Tuesday 12 October 2010

Book Review: Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan

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Tricia Sullivan is one of those writers you want to keep a close eye on. One to watch, as it were. Hailing from the US, she began publishing fiction right around the time she immigrated to the UK - not that I would for a second suggest the glorious climes of Britain inspired her, somehow. (Mayhap she found her muse in the grey clouds, eh?) In 1999, she took home the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award for her third novel, Dreaming in Smoke. After publishing a trilogy of fantasy novels under a pseudonym, she returned to the fertile fields of sci-fi in 2004, and there she's remained.

Lightborn is her first novel in three years, and in truth, it feels three years old. An arbitrary, insignificant nip in time, you might think - indeed - but if one thing's been done to death in that period, it's sexy vampires. If there's another, it's got to be kids scraping by an existence in a physically or psychologically isolated remnant of civilisation after The Day the World Went Away. Breathe easier: thankfully, there are no sexy vampires in sight in Sullivan's latest. Not a one!

Alas, there has been a calamity. In Lightborn's case, shine was what did it. Since you ask, shine is, and I quote, "The ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment - beamed directly into the mind of anyone who can meet the asking price." A technology embedded in the waveforms of light, capable of projecting an understanding or an instruction or an orgasm; whatever you please, really. Inevitably, in the city of Los Sombres, shine evolved, became hostile enough to pose a threat to the entire US. Not knowing how to stop the renegade shine's spread, nor able to justify dropping a nuke amid a civilian population - however deranged - the government opted instead to close Los Sombres' borders. No-one in, no-one out.

Not everyone's affected by the shine. For one thing, kid's aren't able to process shine till they come of age, and there a few, a very few adults, who have been "burned out" because of some crime or indiscretion. Unfortunately for the kids and criminals, they're trapped inside the quarantine zone with a horde of not-zombies. Xavier lives on an impromptu Native American reservation on the Los Sombres outskirts, necking bottles of Kisspeptin inhibitor to put off puberty, and thus the sad half-life of a shiny. When someone steals the last of the camp's supplies, he saddles up Bob Newhart (the horse) and takes to the city, where he meets Roksana, and realises the truth about shine is not at all what he - and the rest of the world with him - has been led to believe.

Lightborn is an over-familiar experience from the first page, a retreading of well-trodden ground - think The Extra by Michael Shea, last year's Boneshaker and The Hunger Games - that brings little innovation to the table. Its pubescent protagonist is a dullard, if a necessarily inquisitive one, and while Roksana and the supporting cast are more interesting - Elsa in particular is a darling wee scene-stealer - the wet blanket Sullivan dubs Xavier rather chokes any sense spontaneity from her narrative. Lightborn gets substantially more interesting in its last act, as Sullivan's narrative ambitions metamorphose from the ho-hum struggle for survival into something suddenly grandiose and accordingly absorbing, but unfortunately it's a case of too little, too late.

That said, even lesser Tricia Sullivan is an improvement on much of the technically and creatively brain-dead genre fiction out there, and Lightborn has its moments. The award-winning author laces her text with wit and humour: the novel's five parts are named in excellent taste after prog. rock operas such as Shine On You Crazy Diamond, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Brain Salad Surgery; individual chapters are headed irreverently; one of Xavier's inspiring speeches in the late game is interrupted by the rumbling of his stomach. So perhaps, as with The Extra (which also features giant mechanical spiders), one isn't to take this tale too seriously. Add to that, it's an easy, fast-paced read. As with the best writers and directors, Sullivan gets out of the way of her story, lets her art speak for itself, and that's a fine thing. It's only a shame Lightborn doesn't have much to add to the conversation.


by Tricia Sullivan

UK Publication: October 2010, Orbit

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