Skip to main content

By Light Alone (SF) - Adam Roberts ****

I have only relatively recently discovered Adam Roberts, with the likes of Jack Glass and The Thing Itself, but every one of his books I've read has been excellent, so it seemed time to start filling in the gaps.

I went for By Light Alone because of its interesting sounding premise. It's a cracker (as they say). The idea is that science has produced a mechanism where people can get all the energy they need from sunlight, thanks to a bug that turns their hair into super-photosynethic light absorbers. All they need to live is some water and a few essential nutrients. A clever (if technically verging on the impossible) idea, certainly. But where Roberts triumphs is in going into the unexpected implications of the change - the absolute heart of what makes science fiction, and which so few literary types who do SF down, and think it's all about spaceships and ray guns, appreciate.

One implication considered is that for the first time ever it's possible to have a group of people who have literary no money at all. Not just poor but literally penniless. Roberts also examines the possibilities for male/female distinctions, and how a small group of wealthy people might consider those who have the special hair to be a subspecies, and to conspicuously wear their hair short to emphasise they don't need it.

The book is divided into four parts, each seen from a different (but linked) individual's point of view. At the heart of the book is the story of a privileged family whose daughter is taken from them on a skiing holiday. They assume initially it is as a hostage, but the authorities gradually explain that something much darker is behind it.

The one fault I would say that the book has is that the forth segment, which is the longest, seen from the viewpoint of the captured daughter, is the least effective. It's partly because the environment she is in forces a slow, plodding development, with occasional dramatic outbreaks of violence, but also because it just doesn't work quite as well as the other sections. It's good, but the others are brilliant.

If you want to see what good, modern science fiction is like - or are looking for a new author to branch out into, Adam Roberts is an obvious choice. I wouldn't go straight to his latest, The Thing Itself, as it is his most complex book, but either By Light Alone or Jack Glass would make an excellent way in. Recommended.


Paperback 

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…