Also in this series:
Empty Space is the third and final entry in M. John Harrison’s magisterial Kefahuchi Tract series. Loosely connected to the previous books, Empty Space follows three timelines which feature characters from both Light (2002), such as Anna Kearney, and Nova Swing (2006) like Fat Antoyne. Whereas the previous volumes could be read independently from one another, this one embraces both.
Harrison has a lot of fun here. In this crazy future, humanity will be the same tragicomical mess that it is today, with all the same typical people. If the book is about the future anyway. Harrison does not seem to take it seriously as a possible future. It is just an SF environment to play with, or to react against. He takes the hardest of hard far-out futuristic concepts to the point that even the future people don’t understand what is going on around them, something that usually inspires awe in very serious SF books, and Harrison plays with them in a story that frames the entire future and the human condition in a lovingly mocking way.
Empty Space has multiple meanings. The Kefahuchi Tract is the frontier of everything, beyond science as a source of understanding, beyond definitions of humanity. What is left to the inhabitants is a sort of clinging to the past. And how could you even be sure of your own identity in a world where, for example, psychic blowback from spaceship engines reinscribes the thoughts and feelings of people? Where escapes of code running on nanotech and human proteins leads to outbreaks of new behavior? Abandoned buildings, derelict space ports; there’s a heavy focus on economic decline in this book. It’s a pastiche of moods about identity and economic decline, and of the past protruding into the present, all naturally going hand in hand with a feeling of being lost. Anna Kearney is a very confused woman. Even her bathroom is a site of existential terror. One character is trying out names for herself to get a feel for them. Another character identifies as human but might as well be an emergent property of AIs run by a diner chain.
The book is a great addition to Light (2002) and I have to repeat here what I wrote about the characters back then: They are all searching for things, whether it is relief, or memories of forgotten pasts. They are hollow, they chase compulsions – most of all sexual – to fill up the emotional holes inside them. But that doesn’t mean that there is no love. Harrison’s prose makes it all very beautiful. 300 pages of Harrison filled to the brim with what the Portuguese call saudade and the Japanese call mono no aware. But the descriptions sometimes skirt the edge of comprehension. Harrison’s worlds are super detailed and precise, down to the textual level of pinpointing character and environment with exactly the right words, but sometimes it is hard to know if you should take things literally or figuratively. The world-building is more like a token and swirls around voids, in space but also emotionally, as part of Harrison’s own search for meaning. Sometimes I think that Harrison is unable to write SF or fantasy, even though he must love it. He makes genres look like lies, always bringing it back to a search for meaning that undermines genre tropes.
Empty Space is a kind of refracted echo of Light (2002) where the linkages between the two are tantalising but never entirely clear. The same goes for the linkages between the future and the present day timelines. The whole series swirls around a sense of dread and near-understanding, an unthought known, that is never made explicit. Plot summaries are of no help here. The 24th century is a future in love with the past, and the past of Anna and Michael Kearney has echoes of that future, as if strange mathematics took Anna and Michael’s present day world and neuroses and from it fractalled a future into existence. I am not necessarily saying that is what it is.
The entire narrative can be seen as akin to a science fiction writer conjuring a space opera world into being, created from his own interests and exhibiting the same neuroses, but the imaginary cannot escape the writer’s neuroses and finally the real and the imaginary collapse into each other. This is not a criticism but might be a cypher. Light (2002) detailed the moment of creation, the Kearney-Tate equations; Nova Swing (2006) acknowledged only its own universe, wallowed in it. Empty Space, well, read for yourself.
Even though the final chapters are absolutely mental, and that’s saying something for this series, the book wasn’t quite as compelling as the first two in the series. It lacked some freshness and spice. The story of Anna is a really good character study though and the future stuff was suitably weird. And let’s be honest, if you’ve read and liked the first books, this one is required reading.