In a future in which most hereditary diseases have been cured, Jimson Allecca is one of the unlucky ones. His rare form of cancer is treatable only as long as he stays on the colony world of New Terrain. To leave the planet, he’d have to get on a star ship and go for a ride through The Hype. Doing this would quickly and fatally accelerate his condition.
Jimson is a celebrated artist with a privileged life, but he decides that his desire to experience “a different light” is more important than reaching old age. He undergoes a sinister telepathic examination and receives permission to leave New Terrain. While hanging around in Port City, looking for a ship to take him off-world, he meets Leiko Tamura, an-out-of-work pilot who becomes his lover. Leiko introduces him to the Port Bar, Rin’s, where he meets Ysao, an engineer and a giant of a man.
But Jimson is really searching for one person in particular, his former lover Russell, a Star Captain with a “sexual drive like a firestorm”. And when Russell finally shows up in Port City, he comes with a proposal for Jimson and his new friends. A wealthy collector named Roman de Vala has hired him to steal a crystal mask from a mysterious planet called Demea. Demea is located near a dangerous area of space known as the Maze, where the high concentration of dust makes it easy for ships to get lost. Once lost, the pilot has to find a way out before the crew succumbs to the horrors of Hype madness. Leiko and Ysao are delighted to take the job and Jimson decides to go along too. As you would expect, they end up in all kinds of trouble.
In some ways, A Different Light is a straightforward science fiction adventure. It’s full of pulpy genre fan pleasers like hyperspace, starships with names, dodgy bars, creepy telepaths, and sexy space pirates who wear glitter eye makeup. But the novel stands out for its representation of all its characters as enthusiastically bisexual. This was pretty brave and groundbreaking in 1978 and a chain of gay bookstores were later named in honour of Lynn’s novel.
A Different Light is not a cheerful read. The themes of death and loss create a deep sense of melancholy throughout. But without spoiling the ending too much, I disliked the way Lynn allows Jimson to continue his existence after his body dies. It seems a bit strange to be complaining about the survival of the protagonist, but I found the ending kind of clunky and it left a lot of things unresolved. It made me wonder whether Lynn just couldn’t let Jimson go, or whether there was an editorial intervention. I closed the book feeling heartbroken for poor Russell, who loses not only Jimson, but also another lover whose ship drifted into The Hype with tragic consequences.
I much prefer Lynn’s short story collection, The Woman Who Loved the Moon, where I think her interest in death is worked through and dealt with more satisfactorily. Still, I’m glad I made the time to read A Different Light. It’s a thoughtful and important work of LGBT science fiction.