lunes, 2 de abril de 2012

By Light Alone by Adam Roberts

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

Photosynthetic humans are not new in Science Fiction. For instance, the wonderful story "The Green Leopard Plague" by Walter Jon Williams quickly comes to mind. What is different and very interesting in Adam Roberts's By Light Alone is that the ability of getting "free" energy from the Sun doesn't create an utopia. Quite the contrary.

On Roberts's latest novel to date, everybody can live (with certain limitations) by light alone. But the fact that everybody can do it is precisely what makes some people, those that can afford to choose, decide to keep on living the old way. Only the poor, those without access to food (which is now a luxury product), use their photosynthetic capability, spending hours on end lying in the sun, barely moving, to avoid wasting the meager energy they get from the light.

The difference between social classes is bigger than ever before and shows on every aspect of life, including physical appearance. Light absorption is done through the hair and, thus, rich people keep their hair short in order to prove that they don't depend on such vulgar a thing as photosynthesis. What is more, the concept of beauty has also changed:
Kids raised on nothing but sunshine and a little clean chewed mud? Small. Height is an index of beauty, in this day and age. Just like body fat. A hundred years ago beauty was thin. Not any more.
This kind of details make for an excellent world-building that is more implied than explicitly stated and that is, however, extremely believable. Sadly, the world depicted by Roberts is the most probable development given the circumstances and most of the speculation on the book revolves around the ideas of poverty and scarcity. As one of the characters puts it:
'There's only one subject in human history,' Raphael said. 'Poverty. Its the state most humans have been in for most of the time humans have lived on this planet.'
The main characters of the novel are, however, part of a rich family. Because rich people still rule the world:
The poor had the bodies, and the voices, and the righteousness. But the rich had the guns. And guns count for more than righteousness, or voice, or body.
The life of George and his family is almost perfect. They enjoy the best meals and have leisure at the most exclusive resorts. But then something terrible happens and their world is changed forever...

By Light Alone is a wonderfully written book, with three-dimensional and believable characters. In fact, many chapters of the book seem to be part of a character study. There is certainly a defined plot, but sometimes it is left aside for sake of exploring the inner life of the characters, especially in the middle third of the book. Reading that central part was a bit of a chore for me, and I think that the novel would have benefited from some editing. Fortunately, the final chapters have a more vivid pace and there is an unexpected plot twist that is certainly worth the ride and makes you rethink all that you have read.

All in all, this is a very interesting novel, especially for the top-notch writing and the almost perfect world-building. I would have liked it even more without some chapters which seemed a bit irrelevant and I wouldn't have missed some of the more explicit scenes. However, I'm glad that I read By Light Alone and though it was my first Roberts it certainly won't be the last.   

Note: This review is part of the BSFA Awards Special. You can get an entry for the giveaway by answering the following questions on the comments of this post: Have you read By Light Alone? What did you think of it? If you haven't read it, are you considering reading it?  

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