Empty Space: A Haunting Hardcover – Apr 3 2012
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'A novel of visionary power'―TLS on Light
'NOVA SWING is space jazz; not only state-of-the-art noir SF, but a cunning cryptogram of a novel as well'―TLS
'LIGHT is brilliant'―Iain M. Banks
'Harrison writes with tremendous panache'―INDEPENDENT
'An extraordinary writer'―Clive Barker
About the Author
M. John Harrison was born in the Peak District and now lives in London.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
So it's "beautiful but it's dark. And there is no way to know what it is..."
But is that good enough for a novel or a work of art? How you choose to answer that question will certainly play a big part in whether you feel this novel, and the Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy as a whole, is a success or a failure.
For there is no resolution here. Not for the characters, not for the dilemmas they face, not of the central mysteries of the novel, and not for any of the plots that play out on the galactic stage in the background of the novel. What we have instead is a wonderfully written novel with elegiac prose and masterful structure. However the structure is a lot like what would happen if we took Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" and chopped it in two, keeping only the first half. There are three (remotely) linked plots here that each read differently. But unlike "Cloud Atlas," Harrison never circles back to the beginning. Instead each plot winds a circuitous path to the "end" of the novel and then mostly vanishes into empty space.
Stellar prose and luscious imagery aside, this is a bit unsatisfying. While Harrison transports us to three different spaces and two different times what this all means is a mystery. A mystery deeper than those posed by Gene Wolfe for example, who at least provides enough subtle clues and hints that we the reader realize that something meaningful or significant just happened, even if we initially have no clue as to what or how or why. Harrison by contrast leaves us completely to our own devices. He gives so little guidance that truly we are left to wander the many empty spaces of the Kefahuchi Tract alone. Why did the Shander act as it did? Who is the assistant? Why does the Tract pierce time and space to find itself in England circa 2020? Who else is in the mortsafes, how did they get there, and what do they hope to return to? And why does a sentient AI aid them in their quest?
Nothing is answered. Not even tangentially. And precious little resolved. To refer to my review of the first novel in the Trilogy, Heisenberg's cat very much remains in a state of quantum superposition. It seems that Harrison not only doesn't want us to know if the feline is alive or dead, he seems to believe that it would be shameful to even think about opening the box to find out.
So... Frustrating? Absolutely. Mysterious and unknowable? More so than any other novel that readily comes to mind. (Wolfe and Eco look straightforward and clear by comparison.) Baroque, beautiful, wildly imaginative and full of crazy dreams and teasing allusions to popular culture and the major sf works of the last twenty years (Love Cats by The Cure, anybody...)? Yes and so much more.
Harrison's work ultimately achieves a lofty excellence that few other sf works will ever achieve. But it is dark and mysterious, and to my mind most of its mysteries are ultimately impenetrable and unknowable: you will find little if any satisfaction at the end of the book, or even after long examination and review.
The thing I love most about Harrison's writing is that once is never enough. I've lost count of the times I've re-read Viriconium, each time intrigued and entertained all over again. Light was a bit more problematic for me, but Nova Swing and now Empty Space nail me to my chair.
When I'm not immersed in one of his works, I miss being in the worlds he creates. Something of what Harrison knows, what he works toward showing with his writing, are places and times that seem to actually exist, and his writing are struggles to formulate adequate description, to pull back veils of three-dimensional time and frustratingly limited human conceptualization, in order to view its truth.
The story flips between a few storylines. One set in the near present and the others set further in the future when great hulking ships run between planets. This is not an easily accessible book and the reader will find themselves with a bit of a struggle on their hands to grasp what is going on. After finishing, I'm still not entirely sure of all the plot details. There is a mother and daughter who have drifted apart. There is a ship doing recovery work. There are floating ghosts that can't communicate. Much of it is about being adrift and the empty space in our lives.
What I do know is that Mr. Harrison rights lovely prose that is descriptive and feels a little stream of consciousness at times. I kept reading because I found the writing to be outstanding. I let the words take me along and I'm glad I took the journey. Probably not for everyone, but it was a pleasant surprise for me.