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By light alone by Adam Roberts
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By light alone (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Adam Roberts

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126895,586 (3.6)19
Member:AlanPoulter
Title:By light alone
Authors:Adam Roberts
Info:Gollancz (2012), Edition: Mass Market Paperback, Paperback, 432 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:science fiction, near future, genetic engineering, gender, dystopia

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By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (2011)

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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
A book whose central conceit and writing style make me want to be generous, even though there are all kinds of problems going on here. Our setting is a near future in which human civilisation has been changed forever by the development of photosynthetic hair: people can now spread their locks out in the sun and they never need eat again. World hunger is a thing of the past; but Roberts's insight is that, far from ending poverty, this might only make things worse. In the past, the poor had to be given at least a little in order to survive and therefore work; in this brave new world, the poorest of the poor can have literally nothing at all.

Roberts would like on the one hand to write a kind of neo-Swiftean, hi-tec social satire about the wealth gap (and the caricatures are very broad, with the rich all fat and deeply unpleasant and the poor stunted and feral) and on the other hand to write a post-apocalyptic feminist quest narrative. Both admirable ambitions, but they don't cohere at all – it's like they were written as separate projects and then glued together with Pritt-Stick and a rubber band. The result is a very, very odd structure indeed, where the first section takes twenty-six chapters to cover 180 pages, and the last section is just one massive, chapterless block of 150 pages which are scarcely related to the rest of the novel.

Adding to the confusion is a third-act twist – well not a twist exactly, it's pretty well signposted, even for someone like me who is usually oblivious; a reveal, let's say – which is supposed to make you go "Oh, shi-i-i-t—" but which actually just throws the whole timeline of the novel into serious doubt. (If you've read the book, talk to me. Because I'm not actually sure it makes sense.)

The only other Roberts I've read is Yellow Blue Tibia, which I thought was incredibly good. Here he is less funny but there is still a distinctive, flexible prose style to lead you through all the strangeness. As a stylist he can't be accused of being clichéd – if anything he's tempted to go a bit rococo in his descriptions, but at least it's never uninteresting.

A fishbone of lightning, discarded by the cloud. It made Marie's breath stick in her throat. Scaldingly white, coldly white, and then vanished. It was a bone picked clean, bleached clean, washed clean by the oceanic sky, glimpsed clean, and gone.

One, two, three seconds later: the cosmic empty-belly rumble.


Meteorological reflection seems to bring this out of him – a little later we hear that ‘The clouds are icebergs, and the day repeatedly crashes against them and eventually it goes down in flame-coloured splendour.’ Yeah, I like reading him – I like how he talks to me as a narrator, the apparently omniscient style that nevertheless throws in the occasional first-person interjection – I must say that, if you ask me though – it's endearing. But I've got to be honest, this book is a bit of a mess – a flood of good ideas without enough authorial control.

I hesitate to end on a ridiculous tangent, but I must record that every day I was reading this I ended up being reminded of that scene in The Young Ones where Rik, in a fit of energy-saving, bursts in on Neil while he's bathing to demand in outrage: ‘Do you need the light on while you're having a bath, Neil?’ To which Neil, confused, says, ‘Well…yeah.’

‘Why, what are you going to do? Photosynthesise?’ ( )
1 vote Widsith | Jan 20, 2016 |
For quite a while now, Roberts has been writing literary-quality novels with science fictional settings. Another excellent story of social and personal tumult. ( )
  ronhenry | Nov 17, 2015 |
Set in the near future, Adam Roberts imagines a world where someone has invented a way for people's hair to photosynthesise light into energy thus removing the problems of hunger and famine: they live, quite literally, 'by light alone'. But rather than ushering in a new age of contentment and equality, this invention has created an even larger gap between the rich and the poor, emphasised by the fact that the very poor are kept jobless and childless now that there is no need to pay them and due to the fact that the energy produced by photosynthesis isn't enough for a woman to carry a pregnancy to term. The only way to have a baby and to feed that baby is to have food. But even once common foods are now unbelievably expensive and only available to the very, very wealthy who shave their heads to show they are not reliant on photosynthesis. The end result of this imbalance? Revolution.

"The thing wealthy people don't understand is that, for most of human history, poverty has been something that could always get worse. Human beings would appear to be completely down and out; but they could alwys sink lower. This was beacuse for most of human history poverty was a subsistence phenomenon. Poor meant having the bare minimum. That is to say, it meant having something. And something can always be pared away. Not now! Now a new manifestation of poverty has come into the world - the most significant development in human history since the invention of farming. Now we have absolute poverty. And absoute poverty is absolute freedom! It can't be pared away, or threatened, or warred down."

