Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan


Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
Published: Orbit (2010)
Award Nominations: BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
Lightborn, better known as 'shine', is a mind-altering technology that has revolutionised the modern world. It is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment - beamed directly into the brain of anyone who can meet the asking price.

But in the city of Los Sombres, renegade shine has attacked the adult population, resulting in social chaos and widespread insanity in everyone past the age of puberty. The only solution has been to turn off the Field and isolate the city.

Trapped within the quarantine perimeter, fourteen-year-old Xavier just wants to find the drug that can keep his own physical maturity at bay until the army shuts down the shine. That's how he meets Roksana, mysteriously impervious to shine and devoted to helping the stricken.

As the military invades street by street, Xavier and Roksana discover that there could be hope for Los Sombres - but only if Xavier will allow a lightborn cure to enter his mind.

What he doesn't know is that the shine in question has a mind of its own ...” ~from triciasullivan.com

I’m reading this book as a part of my plan to read all of the books on the 2011Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist.  My first impression of this novel was that it sounded like Young Adult literature, due to the age of the protagonists and the incapacitation of the adults.  After reading it, I still think the story and accessible writing would fly well with the young adult crowd, but I don't think that it is exclusively targeted to that audience.

My Thoughts:

The story switches between the points of view of Roksana and Xavier. Both of them are trying to make the best of the disaster that their lives have become, and they both love and attempt to protect their shine-damaged parents.  I was highly impressed by their courage and familial loyalty. Despite these similarities, they have distinctly different ways of seeing and interacting with the world.  Part of this difference comes from their life experiences.  Roksana lives and works among the crazed ‘shinies’ of Los Sombres, and tries to hold the community together in the face of the US army’s aggression.  Xavier lives just outside the city, with a few benignly insane adults and a Native American healer who is trying to help them.  He sees Los Sombres as the threat, and the army’s actions as a necessary effort to contain it. 

Part of their difference might also come from their physical states.  Roksana is a sexually mature woman, while Xavier is trapped in a child’s body, knowing that the price of growing up will likely be his sanity.  Roksana seems comfortable with her own identity, while Xavier must be starting to feel a disconnect between his 14-year-old mind and his prepubescent body. I found both Xavier and Roksana to be highly intriguing characters, and I particularly liked the strong contrast between them.
Though Xavier and Roksana are certainly interesting, the plot and world of Lightborn seems at first to be constructed out of common elements.  A city of shine-crazed humans illustrates the folly of blindly trusting new technologies. As in many teen survival stories, Roksana and Xavier are forced to step up and shoulder responsibility after the failure of the adults.  Roksana appears to have been born with a unique brain that is naturally resistant to shine. Out on the perimeter, Xavier lives on a ranch where the shined are being treated by a Native American healer and horse trainer, Powaqa.  The US military has no interest in helping or understanding the plight of the citizens of Los Sombres, and responds to them only with force.  There’s a lot of talk about Roksana and/or Xavier being the ‘chosen one’ who will redeem all the shined of Los Sombres. 

But then, as the book progresses, everything becomes much more complicated and original than it might seem in the beginning.  Many of the common elements are subverted, disproved, or taken in a completely unexpected direction.  My only complaint is that this mostly starts to happen fairly late in the book, around the last third. I found myself wishing that the final part of the story could have been told in more detail, since that was where my interest in the plot picked up considerably.
As for the writing itself, Sullivan uses a terse style with short, choppy sentences used for emphasis.  Rather than dressing up Los Sombres in flowery words, she focuses her descriptions on the dirty, ugly and familiar modern elements (such as fast food restaurants).  I think this focus really helps to ground the reader in the reality of the situation.  There’s also a lot of cleverly descriptive figurative language that tends to revolve around common modern concepts or objects.  For example, at one point Roksana describes her sense of confusion by saying:

“I feel like a cardboard box, you know?  I just want someone to come along and put an arrow on me. This way up.” [p.363]

Late in the book, Sullivan’s style moves towards some very trippy imagery.  I found myself stopping to reread a lot of the writing in these segments—not because they were unclear, but because the way they were constructed was so creative.  

On one last note, I did appreciate the fact that Sullivan let readers cobble together their own understanding of lightborns, rather than going into any in-depth explanations.  However, the technology itself seems kind of implausible.  Information is coded into light, which then can be somehow distributed from any light source.  It also seemed to imply that you don’t necessarily have to look at the light to be affected, which doesn’t make all that much sense to me.  Furthermore, I can’t think of a realistic reason for why people would only be able to receive shine after puberty.  Shine is kind of described as affecting your brain chemistry, which is something I would think children would be more susceptible to than adults.  However, figuring out exactly how shine works is not really the point of the story. Lightborn is more concerned with the consequences of shine technology and how it might affect humanity.   

My Rating: 4/5

Though it seemed at first to be a pretty standard post-apocalyptic-type survival story with messianic leanings, Lightborn turned out to be much more complicated and interesting by the end.  The writing went from terse and modern to delightfully trippy and chaotic in some segments.  Xavier and Roksana were believable, well-developed main characters with a commendable sense of loyalty to their families.  The large secondary cast was much less developed, but they did add to the story in their own ways.  Lightborn technology seemed pretty implausible, but its workings were left vague enough that suspension of disbelief was not too difficult.  All in all, Lightborn is a book that I’m very happy to have read.

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