25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past"
As a teenager in the 1960s, I read science fiction avidly; the usual suspects - Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Aldiss, Ballard - all the postwar writers I could find, really.
But by the time the "New Worlds" school of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll sf came along, I had largely moved on to more mainstream fiction. In the forty-plus years since then, I have occasionally dipped a toe back into the genre, without ever really finding anything to get me really excited. Then I (re)discovered M. John Harrison. A chance find of "Light" (the first part of this trilogy) in a charity shop had me intrigued, not least by the heavyweight recommendations in the review blurbs. My initial attempt to read it was a false start - the first chapter introduced us to a rather unlikable theoretical physicist with a penchant for randomly murdering yuppies. Was this going to be some sort of British rehash of "American Psycho"? I put it down and read something else. But some months later I gave it another shot. And, as the action shifted to a bizarre (yet strangely familiar) 25th century culture far out in a region of the galaxy where conventional physics breaks down in unpredictable ways - The Kefahuchi Tract - I was hooked.
The apparently unrelated threads of the story, were ultimately reconciled - sort of. It left me slightly confused, but entertained, intrigued, and wanting more. So I got a copy of the sequel "Nova Swing". Still set in the futuristic cultural mash-up of the region around the Tract, this was a wonderful detective noir pastiche, chock full of sly in-jokes and pop culture references, like some sort of deranged collision between Philip K. Dick, Douglas Adams and William Burroughs.
While waiting for this book (the conclusion of the trilogy - or is it?), I took time out to read Harrison's earlier fantasy-but-not-as-we-know-it sequence "Viriconium". This is not the place to talk about that, but suffice to say it's a masterpiece (Tolkien and Vance morphing into Durrell, Eliot, Baudelaire and er... Alan Bennett. Just read it).
Which brings us on to "Empty Space". Given the differences in style between the first two books, I wasn't sure what to expect - probably an almost unrelated story, simply set "in the same universe" as they say. But no. Characters from both "Light" and "Nova Swing" reappear, and take the story further into the realms of the seriously weird.
It's quite difficult to know what to compare this to. There are plenty of name-drops in here if you want to play detective (entirely appropriate, given the nature of some of the sub-plots). Fans of Iain M. Banks will smile knowingly at some of the spaceship names ("Daily Deals & Huge Savings", anyone?), and the intermingling of the (almost) mundane world of the (almost) here-and-now of Home Counties England with epic space opera reminded me somewhat of the early works of Ken Macleod. But although there is everywhere a knowing awareness of traditional sf tropes, Harrison constantly subverts them, and is ultimately very much his own man - and a masterful writer. At times the mood of the book shifts from the laugh-out-loud funny to the very dark indeed, from one page - or paragraph - to the next.
As all good sf should, it evokes some memorable visual images; in fact the best comparisons may be cinematic rather than literary: think Cronenberg, Lynch, and - especially - Tarkovsky, in its approach to non-sequential storytelling and the breakdown of temporality. The subtitle ("A Haunting") is appropriate - the atmosphere of the book still infests my head and has provoked some slightly disturbing dreams. But I'm not complaining.
There is so much going on in here, it's difficult to sum it up. But if have an open mind, and you want see what "literary" (ugh) sf can do in the hands of a great writer, pour yourself a shot of Black Heart Rum, put on some saltwater dub, and read this trilogy. And smile.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
M. John Harrison's EMPTY SPACE, the third and concluding novel of his extraordinary 'Kefahuchi Tract' trilogy, offers all the delights, and (for some) a few of the frustrations of the two earlier novels in the sequence. If you've read THE CENTAURI DEVICE, that long ago space opera by Harrison featuring leftist hero John Truck, you may find aspects of this sequence similar, although Harrison has moved far beyond the rough-hewn action of that earlier novel in his current return to space opera.
Empty space is never really empty - it is full of entradistas and rocket-jockeys, of orbiting hardware cast off as the waste from humans' interactions with mathematics, of chop-shopped and gene-tailored individuals whose memories of what they were before being genetically altered are hazy at best. Empty space is full of war, of the political maneouvres of the overclass, of ships piloted by used-to-be-humans whose consciousness is now hardwired into the ships' navigational systems. Empty space is full of mysterious artefacts, like the Aleph, and of mysterious events (or are they conditions?) like 'Pearlent', who appears in the shape of a woman struggling between (or occupying) two states of being.
It's not all shiny Golden Age Wonder or pleasant extrapolation in Harrison's universe. Far from it. People vomit a lot in M. John Harrison, whether from eating too much ice-cream, or from being wired into their spaceships via electricals pushed through the roofs of their mouths - and perhaps from what Sartre called 'La Nausee', a sort of existentialist angst. People have sex a lot in in M. John Harrison, usually in clumsy and even repulsive ways - as bizarre here as any in his other work - 'sensorium porn' anyone? - and Harrison doesn't shy away from depicting the emotional results of this. In EMPTY SPACE, characters walk through walls, New Men pilot starships, and one of our central viewpoint characters is the anonymous 'the assistant' who works for SiteCrime (seen previously in NOVA SWING).
The future, Harrison seems to be saying, is rife with problems, perhaps even rifer with them than the present day. We take our neuroses, our dreamlives, our accommodations to existence, into the future with us. Dice, Shranders, black and white cats, the mysterious artefacts leaking out of the event zone and playing havoc with the visible universe, quantum physics, psychic blowback, and the psychology of human limitations - it's all here.
This is a superbly imagined and written, if not easy, novel. Some readers will find it too difficult and challenging, though it's an amazing ride. Easy answers there will not be. You need to line this novel up with LIGHT and NOVA SWING and observe the dynamics that play out between the three, like a sort of particle physics that emerges from the writing itself. Sly internal references and links abound, but Harrison has long believed that the world can't be solved. Neither can these novels. Like Godel/Escher/Bach, there is an eternal golden braid going in the strands of each of these books, and between the three books which now form the trilogy.
EMPTY SPACE is subtitled 'A Haunting', and that's exactly what it is - the characters are haunted by floating corpses and mortsafes, Anna Kearney in particular is haunted by the presence of her dead husband Michael from LIGHT. Likewise, the reader will be haunted long after putting this book down, by the uncannily precise prose quality of Harrison's prose even when he it grapples with concepts impossible to describe, and by a vision of a sprawling future which he has now delineated across three of the key works of modern science fiction.