Light (2002) by M John Harrison

Don't miss out on the other works in the series:
Nova Swing (2006) Book Review
Empty Space (2012) Book Review 
Available works by M John Harrison


Set between the present day and the far future, Light, the first work in M. John Harrison’s Kefanuchi Tract Trilogy (2002-2012), interrogates a future (and present) where the weird conundrums of quantum mechanics such as superposition, entanglement and tunnelling bleed into the macroworld. Harrison builds a world where time, space, narrative and lives are suspended in different states of uncertainty, ultimately collapsing in on themselves.

The story weaves together three narrative strains separated in time and space. In present-day England physicist Michael Kearney is on the verge of an important quantum computing discovery, which will eventually allow mankind to travel to the stars. In 2400, far away from Earth in a region defined by the spacetime anomaly known as the Kefanuchi Tract, female K-captain Seria Mau Genlicher has acquired a piece of mysterious alien tech. Also in 2400, washed-up ex-pilot Ed Chianese is slowly loosing himself to virtual reality. All tree lives are connected (and confounded) by the same entity known anagrammatically as the Shrander, Dr. Haends and Sandra Shen. While the Shrander appears to Kearney as a scull–headed horse, driving him to commit a series of murders, Seria Mau’s acquired alien tech box asks for Dr. Haends, and Ed ends up in the circus of Sandra Shen, where he is employed to read the future. The appearance of the entity is a mystery to each of the characters, and while it is clear that the entity wants something from them, it is not clear what.

For millions of years the 65 million years old Kefanuchi Tract has attracted spacefaring civilisations. Humanity is only the latest to arrive on the scene, having first discovered it in 1999. The Tract is thought to be a black hole without an event horizon, and its rim which is known as the Beach is thought to be a quantum mechanic dark matter zone. All attempts to understand the long extinct K-culture have failed. The Beach is also a smorgasbord of K-tech debris and other alien tech left behind by civilisations long gone, and thus a wild west gold rush for chancers and adventurers.

Harrison takes the weird world of quantum mechanics as the guiding principle in his narrative, applying phenomena such as entanglement and superposition on a macroscopic scale. For years Kearney has been struggling with decoherence and the uncertainty principle, and it is not without relevance to the story that his lab is home to two cats, one black and one white. In physics, Schrödinger's cat is an allegory for entanglement and superposition, the idea that we can only describe reality in terms of probability waves. And just as the events in 1999 are entangled with the events in 2400, with the Shrander as medium, so the lives of the story’s characters are caught in different states of superposition. Kearney clearly lacks direction in his life with one foot in and one foot out of a failed marriage. Ed exists in-between a simulated life spent in a virtual reality tank and a rudderless real life troubled by a failing memory and separation anxiety when he is not in the tank. Seria Mau is literally suspended in a tank of nutrient fluids inside a space ship, having long since merged with the ship’s electronics and left behind her corporeal body. And while incorporeal ship-life offers and escape from a sexually abusive father, she still longs for human touch. Just as we can never know whether Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead, so everyone’s lives can be described as vibrating probability waves, always at the point of collapse but never resolved. Everyone is trapped in Schrodinger’s box (some more literally than others), caught in the same either/or existential crisis as the cat. It is only very late in the story we learn that the entangled events are the result of the intervention of an alien race, who similarly to mankind had arrived at the Kefanuchi Tract, and in their failing to understand it resorted to fabricating human amino acids in an attempt to engineer a race that was different from itself and thus would not falter where they did.

In Light Harrison does something entirely new with familiar building blocks. The Kefanuchi Tract spacetime anomaly recalls Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997) and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983). The sentient mathematics of K-ships, the merging of ship and captain, recall David Zindell’s Neverness Universe (1988-1998) and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series (2000-2003). The K-ship flickering in and out or real space recalls the multi-dimensional beings in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station (2000). The technology discoveries of the Tract recalls Vinge’s archives left behind by the Powers in A Fire Upon the Deep (1992).