LIGHT MUSIC by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Gollancz, 2002, £6.99, 424pp
ISBN 1-85798-889-2

This reviewed first appeared in The Alien Online

see also my review of Crescent City Rhapsody

First off, a warning: in a review of Crescent City Rhapsody, the third book in Goonan’s nanotech series, I virtually had to issue a ‘Jazz Warning’ for every page. Fortunately Light Music (the fourth and final book in the series) manages to reach page 338 before the J-word is mentioned, so that’s a big thumbs-up for this book right from the word go.

The nanotech series has been a revelatory one in my humble opinion. Although occasionally a little self-indulgent and overly flowery (pun entirely intentional), the depiction of our society transformed by new technology and by an unknown, external event is ultimately a transcendent one to rival some of the best and most demanding in this or any other genre (the nearest thing I can think of offhand is Bear’s excellent Blood Music). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Light Music, as you might expect from the final novel in a series, is set furthest into the future, at a time when (following the events of the previous books) nanotech has blatantly remade some parts of the world, other parts have been altered more subtly and still other parts barely at all. What has unquestionably changed the world is the continuing effect of The Silence, the as-good-as permanent blackout of all radio communications that first began in the early 21st century.

The Silence set in motion the establishment of bizarre Flower Cities based upon radical nanotechnology, hives of information where a human technological society of sorts is able to continue. Outside them the hardy fruits of early nanotech enable most people to maintain a decent standard of living, even if they can no longer really understand how it works.

Out in the middle of the ocean sits the wonderful Crescent City, a mecca for scientists, refugees and utopians, a living city originally seeded as the basis for a self-supporting space colony but now sinking into self-satisfied decadence - until it’s attacked by pirates, that is. The pirates are eventually assimilated into Crescent City society but not before the city’s memory systems are seriously damaged, and the data pertaining to the interstellar source of The Silence is lost. This is incredibly poor timing as beings apparently composed purely of light and possibly responsible for (or at least complicit in) The Silence have begun materialising all over the place and spiriting people away…

Shocked out of its reverie, the City has decided that it must finally leave Earth to find the makers of The Silence and fulfil its destiny, so two citizens damaged by the pirate attack are sent to Houston to retrieve the back-up copy of the co-ordinates. One, previously known as The Engineer (a familiar face from Crescent City Rhapsody) has been invaded by the City’s memory systems’ Wild West archives, which were desperate to survive the pirate attack and has become Radio City Cowboy, a living breathing embodiment of the cultural sum of the Wild West. The other is another of Crescent City’s brightest, but stripped of her nanotech mental enhancements she is not as luminescent as once she was…

There are whole other arcs to the story but this, for me, was the central one. As usual with Goonan’s books, there’s a lot in these pages. Light Music is a trip across the entire planet, but it’s no longer our planet; rather this is a magical place of everlasting and self-replenishing shops, uncanny plagues, talking cars, bicycles that grow on trees and Pinocchio-like dolls that want to be human. And, contrary to John Lennon’s pronouncement, a world of no possessions like this is not easy to imagine.

There are many perfectly natural-seeming elements of magic realism in Light Music (one of the story threads, in a nod to the genre’s masters, follows an Argentinian woman who has been nanotechnologically ‘possessed’ by the literature of South America on her travels) and the story doesn’t always follow an obvious logic, but this is depicted (successfully, I thought) as our inability to understand a higher order of logic rather than a lack of logic altogether. Whether you’re a fan of magic realism or not, in this context it seems an entirely appropriate way of dealing with this new world.

Goonan’s prose in Light Music is as polished and evocative as ever, a potent and poetic mix of art and science, which, when it works, conjures up visions of an outrageous future, but still a human future. Even when it doesn’t quite work, when it’s too overwrought and orphic for it’s own good, I could still understand and appreciate Goonan’s intentions, playing that dangerous game of pushing the limits of the genre, to humanise, to grasp the essence, of the very alien - and you certainly can’t fault her for that.

I very much hope that the future will remember this series as an adventurous classic of our time long after the current crop of Wookie books and fantasy doorstops have been pulped. This is truly a vision of what the future will look like: not some tame amalgam of already extant technologies, but a great long-legged step over the low fence of what we think we know into a magical garden of things we’ve barely yet even imagined.

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