Light by M. John Harrison

It’s hard to avoid wordplay in talking about this: it’s a dazzling, brilliant novel. It’s the most successful fiction I’ve ever seen at embedding quantum physics, on every level – it’s deeply there in the subject matter, themes, motifs, plot and most impressively the structure. The story has three strands: a present day scientist who is avoiding a monster from which he stole some incomprehensible dice; a few centuries in the future, a junkie is hustling to keep out of debt trouble on a planet near the greatest anomaly in the universe, a black hole with no event horizon; and contemporaneously a woman plumbed into a spaceship as its pilot has gone rogue and is looking for strange and alien technology. He ties these strands together in all sorts of strange and rich ways, embodying all sorts of quantum ideas about action at a distance and much, much more.

This sort of cleverness is all very well, but not very satisfying on its own. Fortunately there is much more. There are a bunch of fresh, original SF ideas (I particularly like the fact that whatever physical model of the universe each alien race has developed works, even though they contradict each other). There is a richly realised world that is explicitly reminiscent of a Tom Waits song, hundreds of years on, with street hustlers and carnies and gamblers – Harrison is very clearly the biggest influence on the most exciting new British novelist of recent years, China Mieville. There are a bunch of extremely strong, memorable and surprising characters. And best of all, there is Harrison’s prose. I’m not sure Britain has ever produced any novelist who writes better prose than Harrison – it’s an absolute joy to read sentence to sentence, even without all the other virtues. It’s not completely without weaknesses – it pulls things together at the end, but it all feels rather contingent and incomplete, which may fit the quantum model, but isn’t so pleasing – but overall this is a triumphant and thrilling novel on almost every level.