October 31st, 2012
Note 4 – Empty Space: A Haunting
It’s important to read new M. John Harrison novels while on holiday. No other author is able to describe with such alarming clarity the necessity of escaping yourself.
Harrison’s latest novel Empty Space is the conclusion of a trilogy of science fiction novels that started with Light in 2002 and was continued in 2006′s Nova Swing.
Like both of its predecessors, Empty Space presents the reader with a future that dazzles with the romance of a thousand yesterdays: women who’ve chosen to be rebuilt with the “Mona” package, but who base their look on that of Marilyn Monroe; virtual fantasy lives that play out like an episode of Mad Men drained of all sex and drama (until, of course, that sex and drama forces its way on in there); covert action groups who, with their lattes and general sense of boyish intrigue, can’t help but remind you of the sort of spooks you’ve never quite managed to catch out of the corner of your eye; Harrison manages to make all of these fantasies gleam briefly in the pages of this book.
This is an exhausted vision of the future, but it’s still a vision of the future for all that, one that sees past the ever-present apocollapse and on to a possible reality that’s like right now stretched out some more. Whether that seems like a hopeful vision or a dystopian nightmare is very much up to you.
On the fifth day the tourists raised their shutters and looked out on the world around them, beyond the space that they had made form themselves.
Outside of their comfortable prison the fog was still as inescapable as it was intangible, covering everything while always remaining just outside of reach.
It’s important to read new M. John Harrison novels while on holiday. No other author is able to reinforce with crushing inevitability the impossibility of escaping yourself.
In Light this was conveyed by the fantastic damage the book’s protagonists left in their wake, regardless of whether they were pre-Millennial scientists or impossible rocket jockeys – in trying to run from what they’d been and done, all three of that book’s main characters flirted with becoming an agent of entropy, leaving a trail of dead bodies and ruined live behind them as they tried far too fucking hard to outrun themselves. Nova Swing built this grim fatigue into its texture, replacing the narrative breaks and time jumps of Light with a rundown detective story, a series of clichés pushed past the point of collapse, Seaguy as quantum noir.
Imagine, if you can, the lay of the land: unbearably tired of the thin skin of your flesh and your imagination, you blast off to the furthest edges of possibility, and what do you find? Nothing but a funhouse mirror reflecting your own potentialities back at you.
After four hours of wandering, the tourists were still on their own. They heard strange whispers in the mist, snippets of inane chatter, some of it enticing, other bits vaguely insulting, all of it disappointingly familiar.
Every word they overheard was spoken in their native tongue, every glimpse of life they caught through the mist reminded them of something else – from movies, if not from life.
Despite being set in the same “universe” and being united by the presence of the Kafahuchi Tract – an expanse of raw, disturbing possibility that remains untamed at the end of the series, no matter how many attempts are made to investigate, understand, enjoy, police and profit from it – Light and Nova Swing felt like two distinct novels, with their own characters, rules, and conclusions.
It’s strange, then, to find yourself reading Empty Space and realising that these two narratives can be made to link up in a non-cursory manner, that the near-future shock of the widow of Michael Kearney can co-exist with the listless, out there adventures of Fat Antoyne, Liv Hula, Irene the Mona and the more driven motions of Aschemann’s terrifying and nameless Assistant.
For readers who have been following Harrison’s trilogy as it has developed, this unexpected familiarity – the starts of the previous two books was like a blast of ice cold air, too sharp and unforgiving to ever be taken for granted – will provide a sort of comfort that only makes the latter machinations cut more deeply when the narrative kicks into ninth gear.
At three o’clock the tourists found an obscure corner of the beach that was dotted with cigarette butts and broken boats, evidence of a series of accidental origins converging on the moment, and of a separation between here and there, now and then.
Looking out into the unceasing and indistinguishable grayness of sea and sky, few of them were certain that they would ever feel so certain about their trajectory again.
Empty Space’s subtitle (“A Haunting”) starts to make more sense as its plots converge, bringing with them an explanation for the murder mystery that chains together two of the novel’s disparate fragments, and the revelation of the speaker behind the eerily repeated phrase that pushes the Assistant onward in her investigation – “My name is Pearlant and I come from the future”.
The late stages of the narrative follow a pair of graveyard ghosts, drifting through their own lives like worried fire, unable to do anything but compound errors that have already been made. This stretch of the book is as emotionally terrifying as it is intellectual satisfying – floating back through the plot of the novel, the reader is given time to admire the cleverness of its design, but they won’t find the space to allow themselves to escape the fact that the design is built to cut.
This aspect of Empty Space can’t help but recall this year’s other unlikely trequel, Alan Garner‘s Boneland. Like Garner’s novel, Empty Space feels as though it shouldn’t have been written – the stories that preceded these new fictions seemed sealed off, as though they should be somehow impervious to further exploration. And just as the events of the earlier installments in the Weirdstone trilogy haunt Boneland as unshakeable improbabilities, so the events of Harrison’s earlier novels spook the characters in Empty Space with their cuntish irreversibility.
Two towns over, the tourists still found themselves unable to make contact with others. They explored the oldest parts of [REDACTED] and found there a black mirror reflection of their starting point.
The tangle of streets retold the story of the conflict between [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], the clash of physical bodies reduced to a clash of aesthetics, of tourisms, and all of it in service of a tired old tale that the tabloids back home were trying to talk up today.
At the very end of the novel, Harrison allows himself a moment or two to make sure that the mirroring of our current social, political and cultural moment is noticed and understood.
This isn’t an example of an author trying too hard to get the point across so much as it is an acknowledgement of the fact that Empty Space is so reflective that the reader might be tempted to obsess over their own face in its surface at the expense of the bigger picture.
Empty Space provides almost no flattery for reader, suggesting instead that, like us, our culture is not overly inclined to learn from its mistakes. Just remember, because you heard it here first – “none of us will ever pay off the combined debts of our history.”
Still, there’s something jarring in the novel’s depiction of the few survivors of Harrison’s machinations, all of them stumbling on past the end of the story and back out through the wasteland, still fucking and fighting amongst themselves, still looking to the future in the hope that they might end up living something that could be mistaken for a life.
One by one the tourists realised that they had lost each other in the mist, so that when the sun finally burned its way through the confusion, each of the visitors found themselves alone in the unshackled daylight.
It seemed that even the sand in their pockets had evaporated, and when they tried to look beyond themselves the tourists found that the world glimmered so intensely now that they could see their own freshly-scorched faces in everything; there was no longer any empty space in front of them, and without that, no possibility of escape.
Other posts in the Notes From the Borderland series: