger," but to think beyond, to consider consequences. To remember that everyone is important, that everything matters. And it's a novel about the personal, about the private. About loss, and love. It asks us to remember to love our kids. To remember that the time we spend with them is precious. And I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the novel's lovely cover, a really gorgeous piece of design work.