11 October 2007

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

a review by Dustin Kurtz

Nova Swing's conceit is essentially the same as the conceit of M. John Harrison’s previous book, Light. Somewhere out in the hinterlands of human-inhabited space there is a stretch of bad physics, a mean glowing strip of strange, light years long, known as the Kefahuchi Tract. In Light the Tract is a wild plaything for entradistas -- thrill-seeking celebrity pilots whose exploits seem to make up the substance of much of that galactic arm’s rumor. In an example of the casual but powerful analogy at which Harrison excels, the galactic neighborhood near the Tract is often called the Beach. The Tract is also puzzlingly related to an invisible, though hungry, earthly horror and his serial killer scion. And, just to spice things up, the Tract is somehow involved with ancient alien relics, the appropriation of which forms the goal of much of that book’s plot. If you haven’t read Light and are confused, don’t worry. I have read it, and those muddled sentences above are about the best I can do for a summary.

Nova Swing is set on a world that somehow intercepts that same Kefahuchi Tract on one discrete area of its surface. Or rather a sliver of the Tract, the alien K-code incarnate, has fallen to the ground near the depressed city of Saudade. The previous book spends much time in space, aboard a stolen military-grade K-ship. Here, though there are moments in which space travel comes into play, the action is almost entirely terrestrial.

With Nova Swing Harrison has written, or perhaps hopes to have written, a beautiful bastardization of far-flung science fiction and a gritty noir crime story. Gene-mods are sold like the latest fashions. Prostitutes with peppermint-scented hair, tusk-mouthed professional fighters and enormous horse-thighed rickshaw drivers all take their place among Harrison’s characters. His gun-kiddies, deadly packs of mercenary seven-year-olds sporting pastel raincoats and heavy weaponry, are some of his most memorable touches. Many of these characters are familiar from Light, though they are much more fleshed out here. The ostensible protagonists of the book are Vic Seratonin, a "travel agent" into the dangerous wastelands of fallen Tract, and Lens Aschemann, a grandfatherly detective who drives (or rather, is driven) around in a vintage convertible and looks like Einstein. Vic is this novel’s nihilist version of Ed Chianese. He is a terrestrial entradista. His predecessors entered the bewildering "event site" for adventure and glory. Vic, however, is terrified of the deadly chaos he encounters there. It makes him bitter and ashamed. The plot here is spare. Of course there is a bit of cat and mouse between Vic and Aschemann, particularly when Vic brings a piece of living code out of the site with some nasty side effects. There are some curious scenes in the event site itself, a bit of virtuoso accordion playing, and even one very gratifying firefight, but really this book, unlike either of the genres Harrison is drawing from, is not about the plot. It is about characters and atmosphere.

In an interview with Jeff VanderMeer, Harrison has said that this book was meant to explore some of his favorite people from Light in greater detail, and that intention certainly shows. His ensemble is endearing, in a pathetic fallen-world kind of way. They are all of them weary, nostalgic or deluded, bitter and strung out and wonderful. Each character, from his cancer-ridden old Emil to his ingratiating Fat Antoyne captures you and makes you want to read more. The problem is that Harrison himself is as much in love with his creations as any reader. He cannot, it seems, bring himself to let them go when the time comes. The main plot of the book is much shorter than the book itself, the excess being filled with the lives of his sallow flock.

Of the two genres, his noir elements are arguably the more successful. In fact, he is better in this regard than most crime fiction authors being published today. Take this scene in a shoreline bar:
"I’ve seen you here," Aschemann said.

She leaned towards him when he spoke. Asked him for a match, upper body bent forward a little from the waist, head tilted back, so that the dress offered her up wrapped in silk, jazz, light from the Live Music Nightly sign. She needed only a brushed aluminum frame to complete the image of being something both remembered and unreal. He’d seen that dress in the nanocam pictures of Vic Seratonin. More importantly, perhaps, he'd seen it fourteen days ago when she’d stumbled out of the toilet at the Café Surf disoriented by the neon-light and music as if she were new in the world. She still had an unformed labile air. Her smile was cautious, but the dress was ready to promise anything.

"I’m here a lot,” she said. “I like the band. Do you like them?"

He took a moment to light his pipe. He swallowed a little.

"They’re as guilty as ever," he said.
The science fiction elements are pervasive and, again, very well written, but somehow end up feeling less than necessary. Yes there is interstellar travel and virtual reality, the nanocams mentioned above, even an alien race or two. But all these elements are bent under the weight of Harrison’s forlorn setting. Thus the aliens are VR addicts and the gene-mod kits are used by desperate girls forced into prostitution by desperate circumstances. His characters are outsiders, one and all.

In fact, the entire world of Nova Swing is defined, indeed posited by, its outsider status. Paradoxically, the landscape we are shown in the book, possibly including the planet, even the entire galactic branch, are characterized as being apart from some unseen centrality. The center of this landscape, from which all affluence, power, and even hope might come, is only hinted at in personal histories, glimpsed in the actinic glare of ship engine flares. It is just over the horizon, just across that fence, three star systems down the line. But the force of action in nearly all narrative, particularly in the two genres from which Harrison is ostensibly borrowing here, is driven by the division between a center and its lesser valent. One of the classic character tropes of cyberpunk is the outsider pitting his skills and moral superiority against a mainstream system or structure.

With no focus, no centrality, Harrison’s downtrodden characters are trapped. They have no drive to action. Indeed, they often seem puzzled by their idleness. And though they are excellently written, they display little of the change, the development, that we associate with successful characterization. In this, I would argue, they resemble an older conception of character, an early romantic model of static character, tempered here by invasive third-person narration.

In the absence of a center to this othered landscape all character motivation must come from a different source. The Kefahuchi Tract, or rather its planetside sliver, fills that void. Harrison has mentioned the Tract as a location for alien physics inscribed on the substrate of the universe. In practice, however, the event site comes across as a dream locale, full of portent. Cats come streaming out at dawn and running back in at night. Their coats are white or black, but never mixed. Landscapes are uncertain in the site, and distances have no meaning. There tend to be a lot of stray shoes. The site, here, is an impetus to action. Vic is driven to explore it in search of an unruly client, and also to satisfy a local tough’s hunger for valuable artifacts. Lens is driven into the site by his own past, his curiosity, and to track down Vic Seratonin. The event site is a medieval wilderness to these characters. It is the source of all signs, a mirror of the meaningless void surrounding their small world. It is a hyper-semic realm, mirror to the empty a-semic reaches of space from which it came. Everything has significance in the site, even if this sign is only one of alienation and difference, not meant to be communicated. "In every corner there’s a broken telephone nailed to the wall," Vic says early in the novel. "They’re all labeled Speak but there’s no line out. They ring but no one’s ever there." Just as Harrison’s characters have in them shadows of the pre-romantic, unchanging except perhaps in form, but with no significance attached to such transformation, here we see the mythical dark forest through which all quests must lead. Vic Seratonin is a Percival with a drinking habit. He is an outsider even among this lot, drawn into the event site despite his reluctance and bald-faced fear. Just as in tales of knights-errant, the landscape demands the action and the knights merely fulfill it. Unlike most romantic heroes, Vic is explicit about it. "You want to know what it’s like in there? The fact is, you spend all your time trying to make something of it. Then guess what, it starts making something of you."

If, then, the book does share more with early Romantic tales than either of its apparent source genres, it is so excellent a book that it serves only as a surprising confirmation to me that I must love tales of romance and questing. It takes a great writer to defy the larger trends of genre, even literary history, from within. Harrison, with this book, shows himself to be one of the best writers in the field, whatever that field might happen to be.