Not So Shiny

by Sonia Mitchell

By Light Alone fails to dazzle Sonia.
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I've gradually come to accept that I'm not going to stop being seduced by beautiful book covers, and that this will inevitably lead to disappointments in my life. Shopping through Kindle is helpful, but I'm still terribly prone to browsing a bookshop and picking up the prettiest book. Hence, I was completely won over by the very shiny cover of this book, which I did at least manage to buy second-hand.

[Spoilers and abuse triggers follow]

By Light Alone is a novel with a decent premise - what would happen if technology was developed that allowed people to photosynthesise energy with their hair? According to author Adam Roberts, this would lead to a gulf between people who use their hair to synthesise their energy (By Light Alone, d'ya see?) and people who can still afford to get their sustenance through real food - this latter group being the super-rich, who shave their heads to show their status.

This all seems like a pretty good grounding for a science fiction novel. Unfortunately, this is a literary science fiction novel, which apparently means that alongside the premise we have to have horrible characters, worthy techniques and themes. I don’t object to literary fiction, but I’m suspicious when it gets into bed with science fiction.

From the Amazon reviews:
“Overall, there is some wonderful writing here, some great story-telling. If you've read previous Adam Roberts books, you'll know what to expect. If not, don't come to this expecting some kind of escapist sci-fi. It's a lot more than that.”

I would have been fine with escapist sci-fi. I long ago made peace with my tastes.

The book begins:
“Some of them wore their skis like clown-shoes. They tripped and tumbled and then they struggled, with comic laboriousness, to get back on their feet. But some wore their skies like the fins of fish or the wings of birds in the white medium, and made fizzing, sinusoidal passage down the mountainside.”

Enough said.

In the midst of this lyrical prose there is a story. A ghastly, affluent couple have their eldest child stolen during their holiday. As they try to cope with this loss they and the reader learn about the lives of the poor people, living at subsistence levels in the villages throughout most of the world. Apparently child theft is fairly common because of the impossibility of women carrying pregnancies to term without expensive solid food.

The middle section deals with the way the family copes when they are reunited, and the lasting effects on all of the characters. The final, and most coherent section, deals with a stolen child, her life as one of the wandering poor, and her journey back to her family. She is, of course, sexually abused, because this is a serious literary novel not some silly throwaway sci-fi story, and serious literary novels can deal with hard-hitting themes. She does not, however, dwell on this abuse because she is a strong young woman with inner resources blah blah blah. Urgh. I'm in no way trying to police how young girls 'should' feel about being raped, but forgive me if I'm wary of yet another man deciding he can portray it, particularly in a work that bills itself as satire.

Anyway, economically, the development of ‘The Hair’ has led to a new class of super-poor people, who can survive indefinitely with no income as long as they have access to water. Outside of the rich cities, societies have fragmented into villages run by bosses. Men have no need to work, while women who one day want to bear children need to earn enough to keep themselves fed with real food during their pregnancy.

Despite the hideous systems of exploitation going on, particularly of women, the overall impression is that the majority of the underclass are the idle poor. While the novel attempts to satirize the hatefully classist opinions of the affluent characters, it simultaneously backs them up by having the vast majority of the world’s male population doing nothing but lie around and sexually harass any female characters who pass by.

The main problem I have with the literary science fiction thing - or at least this incarnation - is that it leaves so many world-building-type questions unanswered. The most serious of these is why don’t the under-class grow or hunt food? Even assuming that the men can’t be bothered because they don’t need anything but light, the women are desperate for food. It sounds like a niggle, but it's the conceit that underpins the entire book, and I just can't make it stand up to scrutiny. The seas have been over-fished, fine, but at the very least we're told there are seagulls. If all the other animals were gone then the world would have more substantial problems than just a broken economy. So if there are animals, why is no one picking up a pointy stick and looking for them?

To touch upon the novel's good points, I did find it a fairly engaging read, and finished it in a couple of days without getting overly bogged down by the imagery. The characters, while painted very broadly, have their own voices and there are enough moments of connection and tenderness between them to make their actions believable.

This isn't enough to make me recommend it, however. I kept reading, but I can't say I particularly enjoyed it and it hasn't challenged or changed my views. While it seems to be trying to construct a narrative of the virtuous poor oppressed by the super-rich, the actual text of the book undermines itself. The rich are horrible, the poor are lazy, and the only character who isn't in some way awful is a victim of a series of abuses. And "the virtues of suffering" is a moral I will continue to resist.

But, to come full circle, this novel has a pretty cover.
~

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Comments (go to latest)
Shim at 09:40 on 2013-01-27
super-poor people, who can survive indefinitely with no income as long as they have access to water.

Does it touch on how the 'idle poor' get anything other than food? Because you'd think the desire for clothes, nicer houses, toys, gadgets, cosmetics, household goods and all that jazz would be some motivation to make at least a token effort. I mean, people living in shanty towns don't, as far as I know, do it because they're feckless wastrels, but because they can't earn enough to do anything else. If all that was required was actually doing some work, problem solved.

Let alone that people tend to like showing off and competing for status, which is usually correlated with having stuff, or with doing things that require stuff.
Wardog at 11:35 on 2013-01-27
This does have a really shiny cover, however.

The portrayal of the working (or in this case non-working) classes does seem incredibly dodgy though. Dan was reading a book lately called Poor Economics which, I confess I haven't read, but it was basically about how really really poor people will spend a larger proportion of their income on luxuries (which is something, obviously, that tends to get looked down on by the middle and upper classes who naturally feel that the poor should be Improving Their Lot) because they want to improve their quality of life.
Dan H at 18:19 on 2013-01-27
By Light Alone is a novel with a decent premise - what would happen if technology was developed that allowed people to photosynthesise energy with their hair?


I'm confused by your use of the phrase "decent premise" here. Surely you mean "mindbendingly stupid premise".

Now I'm personally not a big fan of sci-fi at the best of times but at least *actual* sf authors realize that if you're going to posit a big "what if" in your book you should have *some* idea of what the consequences of that "what if" should be. Literary sf authors seem to think they don't have to think anything through at all as long as the overall result is that the world gets *worse*.

