By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (book review).

A century or so from now, the problem of famine has been overcome by a technique that transforms hair into solar energy collectors that works by a kind of photosynthesis, so that nobody need eat food any more. This means that the poor must wear their hair long in order to survive, allowing them to soak up the sunlight, while the rich style their hair short as they can afford to eat food which has now become a luxury.

As with most marvellous inventions this, of course, has far-reaching ramifications for society, the economy and the environment. The results of these upheavals and the ongoing social revolution form the background to Adam Roberts’ story of a super-rich family whose insulated life is brought into collision with reality when their daughter is kidnapped. There’s a typically Robertsesque mixture of social commentary, philosophy, satire and a unique and slightly odd narrative voice as ‘By Light Alone’ leads us through this bizarre landscape.

There are three point-of-view characters featured in different sections of the book who each give us a different feel for what this dichotomous society is like. George and Marie are the wealthy couple who spend their time on skiing holidays, eating out and going to exhibitions. It’s on one such holiday in Turkey that their daughter is kidnapped and vanishes without a trace. George’s complete bafflement at this development and his inability to form a cohesive plan outside of his decadent routine really highlights the ultimately isolated life they lead. They treat staff and servants as almost beneath notice and cannot comprehend why their problems cannot be solved by money. Even their own money is unmentionable, they expect all problems to disappear seamlessly, sorted out by their staff. As George and Marie return to New York and attempt to get on with their life, their stunted emotional and empathetic abilities are explored to the full by Adam Roberts’ fine handling of their crisis.

In the world of the rich, the ultimately poor longhairs, those who have nothing but sunlight to sustain them, are almost an abstract concept. They are thought of, if at all, as vermin to be controlled or exterminated. It’s not until we hear about their daughter’s experiences as a kidnap victim that we begin to appreciate that not needing food any more is not necessarily the boon one might expect. The whole foundation of society has altered and Adam Roberts explores this in great depth, showing how attitudes, work ethic and gender roles are affected, while basic human instincts and flaws remain the same.

Throughout the sections where we centre on George in particular, there is a lot of playing with language, analysing idioms, confusing homonyms and introspection over dialogue. Sometimes this intrudes overly into the flow of the narrative, but even then it is always fascinating. There are authorial asides and discussions along the way, too, which also seemed to slow down the opening section of the novel, but then George’s life is so dreary and monotonous that this fits in fine. Later, as we read the sections set among the longhair community where life is cheap and tension is high, these artifices are dropped in favour of maintaining momentum. The contrast between the two halves of society is thus emphasised even more and to great effect.

For a long time, the actual plot is difficult to grasp among the introspection, the decadence and the seeming lack of progress. Then, as snippets of background news begin to take on significance, it becomes evident that the whole of human society is gradually heading for a showdown and George’s family has somehow ended up in the centre of developments. It’s another book built around a fascinating concept and put together in Adam Roberts’ intriguing and unique way. After what I found to be a shaky start, I enjoyed the book over all, with particularly the final third gripping my attention to the end.

Gareth D. Jones

January 2018

(pub: Gollancz, 2011. 407 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08365-3)

check out websites: www.orionbooks.co.uk and www.adamroberts.com

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