Blogging the BSFA Award shortlists – Novel – Lightborn

My plans to blog my way through the BSFA Award shortlists got off to a bad start, thanks to needing to work and to being a bit under the weather during February. And, given the general feeling of ennui that has assailed me recently, I’m not sure Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan will turn out to have been the best place to start.

It is not that I actively dislike the novel; it is more that I can’t quite seem to make sense of the various facets of the plot and the way in which they hang together. Or, more accurately, the way they don’t quite hang together. And yet, I never felt totally lost or disoriented; it was more that at times I felt as though I had blinked and missed something, but no amount of going back over the previous few pages could reveal what it was I thought I hadn’t quite seen. This might, in some circumstances, be considered a plus rather than a minus. Fiction that disorients the reader intentionally is always interesting, but this didn’t seem to me to be Sullivan’s intention. Perhaps I should see it instead as a fast-moving romp, best read rapidly in order to bridge the crevasses that appear every time a couple of plot pieces don’t quite butt up to one another? When I say that I think of Maul which was, in its way, something of a romp, or more accurately, a siege; but no, that’s not what is going on in Lightborn, and I am anyway not persuaded that novels that have to be read fast in order to accommodate structural flaws are a good thing.

It’s not good, though; I can’t get past these oddities. For example, what should I make of the way in which this novel is pegged so very firmly in time, beginning in 2004, but a 2004 that is not quite familiar. Superficially the world is similar but the computer technology has either developed along different lines somewhere in the past or is simply far more advanced than anything we’re used to, in which case, how did that happen?

Terms are bandied around – ‘shine’ and ‘lightborn’ – in such a way as to suggest that the reader will of course know what they are, as a result of which it is quite difficult to determine what they actually do mean. Shine seems to be both drug and app, depending on what you do with it. Lightborn seems to mean both the system producing shine and those who partake of it. And most people do, once they reach a certain age, a kind of techno-puberty that is apparently hard to avoid. Yet we know that people can and do abstain from using it. Roksana fakes her reasons for not using shine (in fact, she can’t) while Amir, her father, a former Rider, has not engaged with the system for some time, although he does now, to earn extra money. But how does it really work? We’re not told; this is something we seem, as readers, to be asked to overlook.

The vagueness of the way in which shine and lightborn are portrayed suggests that they are intended so much a part of the novel’s culture that no one really thinks about them any more. Sullivan’s novel offers a glimpse of a world where the relationship between human and something that is close to an AI has become utterly commonplace, though there are degrees of involvement (Roksana’s mother is a lightborn addict and Amir’s being a Rider is problematic). It’s all very vague, and it is difficult to grasp what is and isn’t acceptable in this alternative place, though inevitably when something goes wrong it’s only too clear what does happen: chaos.

Two years on, after the Field has been infiltrated by rogue AIs, closed down, brought back up, and Los Sombres consequently quarantined, what kind of world are we living in? It is actually very difficult to tell. The Triple Cross Ranch (and one wonders if that title is itself significant) seems positioned in some sort of borderland, caught between Los Sombres and the rest of the world, which seems to exist only as a place which is about to bombard Los Sombres. The ranch looks towards Los Sombres as a place of fear and a place to scavenge for supplies, but what about in the other direction. There are people out there; there are references to the Hopi living in the area, to their tribal council, not to mention to other people and groups acting as look-outs, but the siege mentality seems to be so complete it is impossible to get any real sense of what is happening. In the end, there is only one direction, towards Los Sombres, and almost everyone will make that journey again.

Ah, Los Sombres, the dark, the unknown place, the unfathomable place, the place where weird shit happens but, somehow, it makes sense. The place where the AIs wait for their saviour, their carrier, the person whom they can in turn Ride. There is a lot of horse/rider imagery in this novel. Doug and his son Rex are cowboys, in an old-fashioned sense of saddling up, patrolling the fences. Powaqa, the Hopi woman, ‘trains’ horses, or rather employs shine to control them and send them into the town for supplies. Xavier will in turn be trained by the AIs for their purpose while Amir is both Rider and ridden. There is a tension between the wild and the domesticated throughout the novel, between making a life out of chaos and recognising that things still need to change. I was especially struck by how Amir’s safe spaces, created to protect Roksana, are a combination of children’s playhouses and modernist machines for living, fun yet filled with fascinating contrivance for survival. I was reminded of a number of my favourite post-disaster novels, particularly things like Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Longer After, with their sense of a suspension of everyday life, the possibility of something new and creative emerging from the chaos and the inexplicable holes in the story.

And yet, throughout Lightborn I had an odd sense of déjà-vu. I kept thinking I had seen something like this before, a long time ago. But what and where? Then I remembered. Does this small moment from Lightborn remind you of anything?

Xavier peeled one eyelid back and the man’s feedback light emitted a feeble bean in the afternoon soon. American Dream insignia. Top of the line, and the beam lacked an alphanumeric. Probably custom. (31)

Neuromancer, perhaps? Not quite. Try Count Zero instead. There are a surprising number of resonances between the two novels; what set me thinking about a certain similarity was the voodoo terminology Gibson employed: the voodoo deities or AIs or whatever they were – Gibson was, in his way, equally vague – ‘ride’ human ‘horses’ when they appear in the everyday world. it seems to me that the same thing is happening here. Whether the fact that the main horse in Lightborn is called Bob Newhart is deliberately intended to resonate with Count Zero’s given name, Bobby Newmark I have no idea (not least because Bob Newhart is also an American comedian) but there is a level of coincidence I find it difficult to ignore, in particular the adolescents being represented as the fulfilment of prophecies emanating from the AIs struggling for autonomy.

Almost twenty-five years divide the two novels which in turn prompts me to wonder why, in 2011, Sullivan is still playing around with something Gibson was writing about in 1986, and at a point where it seems so old-fashioned she is practically obliged to point this out by actually setting Lightborn in the past. A homage to Gibson, perhaps, yet cyberspace has been almost parodically domesticated. Or is this the real downside of Gibson’s shiny hi-tech world? Or, is it simply that sf has become so bereft of ideas we need to go back and mine one of those great seminal moments in sf literature.

Which brings me back to where I began with this novel. I don’t actively dislike it but I still can’t make sense of it in fictional terms, not even if I choose to read it against William Gibson’s first three novels. In fact, especially not if I choose to read it against Gibson’s novels.

Since I began scratching away at this piece (rather like my attempt to read  the novel, this has proceeded slowly and then been suddenly finished in a burst of activity), Lightborn  has also been shortlisted for the Clarke Award. I still have a number of books to read on both shortlists so it would be folly to make a definitive statement about this book’s chances. However, I think it’s weaker than the books on the Clarke shortlist I’m familiar with, but even the highly informed voters of the BSFA Award might go for something that is, despite everything, an enjoyable read, if you ignore what’s going on at the sides of the stage.