As speculative fiction this falls down at pretty much every level.

The physics just about works if you make some really, really generous assumptions (like assuming that people have a full square meter of hair on their heads and sit in direct sunlight sixteen hours a day) but the biology is mad. Okay, so they're fine for energy but where do they get *everything else* from? There's a reason that a balanced diet doesn't consist of sugar, water, and nothing else. And why do pregnant women need food? Is childbirth this special magical state that somehow requires a true connection to the authentic bosom of the Earth-Mother by the consumption of real potatoes? I mean yes, if you're pregnant you need a decent diet but guess what *so does everybody else*.

The sociology and economics of it is even worse. So this new, powerful, transformative technology arises, and *only poor people have it*? Because the rich like to eat normal food to show they can afford it? Because rice is suddenly more expensive than experimental cranial surgery? And because obviously rich people deliberately deny themselves the benefits of modern technology to prove how wealthy they are. That's why in our world rich people don't drive cars, or use aeroplanes, or have mobile telephones.

And apparently this cheap, endlessly reproducible technology which frees people from the need for food has the consequence of making people *poorer*? It' like the bastard lovechild of whingeing leftist neo-ludditism and the mewling neocon fear of social welfare. Is this really a novel which posits the idea that, in a post-scarcity society, everybody will be *worse off*?

And let me see if I'm getting the class politics of this right.

This is a world where nobody needs food, and the poor, because they no longer need food, feel no desire to work in order to acquire anything else. Meanwhile the rich, who presumably also do not need food, deliberately cut themselves off from the thing that *stops* them needing food, and consume food they don't need as a status symbol. Are the rich just inherently more virtuous? What happens to those few poor people who *do* decide to get up off their asses and do a day's work, do they start buying food they don't need too? Is this some kind of bizarre economic parallel about the dangers of your society being taken over by *complete idiots*?

Also, if poor people can't buy food, and women who can't get enough food can't successfully carry children to term (because sunlight energy is able to provide for all the needs of an adult human, but not a foetus?) why in the name of holy shit haven't they all died out? Where are they all coming from? Is their entire family structure built around kidnapping?

This just makes. No. Sense.

Good thing it's not escapist science fiction, then where would we be?
http://garethrees.org/ at 18:32 on 2013-01-27
You can't expect the world-building to be consistent in an Adam Roberts novel: he's a satirist rather than a world-builder, so that ideas go into his novels if they make satirical sense rather than logical or economic sense.

Nonetheless, I think that some of the Malthusian argument in By Light Alone is at least plausible. It would be nice to imagine that photosynthesis would be a boon that freed the poorest people from the need to grow food or work to buy it, liberating them to work their way higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But that's not the only way things could go. It depends on who has the most bargaining power over wages: workers or capitalists. In a world in which the capitalist rich have all the power, it seems very likely that what would actually happen would be that poor people, no longer needing to puchase food, would end up having to accept lower wages for the same work.

I do think this review is spot-on when it says, "While the novel attempts to satirize the hatefully classist opinions of the affluent characters, it simultaneously backs them up." Roberts is trying, I think, to satirize the "overpopulation" subgenre of SF (works like "The Marching Morons" and Make Room! Make Room!), but ends up reproducing it: even though his sympathies are with the poor, the plot still takes the form of "unfortunate rich people menaced by faceless teeming masses."
Fishing in the Mud at 18:42 on 2013-01-27
Because rice is suddenly more expensive than experimental cranial surgery?

Yeah, I was about to say.

Also, if I remember my middle school social studies correctly, the reason we have civilization is that agriculture freed up our time from constantly having to find food and let us do other things instead. Why would we assume that having our food needs taken care of would leave us wanting to do nothing but lie around all day?
http://garethrees.org/ at 19:53 on 2013-01-27
I don't want to be put on the spot of trying to defend the world-building in this novel, but although it's as shoddy as normal for Roberts, it's not as weak as some of the comments above make out.

Dan Hemmens, have you actually read the book? You say, "Because rice is suddenly more expensive than experimental cranial surgery?" but the photosynthetic hair in the novel is engendered by a genetically-engineered virus, not by cranial surgery. (A doubtful premise, to be sure, but no worse than the average premise in a science fiction novel.) "And apparently this cheap, endlessly reproducible technology which frees people from the need for food has the consequence of making people *poorer*?" The novel describes the Malthusian mechanism for this: freedom from food has allowed the population to grow to the point where other resources like water are the limiting factor. "This is a world where nobody needs food, and the poor, because they no longer need food, feel no desire to work in order to acquire anything else." The novel explains that sunbathing in the tropics from dawn to dusk (with your hair carefully combed-out to maximize the surface area) yields barely enough calories for survival. Competition over the remaining essentials of life (water and trace minerals) consumes the remain energies of the autotrophs. They are not portrayed as lazy (except in the opinions of the rich characters), but rather as prostrate and close to starvation.

However, you're right to ask: "why in the name of holy shit haven't they all died out? Where are they all coming from? Is their entire family structure built around kidnapping?" It's a weakness in Roberts' satirical approach: it's too much to ask us to imagine that population fertility is so high as to push the population up against the limits of resources like potable water, but also so low (due to malnutrition) that people are desperate enough to kidnap the children of the rich.
Wardog at 22:15 on 2013-01-27
You can't expect the world-building to be consistent in an Adam Roberts novel: he's a satirist rather than a world-builder, so that ideas go into his novels if they make satirical sense rather than logical or economic sense.


I think that's a difficult one.

Although satire obviously does not have to make sense in the conventional way of literally being likely to happen, I think it has to be plausible enough to uphold whatever its supposedly challenging - otherwise you don't engage properly with the ideas because it's too much of a struggle to get past the the "but ... but ... " factor. Again, the "but ... but ..." factor is entirely personal and will be different for everybody and, although I'm perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief for something that is reasonably internally consistent, I'm not sure "but it's not meant to make logical sense because it's SATIRE" is a convincing defence.

