Russell Letson reviews M. John Harrison
If ‘‘empty space’’ came up on a word-association test, my response might well be ‘‘atoms and – ’’, signaling both a long-ago undergraduate encounter with Democritus and a general materialist orientation, philosophy-wise. But in M. John Harrison’s Empty Space (the completion of a trio of novels that includes Light and Nova Swing), the cosmos is not at all adequately summed up by that chilly but somehow comforting metaphysic. Instead, as one of the book’s epigraphs indicates, nothingness is home to all manner of somethings, and the subtitle, A Haunting, suggests that encounters with them might be less than pleasant.
Three very gradually converging story lines and their obscure connections supply narrative pull. Two threads are set in the 25th century, far from Earth, out in the region of space dominated by the supremely alien Kefahuchi Tract, an outbreak of irreality, or strange physics, or cosmic craziness that has drawn humans (and, throughout galactic history, all manner of beings) like flies to carrion or rag-pickers to a trash-heap. Here are owner Fat Antoyne (who is no longer fat), pilot Liv Hula, and supercargo Irene the Mona of the tramp starship Nova Swing, contracted to transport an enigmatic, probably illegal, and increasingly disturbing load of ‘‘mortsafes.’’ (Nobody is familiar with the term, but they prove to be ‘‘old, alien, not good to be around.’’) At the same time in Saudade City, near where a chunk of the Tract has come to ground, a nameless (or many-named) policewoman called ‘‘the assistant’’ is looking into a series of grotesque murders in which the victims’ contorted bodies are left slowly turning in midair. These two threads are cross-connected by various other characters (military-intel fixer Rig Gaines, the probably-not-human MP Renoko, Epstein the thin cop), and both run various gritty future-noir and space-adventure conventions through an intensive symbol- and motif-transforming machine to produce a kind of anti-SF narrative collage.
The third thread – which is actually the first, since it opens and closes the novel – seems to arrive on a different literary vector altogether. Sixtyish widow Anna Waterman lives in a minimally near-future version of the kind of tatty suburban landscape that UK writers do so well. Anna’s chapters feel like one of those mainstream depictions of the opaquely unsatisfactory lives of should-be-comfortable bourgeois citizens: emotionally bleak or blank stories I generally cannot bring myself to finish. Anna is not at all psychologically fit. She has recurring enigmatic dreams and is prone to wandering around looking into empty houses or to taking aimless rail journeys or midnight floats down the Thames without benefit of boat or clothing. But she is experiencing more than ordinary neurosis and breakdown. Her cat, James, brings in ‘‘gelid bits and pieces’’ that are not parts from his usual prey, and her back garden is being visited by all manner of enigmatic phenomena – strange lights, silver eels, eruptions of unnatural flowers, a garden house that bursts into flames that do not burn anything.
Clearly something is reaching through time and space, spooking the crew of Nova Swing, depositing floating corpses, adding to Anna’s baseline distress. There is a spectral woman who tells Anna, ‘‘I am Pearlant and I come from the future’’ – and who also seems to manifest to the assistant and to others up the line in the 25th century. Anna wanders and dreams and thinks about her long-dead first husband (central to Light); and the assistant examines floating corpses and receives visits from Rig Gaines; and the Nova Swing crew picks up its cargo of mortsafes, whatever they are; and the secondary characters carry out obscure missions and inquiries of their own; and there is a war; and eventually the parts do click together.
Which is not to say that the click allows the reader to walk away completely satisfied. The book contains mazes and riddles and seemings and is itself all of those things – it is a puzzle to be solved, a folded-up network of events to be re-articulated in ways that make some kind of sequential, causal sense. And by the end, some of that is possible. But there are other kinds of puzzles – meta-puzzles, if you will. Why select these events, why run them through this transformational machinery, why surround them with these particular images and motifs and sensory cues? The text is an environment of allusions, referents, symbols, metaphors, nods, winks, and homages. It is, to steal one of its own phrases, a ‘‘semiotic boutique’’ dedicated to the perhaps paradoxical (for a shaped text) notions that ‘‘[n]othing here was made for us,’’ that the universe ‘‘isn’t what we think,’’ that it is ‘‘a useless analogy for an unrepresentable state.’’
And indeed, large chunks of this fictional world do not make sense to anyone in it, and the events that penetrate its slices of history, even though we witness them, emanate from and vanish into places that we will not – cannot – understand, like the war that erupts in the final chapters, doing enormous real damage, unexplained and unintelligible even to those conducting it.
Empty Space would seem to be part of an argument Harrison is having with certain kinds of fiction and, finally, with certain ways of viewing the world and the self. In a 2003 Strange Horizons interview, he told Cheryl Morgan, ‘‘I think it’s undignified to read for the purposes of escape…. If you read for escape you will never try to change your life, or anyone else’s. It’s a politically barren act, if nothing else. The overuse of imaginative fiction enables people to avoid the knowledge that they are actually alive.’’ But if the utile of fiction is to, say, encourage a grown-up engagement with the universe-as-it-is, what is the point of so much dulce? If stories must carry the burden of political and psychological responsible maturity – if they must wear a serious expression in the middle of July – why should the surface of the prose get away with being beautiful? Is it lovely in order to draw the unblinking eye to the unloveliness of an inhuman and all-but-unintelligible world?
And the writing here is lovely, or at least verbally and imagistically complex, arresting, and seductive. Planetary names are part astronomical, part-brand-name marketingese, part nose-thumbing: Panamax IV, Alpha Five Flexitone, World X, Perkins Rent IV, Cassiotone 9. It’s Cordwainer Smith on acid. There are similar naming games for the various businesses (mostly bars and diners) along the grotty spaceport streets: the Faint Dime, The East Ural Nature Preserve, Tango du Chat, the Starlight Room. And catalogues, as in this view of things pouring out of the fallen chunk of the Tract near Saudade City:
scaled in incongruous ways – unfamiliar objects being tossed up in the air by a silent but convulsive force…. giant crockery, huge shoes, ornaments and jewellery [sic], bluebirds and rainbows, tiny bridges, tiny ships, and tiny buildings…. They rose, floated, toppled, thrown up as if by the hands of gigantic, bad-tempered, invisible child.
In fact, the whole N-dimensional space-time tangle is studded with repeating motifs (a transformation of the catalogue figure): cats, vomit, dice, diners, giant-baby mirages, sex organs, song titles and musicians’ names, and everywhere and for just about every character, fashion notes: the second murder victim wears ‘‘a dark blue Sadie Barnham work jacket,’’ while of MP Renoko we learn that
his look successfully teamed used raincoats with grey worsted trousers five inches too short…. His clothes came spattered with outmoded foods such as tapioca and ‘‘soup.’’ On his feet he wore cracked tan wingtips without socks, and it was a feature of this careful image that his ankles went unwashed.
(Renoko also enjoys arguing about kitsch as ‘‘a product of ‘the post modern ironisation’’’ with a friend whose ‘‘commitment to body-art and collectible tambourines’’ leads her to disagree strongly.)
Getting through the novel’s sideways-connected story lines required some patience – I found it difficult to maintain reading momentum. I would put the book down for a day or two and read something else. But I kept returning to it, curious about where it was heading and drawn as well by the smooth, strange, sly, often funny writing – amusements on the way to whatever nightmarish grown-up enlightenment might eventually arrive or condense or precipitate or manifest, like a giant infant emerging from a solid wall.