The second discussion this week is of Tricia Sullivan’s new novel, Lightborn — another 2010 book that picked up a few votes in the poll. It’s about the effect of the titular technology (“the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment — beamed directly into the brain of anyone who can meeting the asking price”) when it goes wrong in the Texas town of Los Sombres (“resulting in social chaos and widespread insanity in everyone past the age of puberty”). See reviews by Farah Mendlesohn at Strange Horizons, Nic Clarke in SFX, Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman, and by The Booksmugglers. The panel this time around are me, David Hebblethwaite, Nick Hubble, and Nic Clarke, and, as before, the whole book is discussed.
Niall: Perhaps not surprisingly, given the ages of the protagonists and the “adults gone crazy” conceit, one of the things several reviewers have asked about Lightborn is to what extent it’s a YA novel, or suitable for a YA audience. I’m interested in a related question: what is the novel’s attitude to growing up, and the notion of adulthood? On the one hand, the adults have been co-opted by Shine, and anyone who becomes an adult should expect to face the same fate; on the other hand, Roksana in particular is not the innocent you might expect to find in opposition to such corrupt experience, and in fact you could argue that it’s her lack of innocence that sees her through the novel.
Nic C: The idea of entrance to the adult world as presenting a threat to your integrity and selfhood (while at the same time being thrilling and fascinating) makes sense to me as something for young people to fear. I remember that, as an uber-idealistic young teen peacenik environmentalist, I associated adult life with lost principles and compromise: adults, it seemed to me, not only didn’t really believe that they could change the world (despite having much greater resources to do so than did a thirteen-year-old girl!), they also saw the desire to the change the world as silly and unrealistic and faintly embarrassing. I constantly read and was told that young people have no perspective, but to me adults seemed to be the ones focused exclusively on the short term and the quotidian: well, yes, that’s terrible about the whales, but I have to go to work/watch the TV/do the weekly food shopping now.
DH: I see Lightborn as taking a very pragmatic attitude towards growing up – one way or another, it’s going to happen; the time to become an adult (that is, to display the maturity or take on the responsibility of an adult) may come when the children of the novel are not ready, but they’ll have to deal with it. I also find it striking that (as it seems to me) adults retain the primacy in Lightborn; even to the end, there are copious examples of adult characters’ out-manoeuvring and out-thinking the children. Following on from that, I’d be interested to know what people make of the parent-child relationships in the novel.
Nic C: The parent-child relationships are, as I noted in my review, dysfunctional at best and downright destructive at worst. Partly this is about the parents being humans with (sometimes very serious) problems of their own, rather than the superbeings whose world revolves entirely around us that we imagine them to be as children: Roksana’s institutionalised mother, for example. Contrast this with Xavier’s relationship with his Shined but still (nominally) present mother, which tends more towards vaguely well-meaning neglect, in that her mind runs along its own tracks and she only properly notices what’s going on with him some of the time. (His reaction when she does notice him is heartbreaking, testament to how strongly a parent’s distraction can affect their child.)
I think that the contrasting ways that Roksana and Xavier escape the effects of — or, more accurately, are protected from — Shine/adulthood are interesting, too. Xavier takes age-retarding medication, largely at the insistence of the various parent and parent-substitute characters around him, and while he does fear the effects of Shine in some ways he’s also increasingly frustrated by being, as he sees it, held back. He wants to grow up, but is surrounded by examples of why being a grown-up is dangerous.
Roksana, meanwhile, is not susceptible to Shine because her father burned the capacity out of her before she was old enough to make the choice; the metaphor for fathers wanting to stop their daughters growing up is pretty clear. Although what I liked about the character is that this doesn’t make her an innocent, as Niall points out: she is pragmatic, proactive, cynical, and even has a sexual relationship (albeit a somewhat disturbing one, given the emphasis on a) his sculpted prettiness and b) his Shine-damaged self-awareness). I suppose that, like most daughters with a controlling father, she just does her growing up in secret and in rebellion.