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Obscured by 'Blue Light'

[whitespace] Walter Mosley
Blue Light
By Walter Mosley
Little, Brown; 296 pages; $24 cloth

Walter Mosley turns from mysteries to science fiction in a new novel

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

ALTHOUGH THEY appear to be genres apart, science fiction and fantasy novels have similar rules. The science-fiction writer is bound by the existing laws of physics: no matter how far and fast space travelers go in the galaxies, for example, they must never travel faster than the speed of light. Fantasy writers only have the illusion of more freedom in their work. They can create their own physics: dragons can fly and breathe fire, sorcerers can conjure up lightning bolts out of their staffs.

But once they have started, fantasy writers are just as bound to the physical laws of their self-created universes as science-fiction writers are bound to the physical laws of the real universe. If we believe all through the book that a dragon can only be killed by a magic arrow fired straight into his heart by a descendant of the true king of the land, only to be told in the climactic scene that, oh, by the way, we forgot to tell you that the dragon can also be killed by a small stone thrown against his head by a small boy who is the descendant of the lowliest serf of the land ... well, readers understandably feel a bit betrayed.

In Blue Light, popular novelist Walter Mosley has produced a book that purports to be science fiction but strays over into the realm of fantasy and follows the physical laws of neither. The book contains all of the plotting flaws that plagued the writer's Easy Rawlins mystery series, without any of the dark psychology or razor's-edge characters that have marked Mosley's best efforts in Gone Fishin' and R.L.'s Dream. For those readers who wish to feel betrayed, there is surely a line forming somewhere.

The book begins in the East Bay of the 1960s, on a night when mysterious celestial blue lights strike the earth: "Dozens of small creatures died in the path of light that night. Each one in a terrible ecstasy of blue notions. Each one more sacred than the history of prayer. But not all died." The confused might want to fall back on the bookjacket synopsis at this point: "From an unknown point in the universe, an inscrutable blue light approaches our solar system. When it reaches Earth, it transforms those it strikes, causing them instantaneously to evolve beyond the present state of humanity."

Unknown and inscrutable are the operative words. We never learn the source and purpose of these lights. Instead, the handful of people who were struck directly by the lights (they are nicknamed the "Blues") are immediately driven to use their powers to save the world.

From what? For what? No one seems to know, neither the Blues nor, presumably, Mosley himself--or he might have told us. The Blues coalesce in Berkeley of the hippie years, gathering followers (called "half-lights" because they have only been exposed to people who were exposed to the Blue Light) and preparing everybody for something.

book cover CONFLICT COMES in the form of one of Mosley's more imaginative characters, a vicious creature called Gray Man, who takes over the body of a cancer-riddled man who died milliseconds before being exposed to the Light. So what's the Gray Man's problem? He wants to rid the world of all of the Blues so that he can leave his dead body in peace and go away somewhere to the Land of Death. Why? For the purposes of plotting, it seems like.

Fully one-third of the book takes place as a sort of idyllic interlude in a Northern California redwood forest that is straight out of Tolkien. The keeper of this magic forest is a Blue called Juan Thrombone, who is an almost embarrassing combination of Tolkien's forest mystics Tom Bombadil, Beorn and Treebeard.

Juan explains the magic forest transformed by Blue Light:

    The trees are not only a wall of wood and root, ... but they sing a dull song I taught them. That song hides the puppy trees and you and me. ... They also call for people like you, First Light, ... humans half dipped blue. I wanted them to come help me tend the trees and the forest. ... You heard the call, did you not? ... That call ... was from a thousand trees whose parents were white firs. I grafted them so they could sing so sweet and high. They sing like the wind, only higher. They sing like the sun before dawn."

But the singing draws the Gray Man, too, into a titanic, climactic, end-of-the-book struggle in which powers suddenly emerge about which the reader has never had a clue before.

No one can doubt Mosley's imagination, or his ability to create some of the more psychologically interesting characters in modern fiction (Easy and Mouse of the Easy Rawlins series and the from-a-distance portrayal of blues legend Robert L. Johnson in R.L.'s Blues). But his weaknesses as a writer are too much on display in Blue Light. Let us hope that this will be just a minor footnote in a brilliant writing career.

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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