Review: By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)


What if the poor could live by light alone? This is the question raised Adam Robert’s latest novel. All you need is ‘the bug’ and to grow you hair. Then you’ll be able to photosynthesise sunlight with your hair. And the world might turn in to a utopia by solving the worlds food crisis. It might, but not in this book. Instead Roberts presents a world where the rich keep their hair short and farms are turned over from staples to providing the currently luxury fad food.

It’s an interesting concept but what hooks you is the way it’s told and who is doing the telling. George and Marie are on holiday, skiing, with their daughter, Leah, and son, Ezra. A normal family holiday for the rich with the parents leaving the children with nannies and the babies brought out dinner at occasionally for parading and cooing. That is until Leah goes missing and the hotel security, and then local police, say soothing things but take no discernible actions to retrieve her.

And that is when you, as the reader, realise that the world isn’t a utopia and the world outside the hotel grounds is a very different place but Roberts cleverly doesn’t go to far into that world, not yet, a couple have just lost their daughter and that’s going to change their relationship and that needs to be explored.

As grotesque as they seem when we see the breakdown from George’s eyes you can’t help feeling for him. He’s not only lost his daughter and his wife but also that stability that unit gives. Though luckily that family is put back together at least temporally but not before Marie and George fall apart and their utopia with them.

This is only half the book. The second half deals with what life outside is like for a girl who has been bought and sold into slavery. And that is the darker side of this new world. Men don’t need to work but if women want children they need hard food and that can only be obtain by working while the men laze in the sun.

Not everyone is toiling for food and lazing. Some are talking revolution.

All good stories hold a mirror to society and humanity and I’d certainly see By Light Alone as a warning. A warning to the rich in their ivory towers and by that I’d include us, the West, who have engineered society in such a way that we are needed. But if in the future if we are not. Where does our safety come from? It won’t be by light alone.

I tend to take the easy route when reading science fiction by navigating to space opera Elizabeth Moon, Neal Asher, Gary Gibson, to name three favourites. Harder and more exporative SF I tend not to delve into that often. Most recent being Embassytown. And that’s because it was written by China Mieville.

Adam Roberts has created an emotive and evocative science fiction story that doesn’t require a love or understanding of technology. All that is needed is an interest in society and our future and the worry that we can’t keep on having it so well off.

By Light Alone is in the running for my novel of the year. Read it.

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