I’ll try again later: Empty Space by M. John Harrison

Empty Space by M John HarrisonTitle: Empty Space
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #3
Author: 
M. John Harrison
Published: 
First published 1 January 2012; my edition published 5 March 2013
Publisher:
 
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Night Shade Books
Genre: 
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

This isn’t so much a review as an admission of defeat and a comment on difficult books. After reading Empty Space, I don’t feel able to write any kind of useful review. I couldn’t even tell you if I liked it or not. The question is irrelevant, because I simply don’t get it, and I think I would have to do more reading before I can.

Before requesting a copy of Empty Space, I tweeted Night Shade Books to ask if it was necessary to read the first two books in the series – Light and Nova Swing. I’d read the former, but not the latter. They said this was fine. I respectfully disagree. Loudly and vehemently. From what I’ve read about them, it seems that Light and Nova Swing are fairly disparate. They’re set in the same universe, but tell two very different stories. Empty Space functions as a sequel to both, sharing characters and locations, and tying up loose ends. I re-read Light just before reading Empty Space, and found them to be closely linked. In comparison, I felt alienated from the aspects of the plot related to Nova Swing.

So to better understand this novel, I think I would have to read Nova Swing first. Then I’d have to re-read Empty Space. I had a similar experience with Light – it bewildered me the first time around; after the second reading I liked it more and felt like I’d understood it.

So what can I say about Empty Space in the meantime? Well, I can give you a bit of plot. Anna Kearney, Michael’s fragile ex-wife from Light, becomes a POV character in Empty Space. After Michael’s disappearance from a beach in America, Anna “fucked the first kind of person she found” who happened to be Tim Waterman (he made a brief appearance as her lover in Light). She married him after falling pregnant with their daughter Marnie. When we see Anna, it is almost 30 years after the events of book one and she is an old woman in her 60s or 70s, no longer suffering from anorexia but most definitely deranged, to Marnie’s great concern. She avoids visiting her therapist, takes long walks to snoop around other people’s homes, and does loopy things like swimming naked down a river in the middle of the night.

She also has experiences that sound completely crazy, but given the bizarre nature of the universe in this series, what she sees is most likely real (whatever that means). She keeps turning around to find that her summerhouse is on fire, except that the flames look fake, like something she saw on a tarot card, and after a while they disappear without having damaged anything. Her cat brings in glowing organ-shaped things from the garden. She has weird dreams that are no doubt more than just her subconscious at play. Notably, Anna is still carrying around an external hard drive that Michael gave to her before he disappeared. On it is the work he and Brian Tate were doing – the groundbreaking mathematics that enabled space travel and made the future storylines possible. Anna, however, has forgotten the significance of the hard drive.

Like Light, Empty Space has two narrative strands several centuries in the future. In one, the crew of the space freighter Nova Swing pick up a creepy, illegal alien artefact. In the third narrative, an unnamed policewoman known only as the assistant is investigating two decidedly weird murders. The victims’ bodies are found floating in midair, and as the novel progresses they rise higher while fading slowly into invisibility. The assistant used to work with a detective, but he’s dead now, existing only as a ghost hovering aimlessly in her office. The assistant is heavily gene-tailored and if she was once human she can’t even remember that time. With her heightened senses and abilities, she’s practically a weapon or a machine, and most people prefer to avoid her. Nevertheless, there’s one guy who keeps coming to see her, and somehow walks through walls to do so. His interest in her is based on the fact that someone – or something – keeps asking for her.

This person or thing is ‘Pearl’, an entity common to all three storylines. It is something between a bizarre phenomenon and an ancient, inexplicable artefact. When Pearl appears she/it says “My name is Pearlent and I come from the future”. She appears as a woman in grey, in a state of falling. Her existence remains incomprehensible to me, but as a character or plot device, she connects the storylines and brings a sense of closure to the series.

Empty Space shares many of the characteristics of Light – a tendency to connect characters, stories and timelines with little details; strange people who do strange things; incomprehensible alien technology; an abundance of violence and horror wrapped up in literary sf. There’s still a strong sense of the pain and terror involved in space travel and discovery, but with less optimism. Aliens exist, but you never see them. And of course there are cats, hundreds of cats. The future world feels more like the current one than it did in Light, perhaps because of the policewoman’s plot.

But I do not know what the fucking point is.

I usually knew what was happening in Empty Space but most of the time I didn’t know what to make of it. I could not have given you a reason why a particular scene was in the book or articulated the way in which it fit into the whole. Why does Anna’s cat bring her glowing neon organ-shaped things? Why do three characters dream of a vulva appearing in the wall? Why does the crew of the Nova Swing pick up a ‘mortsafe’ containing the fused, ghostly bodies of a child, his mother, and the nanny who started a weird sexual relationship with him?

I’m not writing a proper review because I can’t offer you any coherent understanding of the book beyond a prolonged plot summary. It might be brilliant. It might be a bunch of random crap cobbled together in a way that gives the illusion of brilliance. It could be anything in between. I can’t really say.

I am not despondent though. I felt the same way about Light when I first read it, but it was way better the second time. I also did myself a huge disservice by not reading Nova Swing. I could have skipped this blog post, but I felt like making a point about difficult books and re-reading. With a few exceptions, I try not to give up on books. Sometimes it’s obvious that a book is very bad or simply something that I won’t be interested in. Otherwise, I give it the benefit of the doubt, and assume I wasn’t ready to read it or that I was in the wrong mood for it. I choose to read books because I think they have something to offer me, and I’m willing to stick it out until the end to see if they deliver.

And in cases like this one, I feel that reading a book once just isn’t enough. That’s just the way some books are, and the fact that they’re difficult doesn’t mean they can’t be rewarding or entertaining. Some things simply take more time and effort than others. I’ll shelve Empty Space for now, and give it a second chance in the future.

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