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.