I agree that world building does not have to be a priority and books that don't employ eighty nine volumes of world building are to be applauded as far as I'm concerned ... but you don't get a pass on basic logic just because you call yourself a satirist. I mean, the reason 1984 works is because the society it proposes feels just about plausible, especially when you're feeling grotesquely paranoid. I mean, the literalities of newspeak as a language, and the notion that if you take away the actual words for things people won't be to think properly, don't make any "real" sense at all, but they're easy enough to accept as a mechanism to explore ideas about freedom in society and mechanisms of political control.
Dan H at 22:28 on 2013-01-27
@Gareth: I've not read the book - I'm not of the school that believes you have to have read a book in order to be able to have an opinion about its contents as they are described to you. Obviously I believe that you should then revise those opinions if you acquire more information.

The situation you describe *still* makes no sense. How did the freedom from food lead to massive population growth if the technology doesn't actually free people from the need for food? If, as you say, you need to sunbathe in the tropics with your hair carefully combed out to get enough energy to survive, how did this ever replace food production? How did it have such world-changing effects if it just doesn't *do* anything?

I get that this is satire not hard SF, but satire only works if you've got some basic understanding of the thing you're satirizing. And to be honest, from the discussion here I'm not sure what this book is supposed to *be* satirizing. Is it supposed to be about the merciless nature of capitalism? Because if so I don't buy it. You mention in another post that it "depends on who has the most bargaining power over wages" but that's surely exactly the point. If you take the world as it is today and give one group of people access to a new and powerful technology, it is the people who *have* the technology who gain bargaining power, not the people who don't.

Companies don't decide what to pay their employees by working out how much food costs and going from there, they pay them as little as they will accept. Needing less food doesn't mean you'll accept less money, it means you'll be less likely to accept a badly-paying job because you are at less risk of starvation. So wages should have *risen* relative to today, not fallen. Now if there's *also* a global resource shortage and the world's few remaining resources are controlled by a tiny powerful elite, that's a completely *different* premise, and the photosynthetic hair thing is just a gimmick, and a distracting gimmick at that.
Shim at 23:01 on 2013-01-27
The novel explains that sunbathing in the tropics from dawn to dusk (with your hair carefully combed-out to maximize the surface area) yields barely enough calories for survival. Competition over the remaining essentials of life (water and trace minerals) consumes the remain energies of the autotrophs.

@Gareth: Thanks for the explanation. I can't help seeing a couple more issues with that scenario, though.

The first one is that if that's the case, there's only a very small minority of people who would find photosynthesis an improvement on working, so virtually everyone would continue to work to buy food, and the population would not grow as depicted, and so sunlight would never become the only remaining source of energy.

Secondly, photosynthesis is very poor as an energy source in various ways. You need, as pointed out, loads of light, so what happens everywhere except the tropics? When it's cloudy? I assume that anyone genetically undisposed to growing long, flowing locks has already died out, and men start dying off in their thirties when baldness begins to creep in. Oh, and there's UV damage to think about. Presumably, as a passing thought, you can easily murder people by giving them a sneaky haircut.

There's some biological issues, too. You need water, too - lots of it, for photosynthesis, and it's apparently in short supply. Plants have vascular systems to transport the sugars they produce around their bodies, and to take water to the photosynthesising cells, none of which are present in hair. In fact, hair cells are dead, and hair is almost certainly too thin to contain the structures needed for photosynthesis. In many cases, I suspect it's also too dark for light to penetrate to a photosynthetic organ inside the cell (I haven't tested that). However, you could (I assume this is the idea) replace hair entirely with something that's basically leaves.

It still doesn't answer the question of where proteins come from, which are crucial to staying alive. It's particularly important to children, who would take quite a while to grow hair long enough to photosynthesise meaningfully, as well as having extra energy costs of growth. Most likely, then, you'd end up with a population selecting for very very rapid hair growth and very small body size. In other words, Rapunzel-Hobbits.
Arthur B at 23:35 on 2013-01-27
I've just been watching this conversation thinking "Wouldn't an easier way to feed the world through photosynthesis be to just set up enormous tanks of rapidly-growing algae?"

I mean, if you can genetically tinker with people to this extent it seems much easier to just make algae who'll grow nice and rapidly and will happen to have most-to-all of the proteins and minerals people need, and then just grow the algae in big tanks (or, indeed, let people grow their own in a bucket at home if it's fast-breeding enough). And I'd have thought people would have at least given it a stab as a solution before resorting to really drastic shit like fucking with the human genome.

Out of interest, do people do any more modifications to themselves? After all, if you've already accepted the idea of tampering with your DNA to give yourself photosynthesis, exactly what is stopping you from crafting yourself or your descendants into superhumans?
Neal Yanje at 00:58 on 2013-01-28
I've just been watching this conversation thinking "Wouldn't an easier way to feed the world through photosynthesis be to just set up enormous tanks of rapidly-growing algae?"


I'm confused why the need to feed the world solely by photosynthesis would come up in the first place? Surely if resources are that scarce, the human race is already kinda screwed, no?

At the very least, the algae idea makes more sense. That or just genetically enriching current crops like rice and potatoes to contain all essential nutrients. You know, something people are actually trying to do today.

I suppose I could accept this premise if this virus was an accidental thing, but as the product of a deliberate scientific effort, its just too outlandish.
Wardog at 09:37 on 2013-01-28
I know it looks like I'm swinging back and forth like a pendulum but I think there's a middle ground between "this doesn't have to make sense because it's satire and "WHY DIDN'T THEY JUST DO X INSTEAD."

I mean, sorry to be horribly literalistic about it, but the reason they didn't x instead was because it wouldn't establish the situation Roberts wanted to explore.

The problem, for me, is not so much that Situation X is implausible but that Situation X as he proposes it doesn't - to my mind - lead coherently to Outcome Y.

And I say this without having read it.
Dan H at 11:10 on 2013-01-28
I mean, sorry to be horribly literalistic about it, but the reason they didn't x
instead was because it wouldn't establish the situation Roberts wanted to
explore.


Also comenting without having read it - this is what confuses me, though. What Roberts seems to want to explore is, as Gareth puts it, a Malthusian scenario. One in which an exploding population leads to a massive disparity in wealth and power. Using photosynthetic hair as your justification for this just seems perverse.

