The Light Pours Out of Me

M. John Harrison
Empty Space
(Gollancz, July 2012)

The act of writing a science fiction trilogy initiates the assumption of “memorable” characters, a strung-out central story line based on Campbellian structures, and, of course, world building. This presents a problem when the author is M. John Harrison, a previously self-exiled contrarian who writes inwardly turning, imagist polemics and is given to saying things like, “If you read for escape you will never try to change your life, or anyone else’s” (interview with Strange Horizons, June 2003). Harrison’s only other formal sequence, set in and around the ever-shifting city of Viriconium, features fictions which possess more of a casual correlation, through repetition of incident, place-names, and obsessions, than anything like a central narrative. The problem progresses if the first novel in the trilogy, Light (2002), achieves something like mainstream success, and the second novel, Nova Swing (2006), wins the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award. This is the strange location of the Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy before the publication of Empty Space.

Previously it was unclear whether or not Light and Nova Swing occupied the same universe or merely something like the same universe. In between the two novels, tone shifted: the style turned on itself, began to flirt with self-parody, as if Harrison had managed to accidentally create a world and was uncomfortable with the act. (Harrison has previously referred to world-building as “the great clomping foot of nerdism.”) Nova Swing was crankier and rangier, with pleasures, images, and difficulties much less immediate than Light. It’s hard to imagine a weirder couple.

From there, Empty Space could have returned to the Viriconium sequence’s explicit attack on genre and causality and found a third tone to play upon the obsessions that unite the trilogy: intensity used as replacement for transcendence, the crushing dullness of contemporary neoliberal culture, the inability to run away from anything or, indeed, even understand what you’re running away from. Instead, almost surprisingly, Empty Space completes the trilogy using characters and plot-lines seemingly abandoned to survive the preceding books. Resurrecting Light’s tripartite structure, we follow Antoyne, Irene the Mona, and Liv Hula, hauling rogue-code to orbital dumping grounds, the assistant, a sarcasm on the cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk trope of the ass-kicking yet strangely asexual female, the policewoman trying to track them down, and Anna Waterman, attempting to ignore a data-stick given to her by her ex-husband, as she wanders around a London 20 years in our future, searching for immanence or at least distraction. Nobody gets a new life in a Harrison novel, though that is, of course, all they ever want.  

 Harrison’s characters are all appetites and movement. Whenever any of them slows down long enough to consider who they are, they shift from their loud, messy, insignificant yet doomed trajectories toward proactive measures designed to change them into the things that they wish to be. This is when they begin to truly fuck their lives, the lives of those around them, and the fabric of the universe. With the safe remove provided by genre trappings, this feels like farce, with elements of pathos emerging unexpectedly and slipping away just as unexpectedly, like some new particle you can’t quite get a fix on. And indeed, the two-thirds or so of the novel set in the 25th Century are what keeps the series blazing along, but the story of Anna’s return to herself, as ambiguous an event as that may be, as well as her acceptance of her place in what passes for history around here, is the pulsating neon heart of the book.

The Kearney-Tate discovery, which occupies the space of Anna’s data-stick, will eventually be used by mankind to learn “new science on a steep, fulfilling curve. Everything was waiting to be handled, smelled, eaten. You threw the rind over your shoulder. The eerie beauty of it was that you could be on to the next thing before the previous thing had lost its shine.” However, Harrison makes clear that any type of physics would have done, that there are a multiplicity of physics, as there are a multiplicity of previous problem-solvers. This undercuts the hard sci-fi trope of having everything at least try to make sense. It also mocks the contemporary postmodern approach to narrative (i.e. every story is equally true because it is equally a story), deployed in fiction, politics, and religion, and long a hobgoblin of Harrison’s. Finally, it refutes our attempts to understand the universe around us, if to understand means to explicate, tame, mine, and eventually destroy. (In this, Empty Space’s publication date matched up with some nice aggressive irony to the finding of the Higgs Boson particle.)

At one point the novel Lost Horizon is “ripped apart, perhaps, because it had finally failed to deliver on its promises of the world hidden inside our own.” Empty Space does not aspire to provide a clean, orderly world to escape into. It is, instead, that difficult and necessary thing: a corrective.

Contributor

Brendan Byrne