Wednesday, December 9, 2020

THE LIGHT YEARS, debut SF novel that feels more heartfelt than any other I've read this year


Angry Robot Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Hisako Saski was born with her life already mapped out. In exchange for an education, better housing for her family, and a boost out of poverty, she's been contracted into an arranged marriage to Adem Sadiq, a maintenance engineer and amateur musician who works and lives aboard his family's sub-light freighter, the Hajj.

Hisako is not happy with the deal. The arcane branch of physics it requires her to study broke off a thousand years before, and she is not keen on the idea of giving up everything she knows to marry a stranger and move onto an aging spaceship.

Onboard the Hajj, Hisako soon learns her dilemmas are overshadowed by the discovery of ancient secrets, a derelict warship, and a chance at giving the survivors of Earth a fresh start.


My Review
: I wasn't eager to read this book...I don't like being mean to people, and a first novel about relativistic space travel wasn't likely to excite me in a good way...but Rob asked me to read it in an unrefusable way: "I'll take my chances."

Major respect for that, dude.

So here I am reviewing it and recommending it for #Booksgiving. That's unusual for a first novel. A first novel with a casually bisexual male lead, a culture of selling unborn brides to traders on sub-light freighters that function like planets with clashing cultures. And I'm recommending it?

Yes. It's trenchant. I sat still for a minute after reading the teenaged ruminations of the bride bought for male lead, Adem, on learning the boy she was about to mess around with was her unmet fiancé's fanboy. That needs a bit of unpacking....

Adem messes around in his offtime from being a trader, the son of the captain of the ship, and a bored (sort of) twentysomething horndog by recording and broadcasting ancient Earth songs he's discovered. The City of New Orleans, A Boy Named Sue, that kind of thousand-year-old cultural relic. Hey, we have the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields so this isn't remotely far-fetched. Add to that the fact that there are literally thousands of broadcast hours of Earth music...well, something is going to survive. Maybe even some good stuff, though I wouldn't bet on it. And those lightspeed broadcasts have reached his bride's planet, Gaul, where she is about to take A Big Step with one of her fiancé's fanboys. (Her virginity wasn't required for the marriage contract to be honored.)

That's a moment, a passage from one part of life to another, that is frequently accompanied by music. Not usually that of one of the parties' intended marital partner. And that union set to occur quite a long time (a decade, almost) in her future. About which contract she's been aware since she was twelve...and the groom was twenty-six when it was contracted and will arrive on Gaul about twenty-six still because near-light-speed relativistic travel makes your brain hurt when thinking about its social consequences.

That brain-bending reality the two main caracters live in is really the reason I want you to read this. In the best possible way, this novel resembles a novel of manners set in a society where the people getting married come from two different worlds. What can possibly be better described as speculative fiction than that?

There are numerous caveats and addendums to the basic story, of course, though none of them involve explicit sex or even serious romantic entanglement. Again the echo of the novel of manners...and while the publisher's marketing push might lead one to expect something more on the salacious side, it will only bring disappointment to go into the read expecting this.

Don't think it's not involving, don't imagine it's got no narrative tension! Remember how utterly engrossing and un-put-downable The House of Mirth was? Lily Bart's rise from nothing is a lot like Hisako's...but there is so much fun to be had in following the path Author Greene is marking out for you that I'll avoid spoilering it for you. Developments don't stop with the inner worlds of the a late-stage capitalist future that accepts prenatal marriage contracts (shades of 1300!), you can bet there is a lot of Evil to be done. Quite a bit of it is done to/by Hisako's poet-father.

A keen eye was cast on the twenty-first century and a report card was issued in this novel's background. It wasn't an F, exactly. The room for improvement noted was pretty sizable.... As I'm in sympathy with this point of view, it was largely invisible to me until I started a second read-through. Many abuses of people, living people in your polity, are no better than the extremes posited here. And they need to be addressed. If this plague year has done nothing else good, it's made that fact clear to more people than were clear about it before.

But Rob...srsly my dude...NO MORE W-BOMBS.

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