About the only sense I can make of this (and again, this is based on very limited information not having read the book) is if the photosynthetic hair thing is essentially a metaphor for state welfare. It's a form of subsistence-level living which you don't technically have to do anything for, but which fails to provide you with the support you need to improve your situation, and which people who don't have to live in this way think just makes you lazy. From that point of view it's *almost* an interesting metaphor, but then there's the *bizarre* pregnancy/childbirth/abduction/kidnapping angle.

As a metaphor, it seems to have a lot of the problems of any science fiction or fantasy novel that uses non-human creatures as a metaphor for margainalised groups. You frequently come back to things like "well yes, I get that these other people are prejudiced, but the people they're prejudiced against *actually eat people*" (or the equivalent).
Arthur B at 11:25 on 2013-01-28
I know it looks like I'm swinging back and forth like a pendulum but I think there's a middle ground between "this doesn't have to make sense because it's satire and "WHY DIDN'T THEY JUST DO X INSTEAD."

This is true, but I think that the fact that the premise inspires the latter is indicative of a problem with Roberts' choice of genre for the satire. If you present the reader with an SF novel (or a literary novel with SFnal twists) set in what is clearly meant to be our world in the future, that implicitly raises the question of "how did we get there from here?"

This is arguably the whole point of dystopias; 1984 has Winston Smith practically obsessed with the question, and part of the point of O'Brien's interrogation of him is to convince him that the question is moot - that it doesn't matter how the Party got to where it is because the Party is never going away and it's too late to do anything about it. I would argue that most satirical SF which doesn't abandon all pretence of being set on our world in the future works in a similar way (or maybe that dystopias are a particularly grumpy type of satire); you take something you want to satirise, you project it into the future and give it SF trappings which make it stand out, you see where that takes you.

I think in such cases "Why don't they do X?" becomes a legitimate question to ask if X is a very clear and very obvious intermediate between the end point the novel presents you with and the present day. (It's less so in fantasy, or stories which take place in a secondary world but at the same time don't present a clear link to present-day Earth, but that isn't what Roberts has done here.) This is particularly the case when your SFnal situation hinges on a technology which you try to give a realistically sciencey-sounding basis for; you can answer "Why didn't they rebel against Big Brother in the early years?" with "They did, but they lost", but it's harder to answer "Why didn't they use this simpler and more straightforward technology, which they clearly would have needed to master in order to get to this situation and lacks a lot of the problems the solution they actually used raises?" or "Why don't people, having mastered the technology required to do one thing, use the same technology to accomplish a bunch of different things on top of that?" It's even harder to dodge the question when your satire is built on the premise of "Let me illustrate my point by showing you what would happen if we had technology X", because if technology X implies technologies A, B and C and they aren't evident then you need to either explain why or stop pretending to base your work on anything resembling actual science.

This isn't a question which is useful to interpreting what Roberts actually wants to say, but that's exactly the problem: rather than making me interested in how Situation X generates Outcome Y, Roberts' premise instead makes me wonder "but how the fuck do you get Situation X in the first place if this world is meant to be ours in the future?", and I'd argue that if the premise of a book has you asking the wrong questions before you've read page 1 then the premise might need adjusting.
Shim at 12:03 on 2013-01-28
Further thoughts:
It seems like the Hair scenario would actually be better suited to a fantasy setting, where handwaving is typically more accepted.

If real food is vital only to pregnancy, which is more convincing: men do nothing because they don't need food themselves (and presumably have no interest whatsoever in sex or fatherhood) while women keen to bear children work to scrimp and save? Or, would-be fathers start earning money so they'll be able to provide food for their pregnant partners, either because they have a modicum of human decency, or from sheer self-interest in getting laid and/or having children? Cf. 10,000-odd years of human history.

It strikes me that - while it's presumably not the novel Roberts wanted to write - you could more easily do something like simply turn up the Jobcentre to 11. So you get exactly enough food to live on, and Spartan accommodation, providing you meet the jobseeking requirements - which due to ever-increasing bureaucracy means spending every waking hour in a Jobcentre doing very little, or logged into Jobs.web as Available for Work so you can't do anything constructive, or sitting in a hiring centre waiting to be picked.

I like the idea of photosynthetic hair (although skin would be much easier to do, and potentially more practical), but I'm immediately drawn to wonder how it came about. As Arthur says, if it was a solution to overpopulation, then it makes no sense for anyone to develop it rather than building big dock-off algae tanks. Or better prophylactics. And given the dystopia angle, artificially reduced fertility seems way more likely.

It'd be easier to accept as a plausible invention if it was developed for rich people or for some special environment, but rich people are exactly the least likely to want technology that gives them calories without the pleasure of expensive food - typically these days they want to eat posh things while staying thin. Soldiers might, but long hair is usually a no-no. I dunno, maybe a select group of ascetics who want to deny themselves the pleasure of food without actually dying?

Oh, also: it strikes me that if the entire poor population is on the brink of starvation anyway, and therefore too weak to carry a baby to term without extra food, the men probably wouldn't be very fertile. Either way, as Gareth pointed out, there is a Very Specific Fertility going on here: poor people are so numerous that there's not enough food for them to survive except by photosynthesis, and they have to kidnap rich children to maintain their population; so rich people must be having an astonishing number of babies and losing the vast majority of them to kidnapping, which begins to look remarkably careless.
http://garethrees.org/ at 12:53 on 2013-01-28
What I take from the book is a rebuke to the techno-optimism of certain kinds of science fiction. In the last thirty years, technological progress has caused the labour productivity of employees in the U.S. to rise enormously (close to double), but nearly all of this surplus has accrued to the employers. So what makes us so confident that the benefits of photosynthesis will accrue to the autotrophs in Roberts' scenario?

Daniel Hemmens argues, "Needing less food doesn't mean you'll accept less money, it means you'll be less likely to accept a badly-paying job because you are at less risk of starvation. So wages should have *risen* relative to today, not fallen". This can only happen if the workers have bargaining power relative to capital (which seems unlikely in Roberts' world where workers are plentiful and the police deploy extreme violence to break up organized labour). If workers are competing with each other for jobs, then the workers who can bid the lowest will get the jobs, and workers who don't need food will be able to bid lower than those who do.