Roberts has written a very thought-provoking, social science fiction novel which reminded me of Margaret Atwood's writings, both because of the themes of genetic engineering and poverty and because the writing style is quite literary. I've seen its depiction of the very rich referred to as Gatsby-esque which makes the cover particularly apt. The negatives? The first part of the book is mainly about how empty and pointless the lives of the very rich are, and how unhappy they are as a result. Fair enough and some of these characters do develop later in the novel, but I felt this first section was close to becoming heavy handed. And the ending is still a puzzle to me. But all in all, a literary science fiction novel which deserves more readers. I can't help feeling that this comment by the reviewer in The Telegraph is sadly, probably all too true: "If By Light Alone were written by David Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, for example, it would doubtless be said to "transcend its science fiction" roots, as all literary fiction which borrows SF trappings must. But By Light Alone is unashamedly SF, and would that half the supposed "literary" novels on the shelves today were as well written, thoughtful and intelligent as this." ( )
5 vote souloftherose | Dec 17, 2013 |
For my opinion, check out the Write Reads Podcast airing on November 5th, 2012! http://writereads.wordpress.com/ ( )
  TaniaGee | Apr 4, 2013 |
The world has been freed from hunger. A gene-tweak to human hair makes it able to use photosynthesis to support human life, albeit needing very long hair, lots of sunbathing and a sedentary life. Some life on rafts, with desalination kits providing drinking water. So is this a story of utopia?

Unfortunately not. The world is still not a happy one. The rich cut their hair and deliberately live on gourmet 'hard food'. The poor need hard food to have children, thus while men sunbathe women labour in menial jobs to get the hard food they need to survive pregnancy. Those among the poor able to afford hard food act like gang leaders, rewarding followers with hard food and condemning opponents to death by shearing their hair.

There is tension between rich and poor. The former live in fortified ghettos, protected by police, and when necessary, the military. Some among the poor ('Spartacists') stir up trouble and try to organise attacks on the rich areas. There is rising tension as recent incidents referred to (but not narrated in detail), have inflamed the rich/poor conflict. There are scenes in the novel of the poor being shot, and bombed on their rafts.

Separate sections each cover a particular member of a rich family, the father George, the mother Marie and their daughter Lissa. The parents are both shown as self-centred individuals, who do nothing of any importance. An awful event shakes up their dull existence for a while but it is resolved, albeit by external parties. The last section in the book is the best as it puts a markedly different spin on the previous ones and gives us some characters with much more depth than the shallow rich.

All in all, the writing throughout is superb. However, one cannot though help feel though that the global scenario given is a little unlikely. It exists somewhat uneasily in between realistic and surrealistic modes. ( )
1 vote AlanPoulter | Sep 27, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
Roberts strips the super-rich of glamour and lampoons everyperson's complicity in the toxic religion of greed. If some readers are offended or sceptical of his motives, that's a risk he seems happy to take.
 
If By Light Alone were written by David Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, for example, it would doubtless be said to "transcend its science fiction" roots, as all literary fiction which borrows SF trappings must. But By Light Alone is unashamedly SF, and would that half the supposed "literary" novels on the shelves today were as well written, thoughtful and intelligent as this.
 
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"The thing wealthy people don't understand is that, for most of human history, poverty has been something that could always get worse. Human beings would appear to be completely down and out; but they could alwys sink lower. This was beacuse for most of human history poverty was a subsistence phenomenon. Poor meant having the bare minimum. That is to say, it meant having something. And something can always be pared away. Not now! Now a new manifestation of poverty has come into the world - the most significant development in human history since the invention of farming. Now we have absolute poverty. And absoute poverty is absolute freedom! It can't be pared away, or threatened, or warred down."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0575083654, Paperback)

In a world where we have been genetically engineered so that we can photosynthesise sunlight with our hair hunger is a thing of the past, food an indulgence. The poor grow their hair, the rich affect baldness and flaunt their wealth by still eating. But other hungers remain ...The young daughter of an affluent New York family is kidnapped. The ransom demands are refused. A year later a young women arrives at the family home claiming to be their long lost daughter. She has changed so much, she has lived on light, can anyone be sure that she has come home? Adam Roberts' new novel is yet another amazing melding of startling ideas and beautiful prose. Set in a New York of the future it nevertheless has echoes of a Fitzgeraldesque affluence and art-deco style. It charts his further progress as one of the most important writers of his generation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:20 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The young daughter of an affluent New York family is kidnapped. The ransom demands are refused. Years later a young women arrives at the family home claiming to be their long lost daughter. She has changed so much, she has lived on light, can anyone be sure that she has come home?… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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