It’s always disheartening in doing post-reading for a novel to encounter reviews that cannot be surpassed. Therefore, knowing any effort I throw at M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing (2006) cannot compare to John Clute’s superb review on The Guardian, I will instead offer complementary impressions. It goes without saying, if you are interested in Nova Swing, read Clute’s review first, and if you don’t immediately go out and buy the novel and are still interested in additional opinion, come back.
Undoubtedly, many readers who loved Harrison’s The Pastel City were thrown off by the sudden left turn the follow up novel, A Storm of Wings, took. Harrison not a writer to be slotted into any particular niche, readers looking for more from Light in the follow up Nova Swing should accordingly open their minds to the idea Nova Swing is an entirely different experience.
Noir concentrate, Nova Swing focuses on the lives and exploits of a handful of characters hanging around the spaceport of Saudade. Seeming perpetually night, the streets are bathed in neon glow—precisely as the cover captures. A detective investigates strange occurrences within the Kefahuchi Zone. A barkeeper contemplates her own direction in life watching the exploits of her clientele. A trade operative attempts to profit from contraband smuggled from the Zone. And a handful of other characters fill out the story, all attempting to deal with the haze of ambiguity living within the Kefehuchi tract.
Though working with an entirely different aesthetic, Nova Swing nevertheless works with a similar palette of ideas as the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. Harrison giving tribute in the opening epigraphs, he utilizes the idea of unfathomable alien artifacts in the hands of humanity as a way of exposing deeper anxieties and instincts in the face of uncertainty. The Strugatskies centering their story around the plight of one man in a rural setting, Harrison expands the view to bring in several key characters, all in a ‘swinging spaceport’ motif he makes wholly his own. While the writing style may occasionally be a little flat, Harrison remains highly successful driving the character concerns, particularly their inherent humanity, making Nova Swing not imitation, rather a wonderful companion piece to Roadside Picnic.
I loved the metaphor represented by the people who emerged fresh into existence each night from the bathroom of the jazz club. Blinking, stumbling, and bumbling their way into life, some faded into bordellos for moments of pleasure while others attempt to hang around a while longer, trying to find permanence in life. The night club scene one almost entirely existent in the moment, these new people’s perplexity at the necessities and realities of life in the past and future is a superb realization of any lost generation’s problems, and indeed a fantastical symbol echoing Harrison’s seeming lack of faith in humanity.
Light was M. John Harrison’s take on space opera that simultaneously embraced and undercut the motif. Nova Swing is something different. Harrison not ostensibly trying to subvert any genre or sub-genre, what the reader encounters is a superb specimen of science fiction noir that tells an effectively unsettling tale of humanity attempting to come to terms with the unknown.
Now, if you didn’t listen to me at the beginning, do yourself a favor and go read John Clute’s review.