Daniel Davies made a similar point here: "there is a tendency to believe that if you remove the loan-sharks from a slum, the slum-dwellers will be richer to the tune of their weekly interest bill, and this is poor general equilibrium analysis. If part of the cost of living in a slum is that you end up paying 10% of your wages to the money-lenders, then the wages of the slum-dwellers will reflect that; otherwise, the workers wouldn’t be receiving a subsistence wage and there soon wouldn’t be any workers. If you take away the loan sharks, then the most likely outcome is that the slum-dwellers get used to a life without credit, and over time, wages in the slum get bid down 10%."

Shimmin: "There's only a very small minority of people who would find photosynthesis an improvement on working, so virtually everyone would continue to work to buy food, and the population would not grow as depicted, and so sunlight would never become the only remaining source of energy." The first part of what you say is quite right, but now think in Malthusian terms: what is likely to happen as the population grows and resource limits come in to play? As food gets more expensive, so the point at which photosynthesis becomes more attractive than working will shift. People will start sunbathing during the day and working at night to "top up" their food supply. They will move south (if they can) to areas with higher insolation and less cloud so as to maximize the benefit of time spent photosynthesizing.

(Also to Shimmin: some of the other points you bring up are considered in the novel, for example "you can easily murder people by giving them a sneaky haircut" is a plot point.)

So I think it's possible to construct a scenario leading from here to there. Roberts doesn't work this out in detail about this because he's not really interested in that kind of detailed world-building. As Arthur says, he's writing a satire, not hard science fiction. The photosynthentic hair is a prop that allows him to exaggerate the gulf between rich and poor, and to suggest that a technological "advance" can actually lead to immiseration because of the economic and political organization of society. But maybe this approach is a mistake, because if as a reader you don't like the political conclusions you have an easy out by attacking the plausibility of the science-fictional scenario.
Arthur B at 13:20 on 2013-01-28
But maybe this approach is a mistake, because if as a reader you don't like the political conclusions you have an easy out by attacking the plausibility of the science-fictional scenario.

It's not an easy out if you consider quasi-Malthusian indefinite population explosions themselves to be science fiction - or, indeed, pure fantasy. ;)
http://garethrees.org/ at 13:57 on 2013-01-28
Someone who believes that exponential population growth is pure fantasy, and that there's no prospect of problems due to constraints on natural resources, is obviously not going to be interested in a novel that explores these ideas. But wouldn't such a person have to be walking around with their eyes closed, given that we live in a world of exponential population growth and resource constraints? Obviously we hope that the demographic transition and a switch to sustainable economic activity will save us from Malthusian disaster. But these developments don't happen by magic. They come about though social and technological change and political struggle, which are exactly the kinds of subjects that science fiction writers are supposed to be interested in.

I wrote in my review of By Light Alone about how science fiction has soiled its bed on the subject of Malthusianism: all too often writers have looked at the subject of overpopulation and come up with some kind of mass sterilization or murder in response. But this doesn't mean that there can't be a more humane science fictional treatment of limits to growth.
Arthur B at 14:34 on 2013-01-28
Someone who believes that exponential population growth is pure fantasy, and that there's no prospect of problems due to constraints on natural resources, is obviously not going to be interested in a novel that explores these ideas. But wouldn't such a person have to be walking around with their eyes closed, given that we live in a world of exponential population growth and resource constraints?

Firstly, exponential population growth doubtless happens, but not for an indefinite period. In fact, the pattern is fairly consistent: quality of medicine improves, child mortality drops, population skyrockets, people start having less kids (not least because they don't need to replace so many) and things even off.

Population growth is logistic, not exponential - there's a part of the graph where it is roughly exponential, but there's a part of the graph of y=x^2 with a gradient of zero and you wouldn't call that graph.

In fact, that's a pattern which holds in the wild too - take a predator out of the equation, for instance, and you'll see the population of the prey animal shoot up only to level off once resource constraints hit. The difference between us and rabbits is that rabbits don't for the most part know how to use condoms and control their own fertility.

Resource shortages stop exponential population growth because without the resources you can't keep growing the population, so a situation where you have both exponential population growth and serious shortages needs to be very carefully looked at - either the shortage can't be that bad, or the exponential population growth isn't going to keep going for very long at all.

Seriously, people worked this out in 1838, which means we've known about it for about as long as we've had Malthusianism itself.

Secondly, the traditional solution to crippling resource constraints is war, not hair.
http://garethrees.org/ at 15:38 on 2013-01-28
Arthur, I'm well aware of the points you make, and I thought that I had made that clear with my remark about the demographic transition, and with my link to a discussion of the abuse of vulgar Malthusianism in the science fiction genre. But I guess it's a legacy of this abuse that you find it credible that I could be ignorant on these points.

So let me make myself clear again: it's obvious that exponential population growth cannot continue for very long. But even if you are completely confident that the future consists of logistic growth reaching a steady state (rather than the kinds of resource exhaustion and collapse which show up in predator–prey simulations and models like World3), there are still many possible steady states. The resulting average standard of living is going to depend on exactly how long the exponential phase of growth continues. If the Earth can only sustainably support ten billion people with a comfortable Western middle-class standard of living, then twenty billion people are largely going to be poor and forty billion immiserated. And as we are still in the process of depleting limited resources like fossil fuels and arable land, we don't yet have any idea of what a sustainable high-population civilisation will look like, or what kind of political and technological developments will get us there.

Among the points that By Light Alone tries to make (perhaps not very clearly) is that what looks like a beneficial technological advance can result in a worse eventual steady state when combined with massive political and social inequality.

It would seem like hubris to declare that it's all certain to turn out OK in the end and that there's no value to be had in science fictional investigation of other scenarios.
Arthur B at 15:53 on 2013-01-28
Arthur, I'm well aware of the points you make, and I thought that I had made that clear with my remark about the demographic transition, and with my link to a discussion of the abuse of vulgar Malthusianism in the science fiction genre. But I guess it's a legacy of this abuse that you find it credible that I could be ignorant on these points.

