April 3, 2012
By Light Alone - Adam Roberts
The central speculative idea at the centre of By Light Alone by Adam Roberts is that humans can survive only on sunlight and water, once they have taken a nanobug which converts their hair into New Hair. At first this sounds like the perfect utopia, no need for food, no need for farming or food manufacturing. Freedom?
The story starts with a family of rich people. The wealthy have short hair, they eat real food, they take long holidays, they live a different life to the long haired poor. At the very start By Light Alone reveals itself as a story about the haves and the have-nots and the increasing gap between them. The poor now have even less, as they have no need to work for food.
The tone begins with a sly satirical edge, almost farce in its feel. There's no exposition, casually mentioning the state of the world and its technology. At times it reminded me of Philip K Dick in its strange oddness. I love that feeling of being thrown into a world and have to figure it out.
Fairly quickly the tone changes as the family's daughter is kidnapped, the edge of farce leaves, and the novel concentrates on how the parents cope, how their lives are changed and how the rich begin to question the way they live. The language changes too with some passages of description that evoke the desperation experienced, both by rich and poor.
The second half of the book goes even further, focussing on the poor and their exclusion from society. Some of it was quite harrowing and horrible, but that's the point. And surprisingly the plot picks up pace at the end and I wanted to return to previous sections of the novel and read them again, revisit what I'd missed.
By Light Alone takes a core speculative idea and flips it around from expectations, producing a story that is thought provoking, often uncomfortable and full of questions. Highly recommended.