Shiny unhappy people
Fiction – much like real life – is full of people whose relationships with their parents are fractious at best, and severely messed up at worst. Between a drowned sibling, a mother in a mental hospital and a father experimenting on his offspring, the main characters of Clarke Award-winner Tricia Sullivan’s latest could give anyone short of Oedipus a run for their money in the problematic parenting stakes. And all of that happened before the story even starts.
Sullivan drops us straight into the action; we’re scarcely introduced to the story’s setting, the invented US city of Los Sombres, before it collapses around everyone’s ears. Something goes suddenly and spectacularly wrong with Shine, a brain chemistry-altering technology based on light waves that has become a wildly popular mix of entertainment system, lifestyle tool and drug. Its Los Sombres users are left brain-damaged; only children, whose still-developing brains are immune to Shine, are unscathed.
Unlike many SF stories, Lightborn is less about finding a solution than working out what the problem is. For much of its length we – like the characters – are flying blind, reliant on supposition and rumours (which often turn out, later, to be wrong) to piece together what happened and why. As the plot plunges forward in short chapters filled with entertainingly punchy prose, rarely can we even tell whether the good guys are saving the day, or unwittingly making things worse.
Teenagers Roksana and Xavier survive as best they can in and around the ruined city. But for each of them the most difficult thing – and the heart of this compelling, imaginative, and often discomfiting novel – is learning to care for spaced-out, self-destructive parents who don’t always recognise them.