If, as we are rather fond of telling ourselves, science fiction is a literary form which is very much in dialogue with itself in the way that writers run with one another’s ideas, testing them, developing them, extending the creative conversation, so to speak, then where in this extended discussion should we position Adam Roberts? He is undoubtedly writing science fiction but his engagement with it might seem, to an observer, to be rather casual, perhaps a little offhand, as though he weren’t really taking it seriously. I admit I’ve struggled with his work over the years, and indeed have not read any of his novels since Snow. Paul Kincaid wrote about his own critical blind spot concerning Roberts’ work just over a year ago in ‘Learning to Read Adam Roberts’, and proposed that one needed to read Roberts’ work as ‘Menippean satire’. The critic Northrop Frye preferred the term ‘anatomy’ (as in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy) and that is the term I shall use in this discussion of By Light Alone. Because it seems to me now that Roberts’ contribution to the ‘dialogue’ is not so much an attempt to extend ideas as a merciless interrogation of the tropes we already have and an examination of how they do and don’t work.
To take one example in By Light Alone, by undergoing the appropriate gene modification and then growing their hair long, it has become possible for people to photosynthesize and thus avoid starvation. But while many science-fiction writers would present the modification as something positive, and write from the point of view of those who have undergone it and in their support in the face of inevitable oppression and persecution (and here I am thinking of things such as Nancy Kress’s ‘Beggars in Spain’), Roberts does something rather different, and on two different fronts. First – and this is in itself overtly science-fictional – he suggests the practical downsides to the ability to photosynthesise, such as how long it might take to feed, how easy it is to kill someone by shaving cutting off their hair and, most significantly for this novel, how photosynthesis can only support life to a particular degree. In this case it is impossible for a woman to carry a pregnancy to full term without supplementing photosynthesis with so-called ‘hard’ food. Which in turn leads to a need for women to work in order to earn money and food while men need to do very little. Shiny science is overwhelmed by economic necessity and in Roberts’ world there is no reason to invest in resolving this problem because, well, why would men do that when it is not to their advantage, and the women are working too hard to have time to dissent.
But this is revealed only later. To begin with, the reader explores this post-catastrophic world through the eyes of George and Marie, a wealthy couple with two children, Leah and Ezra. Or, rather, one doesn’t, because they are so self-absorbed it is almost impossible to gain any sense of what is going on beyond the boundaries of their immediate existence. To take notice of the news is considered vulgar. To eat ‘hard’ food is a marker of wealth but to chew and spit out one’s food is currently the height of fashion. Short hair is a sign of high status; Marie recoils from the ‘longhairs’ who serve them at their fashionable ski resort. The ‘leafheads’ are disparaged for their habits but true scorn is reserved for the ‘job suckers’, those who work to earn money for hard food but who keep their hair short; in other words, those who aspire to be wealthy too. Class, as it turns out, is very much the issue at the heart of this novel.
All this the reader learns through hints, through snatches of conversation and troubling glimpses of other ways of life, like a child observing but barely comprehending the adult world. Except that here it is the adults who are like pampered children, able to deny or get rid of anything they don’t like the look of. And again we have a trope: the untrammelled community which is about to be brought to a sharp moment of awareness by an intrusion from the unnoticed outside world. Except that when Leah is kidnapped by persons unknown, George and Marie are astonished that no one locally seems to be particularly interested in the child’s disappearance or prepared to do much about finding Leah. Instead, Marie takes her sensitive nerves back to New York, leaving George to ineffectually struggle with local bureaucracy before himself returning home.
It would be difficult not to think of the Madeleine McCann case in this instant, and to compare the McCanns’ ceaseless campaign to find their daughter with, in particular, Marie’s response to the situation, a mix of indignation about the injury done to her (Marie ismore usually indifferent to her children) and indignation at the failure of everyone around her to jump to it when she demands a resolution. Marie is simply not used to being thwarted. George is a little more emotionally engaged but also completely baffled by the situation. And even their friends seem mostly indifferent. One might compare this with Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men which also features the mysterious loss of a child, but which in sharp contrast details the contemporary response to such a loss, with total strangers all trying to find a place in the drama. In other words, we learn as much about Roberts’ world from what people don’t do as from what they are doing. One of the most startling moments of Roberts’ novel comes when Marie resituates herself in her own drama as an active agent when we already know that she totally withdrew from it and refused to participate in any way until her daughter was returned.
The return itself presents another point of interest. One of George’s acquaintances hires a woman who is skilled at tracking down lost people and she, almost miraculously, perhaps too miraculously, recovers Leah after a year. It is clear from the outset that something is not quite right, and as the story unfolds the reader can happily speculate, yet within the novel no one ever challenges the situation, perhaps because of the indolence that characterises so much of what happens, or perhaps because, deep inside, they don’t dare. The fact of Leah’s apparent return is sufficient to bring about a collapse in George’s and Marie’s relationship, as George begins to wonder a little more about the world and tries ineffectually to experience it by himself becoming a longhair and getting involved in ‘politics’ while Marie becomes involved in a project to return parts of New York City to ‘the wild’, which in principle means driving people out of their homes and bulldozing them. I could spend another happy hour drawing parallels between this and attitudes towards the presence of Native Americans in pre-catastrophe and pre-Columbian America. This is, after all, a project designed to simply remove the longhairs from view rather like that eighteenth-century habit of moving villages to ‘improve’ the landscape.
Roberts counters this view of the situation in a particularly oblique way that perhaps only really makes sense through subsequent reflection but which is in its way very telling. Again there is the refusal to engage at a personal, emotional level; instead, Roberts recounts the story of Issa, the girl who seems to come out of nowhere into the world of the longhairs, in terms that hint at allegory. Who or what Issa actually is we never really learn; her own understanding of where she comes from doesn’t seem quite to fit the other portions of the story, but with a mass of viewpoints which are if not truthful then certainly partial in all meanings of the word, it is difficult to reach a definitive truth.
And that in part is what I like so much about By Light Alone, that refusal to follow the standard narrative trail. There is a distinct flavour of Ballard about this novel, with its semi-drowned world and images of longhairs lying in the sun, their hair fanned out behind them, but at the same time Roberts undermines the delicious melancholy of Ballard’s writing by using such shockingly solipsistic characters and simultaneously demonstrating the failure of the grand science-fictional idea.