In his novel By Light Alone, sci-fi author Adam Roberts explores an intriguing possibility: what if future advances in genetic engineering make it possible for humans to photosynthesise sunlight through their hair? His vivid reply takes place in a fascinating world where having a shaved head is a fashionable status symbol and the consumption of food has become an ostentatious extravagance that only the rich can afford. The great majority of the world’s population, however, lives in abject poverty. This is the result of over a century of ever worsening exploitation at the hands of a brutal capitalism that has long since cast aside the obligation to pay the working poor any semblance of a subsistence wage. It is into this yawning divide between the world’s haves and have-nots that the reader is plunged from the get go, as we are immediately introduced to the main characters – three wealthy middle-aged couples enjoying a luxurious ski holiday on the snowy slopes of Turkey’s Mount Ararat. Flaunting their decadent lifestyle amidst the impoverished locals, their days are a non-stop binge of food, drink, and sex paraded before the eyes of the long-haired resort staff, who could never dream of indulging in such conspicuous consumption themselves.
Before long, one of the couples is brought back to sobering reality when they experience the kidnapping of their daughter. There were no witnesses present, and local police seem unable or unwilling to track her down. It is then that the girl’s family begins a painful transformation that will force them to question their unthinking acceptance of the injustices that make their standard of living possible.
I really enjoyed this book. The main concept is one that I’ve never seen done before, and it’s been written convincingly enough that I mostly managed to quieten any doubts in my head over its sheer implausibility. Roberts explores and expounds upon the impact of a lot of problems that are all too familiar – racism, injustice, and the unequal distribution of wealth, and in this regard it’s hard not to experience the narrative as a thinly veiled critique or even satire of the apathy and excesses of a conceited West. And even though the story’s last quarter sags a little (giving the impression that Roberts had already said what he wanted to and just didn’t quite know how to tie it off), I still found this to be a stimulating read from an author who clearly has many interesting things to say about where we’re headed.
Four stars out of five.