Sometime in the twenty-second century the problem of how to feed the billions of hungry people in the world has been solved in an ingenious manner. Body modification gives people hair which, when grown long enough, allows the body to create its own energy. Thus, provided that people have access to potable water and enough daylight hours, they can live free from the necessity to procure food.
In this world, a group of wealthy holiday makers ski at a resort in Mount Ararat. They spend their days consuming entertainment, food and sex with little in the way of joy while they are served by ‘longhair’ women who labour for a pittance in order to be able to afford sufficient solid food to carry a child to term. Whilst their modified hair allows them to survive, it doesn’t allow them to carry a child to term.
One of the couples, Marie and George, find their holiday spoiled by the most unfortunate kidnapping of their oldest child, their daughter Leah. The reaction of the parents is interesting. I have recently finished reading Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men which features a plot involving the disappearance of a small boy and the effect it has upon the parents. In Kunzru’s novel, the parents are devastated, understandably, but find that everyone has an opinion and often believe them to be, in some way, responsible for the disappearance of the boy. This echoes some of the real-world media treatment of the McCann’s in relation to the disappearance of their child. In Roberts’ novel, however, the situation is different.
The circles in which Marie and George move are the most privileged. They are at the top of the heap; wanting for nothing and able to afford to eat real food. There are those, with jobs (the jobsuckers) who aspire to be like them and, as noted, the longhairs who constitute the great mass of humanity. Marie and George’s family is just another projection of their wealth. Their ability to have a family while billions struggle to which, for so long, was something that was open to all regardless of social status and economic means demonstrates the destabilising and, some might feel, counter-intuitive effect of freeing humanity from the need to ingest food to produce energy.
Marie and George are reunited with their, well, a child after hiring someone to restore their family unit to its previous status. Their marriage – possibly already beyond repair – is finally destroyed after they bring Leah back home. George, in an odd way, seems to start to express love for his daughter in a way that he had not done previously. The loss and finding of his daughter seems to give him an emotional depth that he had previously lacked. I have to confess that I am still slightly suspicious of the character. He (much in the manner that so many now seem to wish to identify themselves as some kind of geek) claims to be an avid consumer of news. We learn, however that he only watches the pictures: he has no desire to listen to the commentary or read the accompanying tickers -they might make his head hurt. These insights into George’s character do tend to make one suspicious of anything he says or purports to feel. I think that’s fine though, most of the people that inhabit this book are pretty unlikeable.
All of this, fascinating as it may be, is a way to satirise the world in which we live. The shallow manner in which many of us engage with life. Our complicity in our own oppression; the shocking disparity in wealth and power throughout the world. It is notable for me that, even in the poorest areas of the world where the power and influence of women has increased marginally (they are the only ones who need to work) that the petty despots are still Big Men, exerting their power in the crudest of manners.
One of the ways that we describe the rough geographical boundaries that mark the rich world and the poor is ‘north and south’. Of course, this is almost literal in By Light Alone. Life at northern latitudes would become difficult for anyone who relied on sunlight to survive. The physical differences between rich and poor would become reversed (at least in the west). In the past, people would tend to correlate wealth with corpulence, hence ‘fat cat’, while poverty would have a tendency to be identified with a slighter frame. Now (again, in the west), there quite often seems to be a perception (or is this my perception of a perception?) that poverty is condescendingly associated with poor dietary choice and, hence, obesity. Naturally in most of the world (the baseline of human experience throughout history being grinding poverty), a lack of cheap, high calorific value, low cost food stuff means that weight gain amongst the relatively poor is a first-world phenomenon. In By Light Alone, however, a well stuffed frame, like the ability to raise children or have short hair, has once again become a symbol of status.
There are also some words for the tendency that there is to value the lives of the wealthy above those of the poor. We learn that kidnappings are common but that were Leah the child of poor parents, it is less likely that there would be such an effort to recover her. Although, as noted, it is clear that Marie and George are less interested in their child as a person as much as that which she represents.
The disdain that Roberts has for so many of the characters in this is, apart from fitting the righteousness of the novel, something that I like to see. People sometimes complain that unlikeable characters make it difficult to engage with the novel. I never understand that; who the hell would want to identify with the gits in this novel?
I have to admit that, though the novel actually moves at a fair old pace, the plotting was, for me, the least interesting thing about By Light Alone. Not that it was bad or unsatisfying, rather that the themes of the novel gripped me more than the plot ever could.
I haven’t yet decided where I’d place this in relation to his other work (Yellow Blue Tibia being one of my favourite SF novels of the past few years), but I’ll say this: Adam Roberts is producing some fine work at the moment. We are lucky to have him.