Oh, I can entirely believe you being aware of these points, I just see little to credit Roberts with being aware of them, particularly with the scary proliferation of the idle poor depicted in the book.

There's definitely value to be had in science fictional investigation of population growth scenarios, but adding a wacky photosynthetic hair motif and perpetuating the idea that poor people with no want of food will sit on their duffs doing nothing or actively making trouble doesn't seem to tease out that value. Particularly when by rights the situation described in the book ought to lead to the population falling rather than persisting at a steady state.
Sonia Mitchell at 20:08 on 2013-01-28
@Dan
I'm confused by your use of the phrase "decent premise" here. Surely you mean "mindbendingly stupid premise".


Okay, I missed off an 'in my opinion'.

I like science fiction about improbable technology. It's a sub-genre with a long history and I don't have any problem with the premise being unlikely, as long as it's interesting. It's taken on trust that the subsequent story will explore both a) the realities of the technology and b) the effect it has on the world.
It was point b) I felt the book fell down on.

@garethrees
he's a satirist rather than a world-builder


I take the point but I'm with Kyra-Wardog here - satire still does need to make sense. It needs to work on two levels - the literal and the subtextual. If it doesn't work on the level of the story then how can its subtext stand up?

The heart of the novel is the question about what would happen if world hunger was solved. If Roberts's answers don't even work in the context of the events he's directly portraying then how is the reader supposed to draw any wider conclusions from them?
Dan H at 20:35 on 2013-01-28
This can only happen if the workers have bargaining power relative to capital (which seems unlikely in Roberts' world where workers are plentiful and the police deploy extreme violence to break up organized labour). If workers are competing with each other for jobs, then the workers who can bid the lowest will get the jobs, and workers who don't need food will be able to bid lower than those who do.


But now the goalposts have moved substantially. Now it's not "photosynthetic hair makes people less well off" it's "living in a dystopian future with a massive rate of unemployment, a tanking economy, and violent repression of any form of organised labour makes people less well off".

The technology here is neither cause nor symptom of the wider social issues. It can't have caused the population explosion or the resource crisis. All it did was give people a small increase in their calorific intake. If there *literally is no food* with which to feed the poor, then everybody who isn't an autotroph should be dead, which makes being an autotroph significantly better than *not* being an autotroph assuming you're from that socio-economic background. If there *is* enough food around to feed the poor and the rich are just being greedy, then the rich are also being *stupid* because they could use their control of the food supply to use non-autotrophic humans as slave labour (and again, this makes being an autotroph better than *not* being an autotroph).

As I think Arthur says in his last comment, the whole photosynthetic hair thing is *just barmy*. It distracts from any serious point the book could possibly be making about population growth and makes it into some weird metaphor for ... something?

The first part of what you say is quite right, but now think in Malthusian terms: what is likely to happen as the population grows and resource limits come in to play?


Population growth slows? As it so far always has in pretty much every situation? You only get the boom/crash thing when there is a sudden, dramatic change in circumstances - something which "photosynthetic hair" most certainly does not provide.

The photosynthentic hair is a prop that allows him to exaggerate the gulf between rich and poor, and to suggest that a technological "advance" can actually lead to immiseration because of the economic and political organization of society. But maybe this approach is a mistake, because if as a reader you don't like the political conclusions you have an easy out by attacking the plausibility of the science-fictional scenario.


But that's the problem. The science-fictional scenario *is* the political conclusion. It's like if I wrote an SF story in which the UK brought back capital punishment, and this led to a massive increase in violent crime - all you could take away from that is that I don't support capital punishment, it wouldn't be a meaningful exploration of the issue.

This being the great problem with political and satirical SF, it winds up being this gigantic straw man. All Roberts demonstrates here (from what you've said to me thus far) is that he can invent an imaginary world in which an imaginary technology causes imaginary problems.

What political conclusion are we actually supposed to take away from this scenario anyway? That massive overpopulation would be bad?
Neal Yanje at 21:17 on 2013-01-28
My problem is that it seems like Roberts wanted to write a novel about people with photosynthetic hair (a cool-sounding, if ridiculous idea) and so set out about creating a world in which photosynthetic hair could/would exist. This makes his worldbuilding feel rather shoddy, since it obviously exists to prop up his pet idea.

If Roberts had wanted to write a novel about possible problems and solutions involving a Malthusian population crisis, and this crisis was supposed to happen to a society that could conceivably be our own in the future (which is how most political/dystopian SF works) then I think it is fair to ask Arthur's questions about WHY NOT DO X above, and this whole hair matter becomes rather silly.

Since it seems to me that Roberts was more interested in photosynthetic hair than Malthusian crises, I wonder if this idea wouldn't have worked better as a sort of anthropological SF story a la Le Guin about a society that was not our own that had developed around the photosynthesis technology.
Shim at 09:49 on 2013-01-29
I've got to say, nitpicky as I am by nature (and to be fair, I've read a lot of fairly hard sci-fi and virtually no literary novels) I find the idea of photosynthetic hair very cool. I think I've actually seen it touched on elsewhere, but can't swear to it. There are various ways you could write interesting stories based around that, or where it was a significant plot point, but I think as Neal says that this wasn't a great combination of sci and fi.

Off the top of my head: something featuring the aforesaid ascetics and their effect on society; explorers (or field scientists, or nav-beacon technicians) who have an extra fallback if things go bad because they can survive on sunlight and water for quite a while; a social elite who can thrive during famine because of their Hair, while others starve (perhaps a religious or subcultural group who rise to social dominance during such an event); something light about a surfer-type culture who can ride waves for days on end on sun and seawater.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 10:12 on 2013-01-29
I want to pick some nits as well! Seeing as photosynthesis needs carbon dioxide, water and light energy to produce carbohydrates, oxygen and water, would not the physiological changes needed to arrange an intake of carbon dioxide and to get it to the photosynthetic cells demand quite drastic changes in the body? On the plus side, if this is achieved, you could, with some changes that I won't elaborate further about, make people a lot more self sufficient when it comes to subsistence on gases. They could include some oxygen sacks to store the oxygen from the photosynthesis for use in suitable situations.

