Gollancz, 2011, 407p
I recently read Roberts’s Stone and was fairly impressed but have so far missed out on his more recent BSFA award nominated novel Yellow Blue Tibia and the earlier quite well received New Model Army. When By Light Alone popped up on this year’s BSFA Awards novel list I decided it was time to sample more.
In By Light Alone global warming has raised sea levels to the extent that a portion of “our” world has been submerged. A wall shields New York from the raised waters. More importantly the Neocles bug has enabled humans to photosynthesise, to be capable of producing blood sugars merely by breathing and drinking water. “Proper” food is scarce, a luxury available only to the rich, who take great care not to be inoculated and differentiate themselves as much as possible form the poor underclass “longhairs” – now kept jobless as there is no need to pay them. These spend hours exposing their fanned hair to the sun for sustenance.
A rich New York family on a skiing holiday in the Caucasus region has their daughter kidnapped. It is nearly a year before she is returned, changed. The novel explores the effects of the kidnapping on all involved. It is divided into four sections, each with a different viewpoint character.
The first and third parts are seen respectively through the thoughts of George Denoone, the father, and Marie Lewinski, the mother. (They are married but she has kept her own name.) The treatment in these two sections is more like a “mainstream” novel than SF. They reveal the pair and their acquaintances to be thoroughly tedious and self-regarding people, and hence fail to engage the reader’s sympathy. Of course they are meant to be aloof, being rich, and to be unwittingly treating their servants with disregard, but crucially we are not made to feel their emotions. It is as if we are seeing them all through a veil. George in particular is an extremely passive and unthinking character, annoyingly so. Indeed so disengaged is he that, in what is effectively an info dump, another character has to explain to him the ramifications of the Neocles bug.
The second section gives us the returned daughter’s viewpoint, which is more immediate and engaging. It is not until the fourth section, though, (pg 261!) that the novel starts to pick up. The focus here is on Issa, a longhair in the Caucasus. Some of this part of the book reminded me in its tonal qualities of Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine (which is a much better novel.) Even though this section is explicitly tied into the rest at the end – by a connection fairly obvious from the off – overall By Light Alone does not fully cohere, feeling disjointed and unbalanced. It is really four shorter stories juxtaposed; not a unified whole.
I also had some problems with the scenario. Roberts does recognise the need of pregnant women for nutrition beyond mere sugars; indeed he makes this almost a plot point as they take jobs to gain the necessary food to bear a child. The males are presented as useless, not even drones. However, trace elements are necessary for everyone; not just the pregnant. The odd insect or soil which longhairs are said to eat at times would not suffice to assuage this. He also has the longhairs quickly lack energy in the absence of sunlight. Were the process in fact so inefficient it would not be worthwhile. After all plants survive throughout the hours of darkness quite well, their cells respire just as animal cells do. Indeed plants produce surplus sugars – and build them into starch.
Roberts plays on the fact that throughout human history the default state is that of poverty. The plight of the jobless longhairs is presented as an extension of this. (It is hardly Roberts’s fault but a reminder that “the poor are always with us” is not the most uplifting message to be hearing in a time of recession/austerity.)
In addition more attention could have been paid to minor detail. A character named Ysabella has her name spelled in four different ways inside the first twelve pages, though admittedly two of these are diminutives.
Roberts’s explicit referencing, twice, of a certain Arthur C Clarke phrase is a nod to the SF constituency but the SF elements of the book tend towards the perfunctory. While I am all for bringing more rigour in characterisation and the like to the SF novel By Light Alone might perhaps be falling between two stools. I really cannot see it being among the five best SF novels of last year.