I always say that what I really like in a book is a spaceship landing on a planet where the different sun makes the shadows different, and Elizabeth Lynn’s A Different Light (1978) is the quintessential essence of that book. Jimson Alleca is an artist who has cancer in a universe where cancer is usually curable, but not for him. His is controlled, as long as he stays on his birth planet of New Terrain and doesn’t go off into space, which would make his cancer get out of control and kill him quickly. He’s been creating on New Terrain and thinking that even one planet is a big place, until his old lover sends him a snapshot that unsettles him and makes him long for new things to draw and a different light to see them in. The novel is about his venture into the wider universe, and about that universe and the people he finds to love and the art he manages to create in the little time he has. As with all Lynn, it’s beautifully written.
It’s a short novel, and it isn’t about showing you the shiny universe the way so many SF books are, it’s doing that thing that only SF can do of showing you the human heart from a new angle. We all know we will die in less than a hundred years and we’re stuck on one planet. Alleca is just like us, except that he’s surrounded by people who will live for hundreds of years and who have many planets and possibilities, and that makes him very different. He is constantly aware of limits that we share and can understand but which his friends don’t. He lost Russell, although they loved each other, because Russell can’t bear to deal with Alleca’s limits and what they mean to him. Alleca is bounded and finite and driven to create art and find love in a universe where this makes him a freak.
There are plenty of shiny things in the universe—the Hype dimension, with its maze that allowes FTL travel, the lost planets, the X-team explorers, telepaths, the mysterious masks, the alien Verdians. And every planet has a different light. It’s a terrific universe with room for lots of stories—and Lynn did use it again for her novel The Sardonyx Net, which I liked a lot less. But here she’s focusing on one story and telling it well.
Unusually for 1978, Jimson Alleca is bisexual, and we see him having significant and loving relationships with Leiko, a female Hype pilot, and with Russell, a male star captain. This is something the text takes for granted and never gives it a thought—his sexuality is not one of the odd things about Alleca. There’s no explicit sex here at all, but there’s a universe where there’s no default societal expectation about the gender of your partner, which is refreshing. In a lot of books if you have sexuality taken for granted, it will be heterosexuality, and if alternative sexualities are present then they’re made into a focal point. I really like the way Lynn did this here—it’s almost reminiscent of early Delany. The angst is all in other directions.
Another thing Lynn does well is the description of Alleca’s art. As it’s all words, she doesn’t have to show it to us, but the way he does it and talks about it, the way he wants to do it and thinks about materials and shapes, seems absolutely authentic. You can believe that he’s a driven artist but also that he’s a working artist. His pain is less well done and sometimes seems too plot-convenient.
It’s not a long book but it isn’t a fast read—there’s a lot packed in to it, and it’s emotionally intense. Even though I’ve read it on multiple occasions, it nearly made me miss my bus stop.
It’s out of print, of course, but do grab it if you get the chance.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.