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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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1046116,035 (3.67)16
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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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." ( )
1 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 |
It's a century or so into the future, and human society has been profoundly changed by the widespread use of some kind of nanotechnology that allows people to get all the energy they need from sunlight, thanks to a photosynthetic process that takes place in their hair. Now, the rich ostentatiously shave their heads and make a point of consuming expensive real food, while the poor no longer make enough money even to eat, since eating is no longer strictly necessary.

Adam Roberts' writing is very good, in a creative, rather literary sort of way, and he has a fairly deft touch with the world-building, which is all the more impressive since his characters, especially the arrogantly apathetic rich characters, are themselves often painfully clueless about the world they're living in. I'm not entirely sure things would develop quite as he describes them, given his premise, but he sells the idea pretty well and uses it to say some pointed things about gulfs between the haves and the have-nots of the world. It's arguable that this political focus gets a bit... Well, I won't say it's heavy-handed, because that would do it an injustice, but I will say that the book's statement maybe has more substance than its story. I'm also not sure quite how satisfying I found the ending. That having been said, though, I did find it an interesting and a well worthwhile read. This is the first book I've read by this author, but I'll definitely be interested in seeking out some of his other stuff. ( )
1 vote bragan | May 9, 2012 |
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. ( )
2 vote jackdeighton | Mar 20, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (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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Some of them wore their skies like clown-shoes.
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:52:47 -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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