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Adam Roberts, By Light Alone (London: Orion House, 2011)
NB: This review examines most of the plot of By Light Alone, and thus some (but not all) major events of the text are revealed—as fair warning.
The opening of By Light Alone anticipates the book’s fascinating and shattering developments and conclusion only negatively. For nearly the first hundred pages, Roberts focuses his attention almost exclusively on a satirical depiction of the indulgent excesses of the bourgeoisie of the future: specifically, the family of George and Marie Denoone, wealthy Manhattanites whose daughter Leah is abducted while on holiday in Doğubayazit, located in mountainous Kurdistan near the borders with Armenia and Iran. Roberts’ characterization of the Denoones is intentionally unsympathetic and distasteful; indeed, while reading this first section, I distinctly recalled Frankz Kafka’s The Castle. Given his writing style and the subjects he considers, Roberts can likely be to said to share Kafka’s anarchist proclivities: George and Marie are shown to be Rapunzels. Before their daughter’s kidnapping, they had “lived a childlishly spoilt existence in which every whim was indulged and which no actual hardship had interrupted.” In their life in New York, the Denoones have friends fly over in their supersonically exclusive “flitters” to have lunch together, only to cross the Atlantic once again after the meal is finished; in Kurdistan, the family employs an iCar Armoured in its search for Leah. Privileged and parochial, George and Marie have no evident understanding of the extreme social inequalities which grip the contemporary humanity Roberts considers in his future sci-fi account. It is not until Leah’s capture near Mt. Ararat that the couple has “first contact” with the other side of late, “advanced” capitalism: the life of the world’s social majorities, who in large part must toil to survive.
Compellingly, Roberts shows the future world’s proletarians as benefiting from a technological breakthrough discovered by scientist Nic Neocles, one that makes human hair capable of performing photosynthesis, such that the need for nourishment from external sources—i.e., diet—is nullified. Naturally, such an innovation has much liberatory potential, for it truly allows for the subordinated to free themeslves from dependence on lords or capitalists for income and sustenance. Indeed, Roberts explains that Neocles’ life work was greatly influenced by his reading of Percy Shelley’s poem “The Mask of Anarchy,” in particular its following famous lines:
“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.”
Fortunately and unfortunately within the confines of established capitalism, the results of applying such new technology proves variable: on the one hand, many light-hairs are shown to enjoy a tranquil existence, freed from the necessity of production and representing an embodied utopian socialism—in the text, Roberts depicts multitudes of light-hairs as taking to the seas and living there indefinitely—while many female light-hairs find themselves continuing to perform feudal labor in exchange for provision of the extra nutrients they require in states of pregnancy. Though it can provide for much of human life, photosynthesis from the “New Hair” seemingly does not yield enough for mother, fetus, and infant, in Roberts’ vision.
Considered alongside other important examples of sci-fi exploration—including Andrei Tarkovsky, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name only a handful of luminaries—By Light Alone can be said to be similarly stimulating in its effect on the socio-political imagination. Through his inspired examinations of the radically different lifestyles of the world’s light-hair social majorities, Roberts presents alternatives to the horrors of hegemony, which in his text are in no short supply: there are a number of passing references made in the book’s first three bourgeois chapters to the brutal repression meted out by the State against light-hairs. At Triunion (precise location unknown), a mass-protest by light-hairs is seen to be put down by military quad-pods suggestive of the AT-ATs of Star Wars, and another massacre of marine-residing light-hairs is prosecuted off the coast of Florida. Readers learn about this latter atrocity by encountering the fascistic new partner Marie takes after separating from George, Arto, who previously had been discharged from the military for psychiatric reasons after participating in the Florida “operation.” Joining with Arto, Marie takes on the hobby of tending to her expansive “Queens Gardens,” located in New York’s Queens district, which had apparently been cleared of light-hairs some time ago by capitalist security forces. Queen Marie’s eco-fascist “green” colonization project is swiftly put to an end through a mass land-occupation performed on the grounds of the Gardens by light-hairs. This reappropriation coincides with street-fighting throughout much of New York.
In positive dialectical terms, Roberts’ relatively uninspired focus on the Denoones gives way in the book’s final third to an marvelous “Odyssea” undertaken by a young female light-hair named Issa. Issa is first encountered as she burns down and flees the effective jail-residence in which she is held by a local village waali (governor), Abda. Escaping into the surrounding environment and surviving by means of her New Hair, Issa travels on foot, coming to reach the Black Sea in time. As a feminist and a refugee, she there links with members of a Spartacist political movement which seeks to involve subordinated light-hairs in revolutionary direct action against the super-wealthy profiting from the oppressive capitalist system. On the Black Sea, Issa joins a large barge of migrant light-hairs heading west through Istanbul and the Mediterranean Sea. Like many of their real-life counterparts today, however, the participants of the light-hair refugee barges suffer various disasters in the Mediterranean, given outbreaks of infectious disease and outright targeting for destruction by statist military flitters. Hence do Issa’s comrades encounter setbacks before the dominance of hegemony.
Nonetheless, following the barge’s passage through the Strait of Gibraltar and its successful crossing of the Atlantic, Issa joins with a coordinated multitude of millions of fellow light-hair Spartacists who reverse their fortunes by converging on Manhattan in a flotilla. With this massive move, the Spartacists seek to neutralize one of the principal bourgeois capitals of the world—this characterization of New York’s world-historical positioning being one which fits the social environment of both the novel and actual reality. While light-hairs advance a land-based insurrection which readers previously see mentioned at the end of the section on Queens Gardens, the seafaring refugee armada—true decolonial pirates—bombard the retaining wall that had previously been erected around New York in order to shield it from the increased sea levels which had already affected the rest of the world. Succeeding in such a truly revolutionary objective, the Spartacists let loose the waters of the Atlantic and so devastate the capitalist citadel, thus opening a major world-wide campaign to depose the capitalist hangers-on and overthrow class oppression together at a stroke—both, hopefully, for all time.
Javier Sethness Castro is author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe and For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism. His essays and articles have appeared in Truthout, Climate and Capitalism, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Countercurrents, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He is currently working on writing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse.