The second discussion this week is of Tricia Sullivan’s new novel, Lightborn — another 2010 book that picked up a few votes in the poll. It’s about the effect of the titular technology (“the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment — beamed directly into the brain of anyone who can meeting the asking price”) when it goes wrong in the Texas town of Los Sombres (“resulting in social chaos and widespread insanity in everyone past the age of puberty”). See reviews by Farah Mendlesohn at Strange Horizons, Nic Clarke in SFX, Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman, and by The Booksmugglers. The panel this time around are me, David Hebblethwaite, Nick Hubble, and Nic Clarke, and, as before, the whole book is discussed.
Niall: Perhaps not surprisingly, given the ages of the protagonists and the “adults gone crazy” conceit, one of the things several reviewers have asked about Lightborn is to what extent it’s a YA novel, or suitable for a YA audience. I’m interested in a related question: what is the novel’s attitude to growing up, and the notion of adulthood? On the one hand, the adults have been co-opted by Shine, and anyone who becomes an adult should expect to face the same fate; on the other hand, Roksana in particular is not the innocent you might expect to find in opposition to such corrupt experience, and in fact you could argue that it’s her lack of innocence that sees her through the novel.
Nic C: The idea of entrance to the adult world as presenting a threat to your integrity and selfhood (while at the same time being thrilling and fascinating) makes sense to me as something for young people to fear. I remember that, as an uber-idealistic young teen peacenik environmentalist, I associated adult life with lost principles and compromise: adults, it seemed to me, not only didn’t really believe that they could change the world (despite having much greater resources to do so than did a thirteen-year-old girl!), they also saw the desire to the change the world as silly and unrealistic and faintly embarrassing. I constantly read and was told that young people have no perspective, but to me adults seemed to be the ones focused exclusively on the short term and the quotidian: well, yes, that’s terrible about the whales, but I have to go to work/watch the TV/do the weekly food shopping now.
DH: I see Lightborn as taking a very pragmatic attitude towards growing up – one way or another, it’s going to happen; the time to become an adult (that is, to display the maturity or take on the responsibility of an adult) may come when the children of the novel are not ready, but they’ll have to deal with it. I also find it striking that (as it seems to me) adults retain the primacy in Lightborn; even to the end, there are copious examples of adult characters’ out-manoeuvring and out-thinking the children. Following on from that, I’d be interested to know what people make of the parent-child relationships in the novel.
Nic C: The parent-child relationships are, as I noted in my review, dysfunctional at best and downright destructive at worst. Partly this is about the parents being humans with (sometimes very serious) problems of their own, rather than the superbeings whose world revolves entirely around us that we imagine them to be as children: Roksana’s institutionalised mother, for example. Contrast this with Xavier’s relationship with his Shined but still (nominally) present mother, which tends more towards vaguely well-meaning neglect, in that her mind runs along its own tracks and she only properly notices what’s going on with him some of the time. (His reaction when she does notice him is heartbreaking, testament to how strongly a parent’s distraction can affect their child.)
I think that the contrasting ways that Roksana and Xavier escape the effects of — or, more accurately, are protected from — Shine/adulthood are interesting, too. Xavier takes age-retarding medication, largely at the insistence of the various parent and parent-substitute characters around him, and while he does fear the effects of Shine in some ways he’s also increasingly frustrated by being, as he sees it, held back. He wants to grow up, but is surrounded by examples of why being a grown-up is dangerous.
Roksana, meanwhile, is not susceptible to Shine because her father burned the capacity out of her before she was old enough to make the choice; the metaphor for fathers wanting to stop their daughters growing up is pretty clear. Although what I liked about the character is that this doesn’t make her an innocent, as Niall points out: she is pragmatic, proactive, cynical, and even has a sexual relationship (albeit a somewhat disturbing one, given the emphasis on a) his sculpted prettiness and b) his Shine-damaged self-awareness). I suppose that, like most daughters with a controlling father, she just does her growing up in secret and in rebellion.
Niall: More generally, I don’t think there’s a relationship of equals anywhere in the novel. It’s not just the adult/child relationships that are asymmetric, it’s the ones between the children too, in different ways, between Elsa and Xavier, and most particularly between Xavier and Roksana; I get the sense Xavier, in addition to being attracted to Roksana, genuinely thinks they could be equals, whereas Roksana very definitely doesn’t. (Of course, it’s slightly dubious to lump Roksana in with the “child” characters in this way — I’m taking the adults’ point of view.) Similarly there are gradients between the adults — except possibly between Amir and Powaqa, who seem to me to represent opposite sides of the same coin in some ways. And then you have the gradient between the Lightborn and all the humans, child or adult.
Nick H: I do think the novel is (obviously) about growing up — and that it reflects a growing sense over the last few decades of the difficulty of growing into meaningful adulthood, where “meaningful” should be thought of as encompassing some form of transformative agency i.e. “why can’t we grow up and change the world?” This is a post- US counterculture of the 60s/70s impulse: it reflects an ongoing failure of the promised transformation of that period to arrive and all the time the stakes get higher as the ‘real world’ becomes more lunatic e.g. current politics in both Britain and US.
In this sensibility, and also in some of its earlier sequences, Lightborn reminded me of Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma — there is a similar moral dimension which is bound up a laidback narrative. However, the biggest influence, as with most of her work, is obviously Dick and with the Hopi element, and the general plot, Lightborn is reminiscent of novels like Dr Bloodmoney. In its advocacy of a messy utopia, it is also in line with this tradition of American sf and in this sense it is a successor to something like Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven. And, of course, as can be seen in Maul, Sullivan also draws on the discourses around utopia and the impossibility of utopia, that occur in feminist sf as exemplified by The Female Man.
Niall: I’m interested in the issues of societal youngness and utopianism that you raise. I hadn’t thought about Lightborn as a novel engaged with utopian discourse, but of course you’re right that it is – see Farah Mendlesohn’s argument that the novel is about different ways of organising, and about the importance (and trials) of cooperation. It’s a pretty isolated sort of utopianism, though, confined to this one town in the middle of America, with little or no sense of how the outside world might be — a pocket of utopian thought experiment, if you like.
I was struck by Lightborn as a contrast to Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking books. Those books take the information-saturated adult world as anarchy, that children must learn to live in; Lightborn tends to emphasise the adult world as conformity, even after the truth of Los Sombres is revealed, pace one of the book’s last lines — “Free will is a muscle, you must exercise it every day”. In that, I’d certainly agree with you that Sullivan is a very American writer. But I wonder — what is this ambiguous thing called Shine that’s at the heart of the novel?
DH: I’m not sure that the Shine technology can be read as an entirely neat metaphor for adult responsibility, but I think there are some interesting parallels – we might say the novel makes plain that the adult world (in the shape of Los Sombres) is not entirely as the young characters think it is (not a city of mindless zombies, but of damaged people, some of whom can still function), and that the ideal state at the end is finding a balance between who you were (as a child) and who you are (as an adult).
Niall: I’m tempted to suggest that the field is Culture, something not under direct human control, something that almost seems to have its own agency, and something pervasive that we might swim in without ever being fully aware of. And how does this relate to the novel’s more spiritual side — the suggestion that the lightborns are a cognitive process similar to traditional Native American rituals, the assertions that some of the characters have “destinies”? I’d like to know what you all made of that side of the book.
Nick H: In the useful chapter where a more-or-less lucid Amir dumps some info on us, one of the things he says is:
“The native peoples were exploring these pathways long before Lightborn technology was invented. Recently they have adapted Lightborns to give them access to the medicine roads their ancestors walked using mushroom and peyote.” (254)
We’re talking about neural pathways here — basically the brain structures our experience of reality and we grow up in a culture/society that socialises the child so that from round about age 6 or so, certain neural pathways get reinforced and the other possibles fade away (so it becomes progressively less easy for most people to learn new languages — although if you remain someone who actively learns stuff, you retain capacity to learn). Mysticism then becomes the capacity to use neural pathways that have been shut off in other people. So Lightborns are presumably something you ‘shine’ into people’s eyes which ‘lights’ them onto a different pathway. Sullivan clearly draws on music here: in the other main exposition dialogue, Mitch describes the new shine as music that ‘knows what it wants to be, and plays through the musicians. The music is the animating power’ (386). This is a recurrent theme in Sullivan’s work (she has a music background) and echoes an exchange in Dreaming in Smoke about whether language speaks itself or whether there is always first a thing which speaks language. Generally, she privileges singer over song.
The Field is introduced to us as a kind of security thing, as a heavily policed infosphere of some sort, which, as Niall suggests, is the materialisation of the culture we inhabit. Growing up in our society is a process of growing into this complex of culture, communication and prescribed information pathways. From this perspective, becoming an adult entails a faustian pact — and in Lightborn, it is Amir who plays Mephistopheles.
”The Field isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind. In the Field, the Rider becomes able to make sense of the structural patterns that make up the Lightborn. He or she can see inside the Lightborn and manipulate it. The Lightborn is then beamed out, and in turn it affects us. Think of a biofeedback system on an epic scale.
“The fix would provide you with a high level of control over your own brain. Most people don’t have the mental control to be Riders. Riders have to process Lightborns of tremendous complexity, Lightborns that work on the cortex in a detailed way. Most people use Lightborns the way people used to use drugs. Riders, on the other hand, have a kind of double-consciousness that lets us use ourselves to work on Lightborns. And that’s what you’d have , Xavier. For someone like you, with my shine? The sky’s the limit. You would be the first of a new generation of Riders, Riders like the world has never seen. You’re it, kid.” (255)
But in the parallel passage a few pages earlier, when Roksana is told how important she is to America, she rejects the faustian pact and responds: “I’m all kinds of things. America? I don’t even know what America is. It’s the word people use when they don’t want to take personal responsibility” (249). At the end the novel does privilege rejecting the pact and taking responsibility for your own trajectory, with the closing image of the freedom farm — which suggests something more than log cabin survivalism (thankfully).
Nic C: What did you make of the glimpses we get of the outside world, and the relationship between it and Los Sombres? Also, I’m assuming that the name ‘Los Sombres’ was a deliberate choice, with its connotations of shadow/grey/gloomy…
Niall: I’m assuming by this you mean, in part, the fact that it’s set in 2006, and that the world is clearly an alternate present with a point of divergence a couple of decades ago. Yes, I don’t really know what to make of that, either. It’s worth mentioning that Sullivan’s previous two novels, Double Vision and Sound Mind, probably took place in an alternate 1980s — I even wondered for a little while whether the event at the end of Sound Mind is in some way related to the emergence of Lightborn technology in the timeline of this novel, although in the end I don’t think so. (Although now I notice that the three novels progress through different senses as ways of interacting with the world — sight, sound, and at the end of this novel, smell. Which is interesting.)
Nick H: Sight, sound, smell — I missed this until you pointed it out Niall and, of course, it’s blindingly obvious now — I think we will probably have to treat them as a trilogy in the long run (i.e I’m not going to get into that in this discussion) — and wonder if there would then be two more?
Nic C: Actually, what I’m interested in is the position of Los Sombres in relation to its world, both as a Shine-gone-crazy pariah, to be safely sealed off from everyone else and preferably bombed back to the stone age (as the saying goes) and, later, as a beacon of non-conformity, to be safely sealed off from everyone else and etc. I wasn’t really sure what to make of the deeply inept military — they always seemed like a rather cartoonish threat to our heroes — but the well-meaning web journalist character was interesting.
Which brings me back, in a roundabout way, to Niall’s point about the different portrayals of adulthood and information in Lightborn versus Patrick Ness’s books. Shine is more or less incomprehensible from the outside; it looks like an information technology of self-absorption. Compare this with Roksana’s use of radio to co-ordinate the revolution, and the web journalist getting the message out (albeit to the wrong as well as the right people): I think the relationship between adulthood, communication and information is more nuanced than Niall suggests. How chaotic or damaging the various information/communication technologies are depends on whether you control the information, or the information controls you, I think.
DH: The world outside of Los Sombres was an aspect of the book that didn’t really work for me. We don’t really get to see the world functioning “normally” under shine, so it (the outisde world) never quite felt real to me, and I don’t know what to make of that as an auctorial choice, nor the decision to foreground the novel’s fictionality by setting it in an alternate present. Did it work better for anyone else in this regard?
Nick H: Los Sombres is the “one town in the middle of America”, and as is often the case representative of all towns, through a host of fiction, film (Capra etc) and even sociology (Middletown). It’s interesting that this one isn’t east coast metropolitan area like Maul and Double Vision. Partly I think it reflects Dick’s Californian style small towns but it also has the mid-America flavour (no doubt someone who knows the US can put me to rights) — that suggests it aspires to universalism exactly through its fly-overish parochialism.
Nic C: I agree: Los Sombres felt like a small-ish town, quite isolated in a largely agricultural landscape. The book’s lighter moments put me in mind of US splatter-disaster B-movies like Tremors and Slither, where the only line of defence against the highly localised invasion of alien critters is a bumbling sheriff, two kids and a dog.
Nick H: I think my point is that Tricia Sullivan is not just the heir but the latest incarnation of the American SF tradition: she is the real thing; one of the most important writers in the genre today without question (and this is linked to the growing up question, because in some ways US SF is about a “young” country growing up to transform the world with its ideals — and Sullivan keeps this impulse alive while complicating it at the same time — not least by complicating the ‘youngness’ with the Hopi influence). The question for me is, why isn’t Sullivan held in much higher standing generally because her work of the 21st century amounts to a pretty formidable achievement?
Niall: I suspect the answer boils down to, on the one hand, the practical matter that she’s not published in the US, and thus has a relatively limited audience, and on the other hand, the artistic choice to embrace a certain amount of difficulty in her novels. I think it’s fair to say that Lightborn, even with its trippy final third, is the most reader-friendly of her novels so far this decade; it grapples with abstract questions about how we perceive the world, but in a less full-on manner than, say, Sound Mind (much as I admire that novel). I think it should also be said that I think Sullivan is held in pretty high standing — of the books this decade, Maul in particular tends to be well regarded, although perhaps it’s also a bit of a marmite work – although that’s not the same as saying she has the standing she deserves.
Nick H: On the point of Lightborn‘s readability, I wonder to what extent Sullivan has deliberately stripped down and rebuilt her style since Dreaming in Smoke — that’s a good book but I think the twenty-first century ones are all better (well, I haven’t actually read Sound Mind but I’m guessing) and that Lightborn represents a honing of technique in that it blends well-worked cliff-ending chapters, narrative pace, with wit and engaging characters with moral impulse and utopian intent. It’s a triumph of planning, crafting and pacing — in fact, she might well have to strip her style down again and reboot because I’m not sure this could be bettered in the same vein.
Nic C: The only other Sullivan I’ve read is Maul, which I just finished yesterday. And yes, Lightborn is certainly accessible in comparison to Maul… Don’t get me wrong, Maul entertained me enormously, but I hadn’t much of a clue what was going on for a good 150 or more pages of it. (I could see how the two plots fit together, but little beyond that.) In Lightborn, Sullivan only sets off the narrative cluster bombs every chapter or two, as opposed to roughly every other page!