I guess the book itself does sound a bit of a lost opportunity. Photosynthesis is pretty cool though.
Arthur B at 10:14 on 2013-01-29
Having the whole Left Hand of Darkness setup where you have this local divergence from Earthly norms on some alien planet (or an alternate Earth, or some secondary world with no clear connection to Earth, or whatever) because that's just how things happened to turn out in that place would solve a lot of my issues with the premise, actually - at least then the Hair isn't the result of people sitting down and deciding that, of all the stuff they can do with their very, very advanced genetic engineering technology, the Hair is really the best use of their time.

It's the fact that in the book as written the Hair is the result of an intentional plan which makes it impossible for me to get over the premise. On the other hand, if you take that out it might destroy the satire if the point is some sort of sub-Heinlein Randroidy "the cruellest thing you can do to a hungry person is give them food" attack on the concept of welfare as Dan suggests.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 10:59 on 2013-01-29
Well, perhaps they were researching for a cure to baldness through some plant biology and just ended up with this sort of peculiar virus and said that that was the intention all along. Like how Viagra was originally meant to be a blood pressure medicine. I don't know what possible reason a firm would have to hide such a development secret, though. The reason, no doubt, is nefarious, and can be blamed on the political ideology you dislike the most.
Dan H at 11:23 on 2013-01-29
To give the book some credit, I think you can probably make some sense of its premise if you assume that it's something along the lines of what Sonia suggests above - what would happen if world hunger was "solved".

More specifically, from the information I've got (still not having read it or particularly wanting to) I think it might function reasonably well as a satire/social sf if you assume that its big "what if" isn't "what if everybody had photosynthetic hair" so much as "what if we tried to solve world hunger without making any effort to deal with the social inequality which actually causes that hunger."

This could actually be quite an interesting and valuable piece of satire, because it addresses real-world naivety about the problems inherent in poverty. A lot of people really do seem to think that if you can just make sure that everybody gets enough calories that this will make everything okay (aid agencies spend a fortune shipping rice to parts of the world where people really need medicines, or clean water, or essential micronutrients that aren't found in rice). The fact that the actual technology used was a bit silly doesn't really matter if what you're aiming for is a kind of dystopian farce.

Unfortunately if that *is* its premise I still don't think it stands up as satire, because it seems to assume that the naive calories-only approach to "ending hunger" actually *worked*, or at least worked well enough to cause a population explosion.

I could get behind the book if I thought its premise was something like "if we try to end hunger without solving the underlying social causes of that hunger, we won't really solve anything." I'm not sure I can get behind "if we ended hunger there would be a population explosion that would make everything worse than it is already." That, ironically, comes back to exactly the same kind of naive Malthusianism which Gareth talks about in his review of the book (and which Roberts himself - going by the quotation Gareth cites) finds equally distasteful.
Arthur B at 12:10 on 2013-01-29
A population explosion, moreover, which seems to be sustained by... kidnapping?

I mean, if the population of poor hairy people is booming, wouldn't it be easier for poor parents desperate for kids and lacking the food to make their own to just... adopt from other poor people, rather than going through the (insane, needless) risk of kidnapping from the wealthy?

The kidnapping subplot seems to exist solely so that there can be an actual plot for the book which involves the rich and poor interacting, and if your reason for kidnapping a kid rather than doing something less extreme boils down to "the author made me do it so that the story could happen", well...

Or are the rich just breeding like rabbits for some reason, so there are far more rich folks' babies than poor folks' babies?
Janne Kirjasniemi at 12:27 on 2013-01-29
And what exactly ddo the haries need the kids for anyways? The biological imperative is to propagate one's own genes and while adoption is of course a thing, one would think that poor people would be quite unlikely to want to raise other people's kids so desperately that there was this whole thing about kidnapping them. I mean, if the need to propagate the genes isn't strong enough in the males to get them to do something else except to loll about, how does the kidnapping make any sense in the wider context?
Guy at 14:43 on 2013-01-29
Population growth slows? As it so far always has in pretty much every situation? You only get the boom/crash thing when there is a sudden, dramatic change in circumstances...


Isn't it sometimes the case, though, that that sudden change in circumstances is a result of the slow build-up of some kind of systemic strain resulting from the population being so high? Sorry, this is completely not about the book.
Dan H at 14:59 on 2013-01-29
Isn't it sometimes the case, though, that that sudden change in circumstances is
a result of the slow build-up of some kind of systemic strain resulting from the
population being so high? Sorry, this is completely not about the book.


Honestly, I'm not sure. As far as I know there have been no *actual* examples of a Malthusian crash ever happening in a human population and most of the examples I remember from animal populations are due to sudden changes like a reduction in predator numbers.

You could certainly have a situation where you just *run out* of something, like with fossil fuels, or if you're looking at bacteria in a petri dish, just eating all your food, but I don't think you'll ever get a situation where the human population becomes *unfeedable* because you run up against other limitations long before then. Unless you do somethign completely stupid like build on all your arable land.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 15:19 on 2013-01-29
I think Jared Diamond argued in his book, The Collapse, that the Mayan civilization's collapse was due to a sharp drop in resources due to environmental changes, that is the arable land began to yield less. Surely there have been other, more limited examples. The Easter Islands is another example I think.
Arthur B at 15:51 on 2013-01-29
I don't think either of those are examples of specifically Malthusian collapses though - at least, I don't think "they had too many babies" has been proposed as a root cause of either the collapse of the classical-era Mayans or the deforestation of Easter Island.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 16:13 on 2013-01-29
Well, yes, but that is a quite restrictive definition. The Mayan population density was very high for its time and the agrarian output was at a pre-industrial limit, which depleted rapidly due to environmental collapse from agrarian land use. So having too many babies was a reason. As depletion of resources is usually caused by overpopulation and all of these things go hand in hand, it might be hard to find a scenario where having too many babies is the only reason. That is, as long as resources last, animals keep having babies without there being too many and when the resources end, it comes clear that there were far too many babies.

