Fiction Reviews

Light Music

(2002) Kathleen Ann Goonan, Gollancz, 6.99, pbk pp424, ISBN 1-857-98889-2


Set in the late 21st century, nanotechnology and genetic engineering has created the proverbial 'brave new world' in which sentient cities sit among ruined landscapes. Radio and electronic communication no longer exists, blacked out by some dampening field. Worse people are starting to disappear. They literally vanish into a ball of light. Then a technician, a nano-engineer, in one of the last cities realises that he has to get a star map from the old NASA Houston complex hundreds of miles away and so off he sets accompanied by a woman who has survived many trials of her own.

OK. Forget a plot with its feet firmly on the ground, otherwise you'll be bitterly disappointed. Instead go along with Goonan for the ride as she takes you through some excellent scenes with exotic backdrops dressed up in the language (but only the language) of hard science. This is very much a scenic route novel for while the reader can begin to empathise with some of the protagonists it is very much the view on offer that will draw the reader on. There is Radio Cowboy, an artificial character superimposed by a city AI onto one of the lead characters. Captain Montego has his ship of floating heads from which memories may one day be downloaded. This last is just one reason of countless why this book is really fantasy (science fantasy?) and not SF. Not that it matters; it is part of the exotica and not essential to the bare-boned plot. Meanwhile Io and Su-Chen are the last humans stuck on a lunar base. There is a travelling band of children getting forever younger, and even pirates for good measure.

Light Music is well written in that the words simply flow and carry the reader along. The imagery is at times thought provoking and in the main fascinating. However though - according to the acknowledgements - Kathleen Goonan has drawn on books by a number of eminent scientists (such as biologist E. O. Wilson) she has only used one or two aspects of each of their works to provide some partial scientific rationalisation of her novel's cocepts and I only detected the faintest of distorted echoes of this science resonate in the book. Consequently, the science dimension fails abysmally and the author would have been better off not acknowledging, or making passing reference to, these scientists' works but simply use them as unsung assets to her inspiration. This book's strength lies in its descriptive narrative which will undoubtedly greatly appeal to those into 'literary' SF.

Please don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the journey and some of the set pieces really get you going. YetI sensed that Light Music was very much an artist's allegorical sojourn dressed up in the trappings of science and technology without understanding the said trappings. Her other work has had received some praise which you may take as validating the quality of her allegorical sojourn and on that level you may greatly enjoy Light Music. However, if you are a scientist looking for hard SF, or a reader looking for a well-grounded story, then you may have to go elsewhere. Conversely, if you want a ride and don't care about the vehicle then you'll find this journey an engaging one.

Jonathan Cowie

A review of Kathleen Ann Goohan's Queen City is elsewhere on this site.

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