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.

Review of Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M John HarrisonTitle: Light
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #1
Author: 
M. John Harrison
Published:
 
2002
Publisher:
 
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Bantam Spectra
Genre: 
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
Source: 
own copy

The cover of my edition of Light is covered with flattering quotes. More can be found on the inside pages. Many come from sources I admire – Iain M. Banks, Michael Marshall Smith, China Miéville, the Guardian. They praise Harrison’s skill and vision as a writer, the complex literary nature of Light, and it’s brutal, energetic brilliance as space opera. The novel won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, was nominated for the BSFA, and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke. I was dazzled before I even started reading, and baffled afterwards. Elegant, violent and wildly imaginative, Light is literary genre fiction, bringing together quantum physics, a strange new world, bizarre characters, and all the complex relationships that exist between them. It is a particularly challenging read, and it’s only after my second attempt that I feel I have a decent understanding of the novel.

The story is divided into three strands, one set in 1999, and two set the post-Earth future of 2400. In 1999, Michael Kearney – a visionary physicist and a serial killer – has spent decades running from the Shrander, a mysterious entity with a horse’s skull for a head. Michael kills to keep the thing at bay, but because it’s his brilliant mind that attracted it in the first place, it will never leave him in peace. It seems like it’s been a while since he’s managed to do anything productive, although he and his partner Brian Tate are currently involved in a research project that has recently produced only enigmatic results. Tate can’t get Michael to hang around long enough to do any work – he keeps running from the Shrander, with his anorexic and psychologically frail ex-wife Anna trailing after him.

We know that Michael and Tate’s research will be groundbreaking though – in 2400, Tate-Kearney transformations are commonly used in space travel. In this future, humanity is scattered across planets surrounding the Kefahuchi Tract, a space-time anomaly, a “singularity without an event horizon”. For over 65 millennia, the K-tract has beguiled every race that came across it. One race even “steered whole solar systems into position” (7) just to have a closer look at the Tract. It’s a phenomenon that takes no heed of causality, and where explorers can find ancient artefacts that can’t be understood and alien tech that defies all known possibilities.

Seria Mau Genlicher zips around the Tract thanks to the alien tech of her K-ship, The White Cat – an absurdly powerful vessel bristling with weapons and capable of shooting into orbit at Mach 50. It’s run by sentient mathematics and algorithms with a life of their own. Seria Mau allowed her body to be mostly destroyed so she could be plugged into the ship, where she floats in a tank of nutrient-rich chemicals. She’s just acquired an inexplicable artefact that brings the authorities hurtling after her, but which promises opportunities humanity has been dreaming about.

Planet-side in the city of New Venusport is Ed Chianese, once a famous explorer, now a washed up ‘twink’. Like Seria Mau he spends all his time in a tank, except he’s addicted to playing out clichéd old-Earth scenarios in virtual reality. But Ed is in debt to some very bloodthirsty people and gets forced out into the real world when they come looking for him. He runs all the way into a strange new life as a visionary in a circus.

These plot strands seem disparate and in fact the three main characters will never speak to each other. It’s only at the end that you can fully understand how they’re connected. But one of the beautiful things about this book – assuming you’re like me and enjoy this sort of thing – is the way the stories are delicately connected by images and details. Some of are very fine, just a thread tacked across chapters. Ed runs from his pursuers into the confusing warrens where the alien “New Men” live; Anna’s apartment is described as a warren where you never know where you are, and Michael’s decidedly weird friend Valentine Sprake has the same pale skin and shock of ginger hair as the New Men. Anna and Michael walk past melting tarmac; in the next chapter, Seria Mau’s dreams and nightmares “leaked up inside her like warm tar” (65).

It’s much easier to notice the recurring images, details and phrases. I mentioned the Tate-Kearney transformations and the fact that both Seria Mau and Ed start out in tanks. Cats are everywhere. Seria Mau named her ship The White Cat after the white oriental cat Michael bought for the lab, and whose strange interest in their computer screens is the first sign that the two physicists have stumbled onto something otherworldly. Michael stole a strange pair of dice from the Shrander 20 years ago; in 2400 similar dice are used for a game. Michael uses the dice to plot journeys, seeing a connection between prophecy and mathematics (he is also obsessed with the Tarot. Odd, for a physicist, but that’s the kind of guy he is). In 2400, there is a brief mention of an admiral who “abandoned the Tate-Kearney transformations and simply threw dice to decide his moves”. This kind of thing can actually work because it seems that, out in space, physics doesn’t have laws so much as guidelines:

Space was big, and the boys from Earth were awed despite themselves by the things they found there: but worse, their science was in a mess. Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, but assuming anything. (136)

Beaches frequently appear as metaphors for liminal states or places. It was staring at the pebbles on a beach that child-Michael first began to understand the world as he does. The “ragged margins of the Tract” (7) are known as The Beach, and one of the characters muses, “We’ve got to leave the beach some day. All of us. Grow up. Leave the Beach, dive into the sea” (139). By which I think he means that humanity needs to move on to the next stage of discovery.