In the eatster islands it was probably not so clear cut. But still, more people than the resources allow, so it is connected to the malthusian principle at least.
Dan H at 14:42 on 2013-01-30
Well, yes, but that is a quite restrictive definition.


A restrictive one but, I would argue, a useful one. Malthusianism as I understand it is about the idea that eventually the population will outstrip our capacity to produce food *even if our capacity to produce food remains unchanged*. That's a very different idea to a situation in which the population expands *and then* the capacity to produce food drops to a level that it can no longer support the population that already exists.

As depletion of resources is usually caused by overpopulation


I don't think that's strictly true. Depletion of resources is often *accelerated* by *overconsumption* but that isn't the same thing as being caused by overpopulation. Climate change and the fast-approaching end of our fossil fuel supplies are not being caused because there are too many *people* - the rate of increase in consumption of oil has massively outstripped the rate of increase in the population (at least in the parts of the world that are actually *using* the oil).

If you have a population of rabbits, in which one rabbit eats a hundred times as much grass as all the other rabbits, and the grass starts to run out, it's a bit misleading to argue that the problem is "too many rabbits". If you have a colony of bacteria living in a sugar solution which contains a finite amount of sugar, so that it will all eventually be used no matter what the bacteria do, it is misleading to argue that the problem is "too many bacteria".

Again, I think Roberts himself identified (in the quotation Gareth cites in his review) that the vast majority of Malthusianism (including, I understand, the original work of Malthus himself) boils down to a naive assertion that it's a problem for there to be too many smelly poor people around. This isn't a sophisticated insight into resource depletion, it's classism with a thin veneer of science.

By Light Alone actually provides a fairly clear example of why the whole Malthusian concept of population growth being a danger *in and of itself* is absurd. Its entire Malthusian premise is based on the idea of a population explosion which took place *during a fertility crisis*. Within the framework established in the story, it is impossible for the framework of the story to have come about.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 16:47 on 2013-01-30
Okay, I can see the usefulness of that strict definition. The basic formulation I think was that population will always grow faster than our ability to produce food.

I guess the thing is to remember that the malthusian principle does not exist alone and that usually the existing equilibrium is broken by a situation where the resources are depleted through overuse or by some change in the environment. Which I guess is of the same category, but not strictly the same thing, although it might be connected to it. Actually, the thing is that the malthusian principle actually checks population growth, you only get into the collapse situation, if you've been able to sidestep the limitations of food production for a while. Like the Mayans supported a large population through intensive agrarian use of mountains and forests, which was stopped by a systemic collapse due to either the overuse of resources or less water which was required for it, which can be caused by the same. So the growth in population did not exactly cause a collapse because the means of producing food did not grow at the same pace, rather they did grow, which made the population possible, but caused the resource loss. So the Mayans is, if the systemic collapse theory is correct, a cautionary scenario of what happens, when we won't be able to push the malthusian limit any further and the environment gives up.

But yeah, I have to agree, that seeing population groth as some sort of immutable natural law is a naive way of seeing the situation. At least in the book's case.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 16:50 on 2013-01-30
Well probably in most cases I suppose.
Robinson L at 20:36 on 2015-12-05
Thread necroing to say that I recently listened to a short story prequel to this book, entitled simply Hair which gives the backstory to the, well, Hair. I haven't read By Light Alone, and I probably never will, but I enjoyed the short story all right.

I was kind of bothered through much of it because the inventor of the Hair – an old friend of the narrator – is this rich guy with a Messiah complex who believes his technology will lift the masses out of poverty and render the rich obsolete. (He's given up most of his worldly possessions, but still uses his technology as a bargaining chip to ensure a comfortable living situation in the various countries where he sets up shop.)

Great Rich Man Savior? Check. Purely technological solution to a social problem which fails to address the underlying social causes? Check.

Then in the end it turns out the narrator agreed with my reservations, and explains how the inventor's plan will only re-entrench the existing class divides. (The narrator doesn't predict the population boom or the food crisis Sonia mentions, though, so I've no idea where those came from.)

The story actually provides a plausible answer to Arthur's question of “why hair and not rapidly-growing algae?” The inventor of the Hair, while well-intentioned, is an ego maniac, a kind of Tony Stark character. I could easily imagine him eschewing more efficient and practical projects because photosynthetic hair is so much flashier and sexier. I can just picture him saying to himself, 'Do I want to be known as the guy who solved the world's hunger problems and eliminated social stratification with fast growing algae, or do I want to be known as the guy who did all that by engineering photosynthetic hair?'

However, as for Arthur's follow up question:
Why don't people, having mastered the technology required to do one thing, use the same technology to accomplish a bunch of different things on top of that?

… Yeah, that one's a lot more difficult to explain.

Dan: I could get behind the book if I thought its premise was something like "if we try to end hunger without solving the underlying social causes of that hunger, we won't really solve anything."

From the prequel, I'm sure this is what Roberts was going for. However, in Hair, it's mostly a matter of telling rather than showing, and it sounds like in By Light Alone, the message may have gotten lost in the worldbuilding.

Though I have to agree with Shim: photosynthetic hair in the abstract sounds like a pretty cool starting point for a sci-fi story which doesn't lean too heavily on the “sci.”


Also, on the general subject of Malthusianism, I'm distressed by how many (white, Western) authors have latched onto overpopulation as the biggest looming threat for the species. Two thriller novels I've read over the past few years (one of them the latest Dan Brown offering) had plots revolving around the villains' over-enthusiastic attempts to avert the upcoming Malthusian crash before it happens, and while the heroes deplore their methods, of course, they implicitly accept that “yeah, we've gotta do something drastic.” (There's a particularly memorable scene in Brown's Inferno where our hero Langdon reads an article by the villain in which he says: “If someone gave you a switch which would kill off half of humanity, would you throw it? What if this someone told you it was the only way to save humanity from extinction?” and Langdon's response notably is not “I'd tell them 'Fuck your contrived false dichotomy and the horse it rode in on.'”)

I also recently read or listened to an interview with a fantasy author who said flat out that the biggest problem facing humanity right now is “Too many people. The planet can't sustain it.” Gah.
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