M. John Harrison – Nova Swing (2006) Review

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Harrison does not write science fiction – he writes an abstraction of science fiction. Instead of meddling in genre fiction, he could be writing instead about a seedy café in the gritty harbors of London, set in the 1900s, about the odd customers and the human tragedy and comedy of life, but he dresses up his stories with science fictional analogues that almost feel like throwaway articles. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing. I’m loving it, but it is unusual. Instead of London, the seedy café is now situated on a planet named Saudade (which, being a Portuguese word for something similar to longing and melancholy, is another fat blink to the reader that he is not setting up a serious future world, but is chasing after themes and feelings). The great mysteries of life are now embodied in the Kefahuchi Tract, a physical anomaly in space, and the human tragedy and comedy of life are enacted by throwaway characters with names like Vic Serotonin, Liv Hula and Ed Chianese.

Harrison doesn’t want you to take his world-building seriously, because it isn’t important. Sure, he makes it internally consistent, but like in a comical noir mystery, what matters is the odd people, sharp narration and wry, clever dialogue. That’s the whole reason why he gives his characters funny names: don’t focus on the world-building, but have fun with it at the same time. SF tropes are for playing about with. Just try them on, slap silly names on things so that people have something to grin at, and then focus on what’s actually important: the humanity, the pathos, the late-life cynicism, the ambition and constant reinvention of the self in a confusing world.

But Harrison already covered that ground in the previous novel Light (2002), which incidentally covered a whole lot of ground. For a worthwhile return to that universe, Harrison took a page from the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic (1977) and the movie Stalker (1979) (There is a straight up homage to the opening scene of Stalker in one paragraph) and combined that with Casablanca and Blade Runner. A piece of the Kefahuchi Tract fell on the planet Saudade, and now strange things happen inside that zone. Things are coming out of it too. Vic Serotonin is a guide for hire, and a mysterious woman hires him to keep returning to the zone. He is tracked by detective Aschemann who is trying to figure out what is going on. It is smaller in scale than Light, which ranged all over the universe, and so less chaotic.

It being smaller in scale means that it is not the explosion of creativity that was Light, but that’s ok because now we spend more time at this particular place and these particular people. And these are all rather sad people. They either pine for a glorious past that is lost in time, like Edith who was a child star and Fat Antoyne who used to be a pilot, or they keep hoping for a glorious future that doesn’t seem to come, like Irene the Mona who keeps jumping from man to man. They are stuck in Saudade, both the place and the emotion.

It’s fascinating the way the “event site” of the K-Tract features into this. There are humans coming out of the site, like confused golems, as if the site generates people, and these then wander into the city and end up lost, but since everyone in this story is lost in some way, the boundary between real people and K-Tract people is smeared. Vic plays tourist guide to a confused woman without a past who keeps wanting to return to the event site, from which she probably originated in the first place. And Vic and the other explorers are shaped over time by the site themselves. Nova Swing feels therefore like an influential precursor of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014).

Nova Swing is a lesser novel than Light for the simple fact that it owes its existence to both its predecessor and to an older work of genius that is Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. The concept has been transplanted into Harrison’s universe. And for the simple fact that Light proved to be such a rich experience. Nova Swing lacks the invention and the comedy, although it does have its own noir tragicomedy. What Nova Swing offers by itself is a delightfully convoluted dance between a small group of characters whose paths weave and intertwine like a group tango.

And it is still bloody good when all is said and done. Often I had to put the novel down and stare out the window to wonder about some emotion Harrison described. I felt happy for the characters who dragged themselves out of their psychological chains and found new happiness, and I felt sad for those who chased dreams and ended up nowhere. The difference between these is hard to tell sometimes, and the happiness of one may be the result of the actions of an unhappy other. Most of all it is astonishing how Harrison can write a work so full of tragicomedy and loneliness with characters named Vic Serotonin. But, as I said, the world-building and names don’t matter. The human condition can be recognized immediately and everywhere.


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7 Responses to M. John Harrison – Nova Swing (2006) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Harrison censored censored ROAR and then censored censored ROAR ROAR ROAR!!!

    And I think that succinctly sums up my feelings on the issue 😉


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