Novel reminiscent of mid-century sci-fi
World hunger has been solved. Author Adam Roberts creates this potential dream with prose, characterizations, and insight reminiscent of mid-century science fiction.
His book, “By Light Alone,” winds its way through the spectrum of modern problems, re-framing them in a way that the reader may examine the issues without self-consciousness.
Hunger has been solved by genetically modifying human hair to photosynthesize. Each person given the treatment has dark, heavy and thick hair that captures and processes the light. The result is not equality. The wealthy choose not to undergo the treatment and continue to eat.
The very poorest cannot work because all they can do is lie on the ground, their hair spread around them in dark waves, lacking energy for anything else. The book is divided into four parts, each from a different character’s perspective, of varying lengths. It’s primarily chronological.
The first character whose reality we enter is the wealthy George Denoone. On a ski vacation at Mt. Ararat with his family, George is the apparent epitome of leisure. He and his wife, Marie, have two children, whom they see once or twice a day. Otherwise, they ski, philander, eat.
Roberts cleverly introduces future technology using fictional terms like Fwn and ramjet, which are immediately clear. While vacationing, the daughter, Leah, is kidnapped. George and Marie are jolted out of their comfortable lives, faced with the dark realities of the poverty all around them. He stays, working with negotiators, and facing the intricacies of
bureaucracy. Marie returns to New York, too overwhelmed to stay.
Eventually, George returns to New York and tries to settle into his old life. A year after Leah’s disappearance, the girl is returned to George and Marie. Diagnosed with severe trauma, she does not speak and, initially, barely engages in the world around her. Marie and George continue to drift apart, their lives taking different paths in response to the trauma. George seeks to understand Leah’s experience of poverty. Marie wants a return to normality.
Roberts unravels relationships with as much care as he constructs the conflicts of the future world. Leah’s parents rebel against each other’s needs and expectations, and it is her view we follow in the second part as George and Marie’s paths diverge.
Leah revels in the world of ice cream, refrigeration, and therapy. Her discoveries in the idiosyncrasies of language, her thought patterns and her relationships, all feel distant, as though she is a much younger child. Leah delights in her new friends, her adolescent excitement raw against the harsher world of her parents’ inner struggles and self-discovery.
In each section, Roberts sculpts his characters with their thoughts, ranging from the philosophical to the shallow; their personalities revealed by the style in which they are written, not simply in their actions and words. The reader’s preference for each style may influence their sympathy and understanding of each character. Peripheral characters express increasing disdain and hate for the poor, the photosynthesizing “long-hairs” who are starting to create havoc abroad and along the borders of the United States.
Life without George, Marie’s new life, is the third section. She throws herself into a public
garden project, making new friends, finding new love. This new love is a former soldier, whose experience with the poor reveals the deep unrest in the future that echoes the income disparity of the modern world. Marie’s ignorance and comfort is questioned.
The final section, nearly half the book, is Leah’s story. Her kidnapping, slavery and life in the villages with the genetically modified long-hairs are a whole new story. Leah, now named Nissah, meets fanatics and revolutionaries inspired by preachers of various factions. Here, Roberts becomes the most overtly political in tone and ideas, exploring the details of social hierarchy among the poorest, the relationships between food, power, and gender roles, and the influences of religious leaders on political action. Roberts pares these down to the smallest degree before building back up into international rebellion.
“By Light Alone” creates a world with today’s problems reflected in a way that we may find ourselves relating to one character’s responses to events or another, contemplating our own choices if in their place.
-Rose Peacock, library technician at Cook Memorial Library