"Life," "Air" and "Light" may not spark the media frenzy caused by the arrival of the Beatles, but their near-simultaneous U.S. publication does constitute a sort of science-fictional...
“Life,” “Air” and “Light” may not spark the media frenzy caused by the arrival of the Beatles, but their near-simultaneous U.S. publication does constitute a sort of science-fictional British Invasion. All by multiple award-winners, they’re exciting books about big ideas, bound to attract serious notice and probably more awards for the authors.
Gwyneth Jones’ “Life” (Aqueduct Press, 369 pp., $19) recounts the exploits of Anna Senoz, a brilliant molecular biologist. Nothing’s sacred, she tells college classmate Spence. ” ‘Sex is now something we can take apart and change around. Like a Lego set: we don’t have to stick with the model in the picture on the box. We can make anything we like. … Well, almost.’ ”
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William S. Burroughs famously declared that “Language is a virus from outer space”; the theory that viruses themselves are a language leads Anna to discover how they’re introducing frightening changes into the genes that determine sexual differences. The technical details of this process are given in short, wonkish spiels on alleles and regulatory proteins scattered sparingly through a narrative as taut and finely balanced as a gymnast’s musculature.
Richly sensory in its depiction of Anna’s personal life (the lingering smell of her lover, the lentil-eating poverty necessitated by a career in science), “Life” also conveys the global implications of “Transferred Y,” as her discovery of chromosomal cross-dressing comes to be known.
The world emerging is one without the “sweet slenderness” of a young woman’s wrist, where instead girls come easily into their inheritance as “swaggering adolescent humans” a world of equals.
In “Air,” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 390 pp., $14.95) Geoff Ryman foretells a transformation just as deep. His heroine, Chung Mae, is the fashion expert for her remote mountain village of Kizuldah in the imaginary country of Karzistan. Mae can’t sew but has created this niche using marketing savvy that many a denizen of dot-com-dom might envy.
On a shopping trip to the region’s cosmopolitan center, Yeshibozkent, she learns that Kizuldah’s about to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Only one of her neighbors has access to the Internet; now a new technology called Air will broadcast information directly into the consciousness of every human being on Earth.
In a week, the Yeshibozkent public-address system announces, there will be a test of Air, which it likens to having a TV in your head: ” ‘There is no need for fear, alarm, or panic.’ Mae listened then. There would certainly be a need for fear and panic if the address system said there was none.”
Indeed, the test causes several deaths since, despite Mae’s warnings, it takes most Kizuldahns by surprise. Blundering through Air’s hallucinatory interfaces, overwhelmed by the flood of a blind woman’s accidentally accessed memories, Mae embodies a fierce and likable courage in the face of an almost unimaginable future.
In the test’s aftermath, negotiating Kizuldah’s place in a brave-new-world economy, Mae leads tech-timid characters and readers to the brink of a new life, one in which knowledge blooms effortlessly and the suppurating, separating wound of ignorance is healed.
Though it deals with quantum theory and the reasons for human existence, and though one of its three protagonists is a serial killer, M. John Harrison’s “Light” (Bantam Spectra, 310 pp., $16) is in some ways, well, lighter. The author’s matter-of-fact yet Monty Pythonesque tone prevents it from sharing the tense relevancy of “Life” and “Air.”
Michael Kearney’s a mathematician and a murderer. Between attempts to develop a quantum computer, he offs random women to keep away The Shrander, a transdimensional being that has terrorized him since boyhood.
Seria Mau Genlicher and Ed Chianese live 400 years later, in a future that will be made possible by Kearney’s invention. She’s been surgically grafted into the operating system of a starship; he’s a virtual-reality addict in debt to a couple of mob bosses who dress like prim mid-20th-century secretaries.
All are drawn to the Kefahuchi Tract, a “singularity without an event horizon … ” where “the broken rules of the universe spill out. … ” Offered a chance to plumb the heart of this enigma, Ed’s only question is “Will it be fun?”
With Harrison at the helm, the answer’s yes: for Ed and for readers as well.