The book links Michael and Tate’s discoveries with future ones, and these are typically represented by light, specifically a tangible, flowing light that appears as tears or foaming liquid. “Sparks in everything” – this phrase is thought or uttered multiple times. It’s beautiful, but discovery isn’t romanticised in this book – it’s terrifying, painful, and dangerous. Michael can’t handle it – his knowledge attracts the Shrander and is essentially a source of pure horror that his turned him into murderer and rendered him useless. Seria Mau underwent appalling physical adjustments and risked death – as a 13-year-old child – to become a K-ship captain. Ed is the only one who offers us the classic, thrilling image of the space explorer, but he’s currently planet-bound, sticking his head into a tank to tell the future.

But it isn’t all bad. Discovery is endless. In a universe where physics is so pliable, nothing can ever be fully understood and anything is possible. Another refrain is “there was always more; there was always more after that. Discovery and exploration often take on a notably sexual tone as well, or is somehow associated with sex and sexual relationships. The climax of the novel (excuse the pun) is described in overtly sexual terms. Seria Mau is introduced as “trolling for customers” (7), suggestive of a prostitute, although what she’s offering is horrific, high-tech death rather than pleasure. We later learn that she became a K-captain partly to escape her home, where her father wanted her to “become the mother” in the wake of her mother’s death.

Michael and Anna both seems to use sex as a means of temporarily escaping their personal problems, although Michael, for some reason, never wants to penetrate women – a symbol of his fear perhaps? Ed Chianese, the explorer however, has a string of unusual sexual relationships. The first is with a character in his virtual reality. The second is with an alien. The final one is with Annie Glyph, a rickshaw girl. Rickshaw girls are essentially human carthorses, genetically tailored to massive and powerfully muscled.

With all the weird sex in the novel, the issue of bodies comes up frequently. Seria Mau initially doesn’t want one, and when she uses an avatar for face-to-face meetings she goes as a white cat. She meets with a gene tailor named Uncle Zip, who surrounds himself with clones – versions of himself who are younger, thinner, and sometimes female. Anna, an anorexic and twice-failed suicide, looks just as fragile as her mental state. Annie Glyph comes across as her parallel and her opposite – a huge, powerful woman who dwarfs the man she sleeps with. Sex and gender finds all sorts of new permutations in this novel – I can see why it won the Tiptree award.

There’s quite a bit of science, reminding me that I really need to get better acquainted with quantum physics if I want to continue reading this sort of thing. I still don’t quite understand what a singularity is, nevermind a “singularity without an event horizon”. But although I feel like a full appreciation of the novel is out of my reach, the technical details aren’t alienating. Harrison turns the science into poetry and I learned to just enjoy the words without fussing over the physics.

The tech is pretty cool either way. K-ships are just spectacular, and The White Cat is the best of them. The shadow operators were one of my favourite things about the novel – living algorithms who usually appear as “women biting their knuckles in regret” (186) and fuss over humans with personalities to match. The White Cat’s shadow operators long to craft a pretty little body for Seria Mau and dress her up in white lace. Planet-side are all sorts of genetically tailored ‘cultivars’ – gun kiddies, over-muscled punks with tusks, rickshaw girls. There’s a cultivar called Mona (also written as ‘Moaner’) – an over-sexed female body that has become popular with women.

I could continue discussing the little details. Light is just that kind of book – short but incredibly complex. I find it to be a lot like the K-tract – beguiling even when I don’t understand it. I’m glad I re-read it, and I’d like to do so again one day, after I get a copy of Nova Swing so I can experience the trilogy as a whole (I just read book 3, Empty Space; more on that in my next review). It’s certainly not for everyone, and even now I don’t want to rate because I’m not sure what to make of it. But I’m happy to be inexplicably captivated.

Up for Review: Empty Space

After being both baffled and intrigued by Light when I read it several years ago, I’m feeling more than a little bit daunted by the task of reviewing M. John Harrison’s third novel set in that universe. But Empty Space promises the kind of surreal reading experience that seduces me as much as it scares me, so I will venture forth nevertheless. If I have the time, I’ll re-read Light beforehand. I’d like to read book two, Nova Swing,  as well, but I doubt I’ll be able to squeeze it in. At any rate, Night Shade Books has assured me that you don’t need to read either of the first two books to appreciate this one.

 

Empty Space by M John Harrison

Empty Space by M. John Harrison (Night Shade Books)

NetGalley blurb:

One of science fiction’s premiere stylists, M. John Harrison has received abundant praise and awards for his wildly imaginative ideas and transcendent prose. Now he returns to the richly complex universe of Light and Nova Swing with a stunning new novel that braids three glittering strands into a tapestry that spans vast reaches of time and space.

In the near future, an elderly English widow is stirred from her mundane existence by surreal omens and visitations. Centuries later, the space freighter Nova Swing takes on an illegal alien artifact as cargo, with consequences beyond reckoning. While on a distant planet, a nameless policewoman tries to bring order to an event zone where ordinary physics do not apply, only to find herself caught up in something even stranger and more sublime. . . .

Empty Space was first published on 19 July 2012 by Gollancz. This new edition will be published on 05 March 2013.

Links:
Goodreads
Night Shade Books
Reviews: The Guardian I The Independent I Locus

About the Author:
Michael John Harrison was born in Rugby, Warwickshire in 1945 and now lives in London.
Harrison is stylistically an Imagist and his early work relies heavily on the use of strange juxtapositions characteristic of absurdism. – Goodreads
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