Monday, May 16, 2016

Review of Empty Space by M. John Harrison

William Gibson’s three trilogies to date are relatively unique in the sense they do not follow a linear path of story. More like histograms whose significance is best understood by drawing lines that best fit the scatter of points, the books make for engaging reading experiences, not only at the surface level, but likewise in terms of rooting out the common themes and ideas—drawing the lines, as it were. With the publishing of M. John Harrison’s Empty Space: A Haunting (2012), third in his Kefahuchi Tract series, it’s apparent Harrison appreciated Gibson’s MO. Simultaneously a confluence and expansion of the two prior novels Light and Nova Swing, the points come more densely packed—the lines more obvious—as Harrison concludes the 21st century’s finest science fiction series in subtly stunning fashion.

Something of a possible paradox, Empty Space confirms the Kefahuchi series as a concurrent construction and deconstruction of science fiction. Like his earlier Viriconium novels and stories, Harrison revels in the idea of genre while proving art and humanity can coexist with space ships and aliens in fiction, the whole not mutually exclusive. Empty Space, like the previous novels, is a mix of things recognizably “science fiction” and elements true to reality, artistically and existentially. The fact the ending is more open-ended plot-wise yet is conclusive thematically, confirms this. But I get ahead of myself. 

In Empty Space, Anna, Michael Kearney’s wife/victim from Light, returns. Though now older and more domestic, the demons still haunt. A touch psychotic in old age, her life in London as she visits the psychologist, meets a younger man, tussles with her bathroom’s interior design, and spends time with her daughter Marnie, walks the tightrope of sanity. Returning to the Saudade of Nova Swing, a portion of the novel concerns mysterious pieces of Kefahuchi tech found floating in the shipyards, and the bizarre deaths that follow in their wake. Liz Hula, now captain of the k-ship Nova Swing, finds herself with one of the objects in her hold; further bizarreness follows as additional characters from Light work their way in to the storyline. The third main thread (roughly) follows Achemann’s unnamed assistant from Nova Swing, and the challenges she faces trying to “be normal” in a scene made anything but by the fallout of the Kefahuchi Zone.

If NovaSwing is viewed as the companion piece to Light rather than sequel, than Empty Space is the area (certainly not point) at which both converge. An effective mix of the reality/space opera-ness of Light and space port noir of Nova Swing, Empty Space synergizes the mood, characters, and settings of both novels to deliver final statements on the significance of the Kefahuchi Tract. The plural form of ‘statement’ is necessary as there are several layers to the novel. From surface to interior, presentation to meta, personal stories to cultural commentary, psychological examinations (or at least manifestations) to plot and circumstance, Harrison has woven a fabric of many complementary colors and materials that is engaging at nearly all levels literature can be. (See here for by Paul Kincaid’s analysis of the novel and series on the LA Review of Books—the best I’ve read of the Kefahuchi novels.)

But there remains a part of me that wants to view the Kefahuchi novels as a chain rather than convergence. Befitting Harrison’s historically bleak outlook, Light is the optimistic opening, Nova Swing the hinge, and Empty Space, fittingly, the dark, open expanse in which the reader is left pondering at the end. Both the linear and converged views possible, it’s proof of the strength of the foundation on which the novel, and series, is built. Now I await the Kefahuchi equivalent of Viriconium Nights—a post-series collection of short stories that flavor and synergize the preceding novels. One can hope…

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