alien code

The other night I finished M. John Harrison's Light, which I found continually engaging, provocative, and fascinating. Light resembles the science fiction space operas that enthralled me as a teenaged boy, Dune and Foundation and Empire. But there is much more going on in Harrison's work. He couples a striking imagination to a substantial knowledge of esoteric physics to a mordant vision of the future to a deep intelligence, and evinces no interest in the primness that neuters much of Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, et al.

Harrison describes himself, without capitalization:

like to walk. like to jog. own a lot of specialized shoes. like silence. love a pork pie. feel frail, although that’s probably not the case yet but an imaginative casting-forward. often employ the rhetorical question “What am I like?”, meaning how can anyone be this fucked up/absent-minded/late. keep some parts of myself severely to myself, am thus able to maintain a deep fruitful disjunction between this real world & the real real world. always a fiction. sixty nine years old in a month. no heroes. will read for cash.

Light sets its characters on a very deep temporal stage. One story line is set in 1999, the other two in 2400. The human race, zip code Earth, has figured out interstellar travel, and in its blundering about has encountered technology developed by alien races millions of years in the past. Humans have adopted some of this technology, for good and bad.

More interesting to me, from an intellectual and imaginative standpoint, are the encounters with Shadow Operators, sentient alien digital code, drifting algorithms that take up residence in corners of space ships and perform certain functions and assume ghostly forms that can be seen. I love this idea. We think of ancient artifacts in the terms archaeology has set for us: traces of material culture like pottery and tools and evidence of structures. Incorporeal artifacts—the sounds of a Babylonian market, how a neandertal smelled—are unavailable. But think of an incorporeal artifact of another kind. The New Horizons spacecraft nearing Pluto (I wrote about it here) transmits long strings of 0s and 1s across vast distance. Imagine an alien craft that happens to cross that stream. Would its sensors pick up the code and recognize it as an artifact of the human race? Is alien code floating about interstellar space, like radio transmissions? Might this be the deep-space exploration of the future, sentient code with no need of food, water, oxygen, or radiation shielding?

Light will not be for everyone. It's a deeply weird book that requires concentration. But I'll be reading more M. John Harrison.