By Light Alone

“More potent than something is nothing, for that dissolves choice as salt dissolves a slug.”

Adam Roberts

I bought By Light Alone right at the beginning of the summer, as a quick, light read after a term reading Worthy Books like Pale Fire and Gravity’s Rainbow, expecting something vaguely steampunk-y and futuristic. Well, thanks to the vagaries of my TBR pile (which, I swear, sometimes has a life of its own) I hadn’t actually got around to reading it until now, and…it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

It’s set in a world in which humans have found a way to photosynthesise using their hair, meaning that they do not need food to survive. The rich still eat, and wear their hair short; the poor, a dispossessed underclass who own nothing and therefore have nothing to lose, grow their hair and lie around in the sun all day.

But this isn’t a novel about the New Hair. You see, having created this seething political boiling pot, Roberts tells a story about a kidnapped girl, and the emotional ripples that the kidnap creates among her affluent New York family. It’s remarkable: a Sebastian Faulks-esque novel in a science-fiction world, a kind of literary science fiction that I haven’t really come across before. I don’t know why I’m so surprised by this.

I do think the world-building suffers a little: for instance, if real food is so hard to come by, and children can’t be raised by light alone, how could the poor underclass ever become large enough to threaten the upper classes in the way that it does in the novel? How do the poor obtain the Neocles Bug, the piece of genetic engineering that allows the New Hair to develop, which is, presumably, manufactured by a corporation and thus easily controlled?

Given that this is, on the face of it, an excellent novel, I couldn’t work out why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. But actually, I think there are too many such plotholes for the world to be completely convincing. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth reading, especially for those who say they “don’t like science fiction because it’s badly written”.

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