M. John Harrison: Empty Space

Empty Space is – after Light and Nova Swing – the third installment in M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. Nobody who has read the previous volumes (and I strongly recommend doing so before tackling this one) will expect any major reveals or a neat tying-up of loose threads from this, but even so, the lack of closure here is quite amazing, and I for one can not discern any reason why the author should not continue the series, should he feel so inclined.

Having said that, I should add, however, that Empty Space is tied more closely to both Light and Nova Swing than those two novels were amongst each other – the most recent (I do hesitate to say “final”) novel is populated by characters first encountered in the two earlier ones, and it makes use of the same three-threaded narrative as the first volume, again presenting the reader with one thread taking part in the twenty-first and two taking place in the twenty-fifth while retaining at least some of the noir atmosphere from the second. While the previous novel had a strong element of pastiche, this seems to have been curtailed in Empty Space – or rather (unless, of course, I simply missed something) this third novel does not so much mimic other Science Fiction authors, but appears to be a pastiche of the two previous novels – as if the third novel was haunted by the two earlier ones, or maybe in turn was haunting them. Given the way Harrison messes around with time it is hard, maybe impossible to tell which it is, but in either case I think Empty Space bears its subtitle “A Haunting” not only because of the various kinds of ghosts we encounter on the plot level but also for the way it picks up, repeats and distorts themes and motives from the earlier novels. And for the way it is haunted (or in turn haunts) the history of the Science Fiction genre – Harrison might have toned down the pastiche somewhat, but Empty Space is still filled with references and allusions to SF movies and literature; hardly a page went by where I did not stumble across something and it is likely I missed a lot, too.

The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy has always been about Science Fiction, about what it is, was, and could be, and Empty Space, possibly the saddest of three novels none of which is exactly cheerful, comes across (at least it did to me, but I’m certain it will mean different things to different readers) as an elegy on the genre – a story of failures, missed chances, outright betrayals, populated by spectres of lost hopes. At the same time, however, the novel is a wonderful example of what Science Fiction is still capable of.

I might be wrong (it has been quite some time since I read the earlier volumes) but I had the impression that in Empty Space there is given considerably more room to descriptions than in the previous novels, paragraphs upon paragraphs of dense, detailed descriptions piled on top of each other, demanding that the reader to remain tightly focused on the text or else become mired in impenetrability. But possibly the difference is not so much quantity but rather quality – M. John Harrison, who always was a writer with a keen ear for the English language, appears to have reached new heights of intensity here, and the writing in Empty Space seamlessly melds the precision of travel narratives with the semantically ambivalent imagery of poetry. This results in breathtaking, utterly gorgeous writing, but it also keeps the reader at a distance from things happening (or not happening) in the novel – this is not a novel for readers who want their fictional characters to be likeable and easy to relate to and identify with. This is clearly a narrative strategy – the characters themselves appear strangely distant from their own experiences, and even seem unable to identify with themselves, watching their own actions and even emotions as if from afar. There is a distinct chill pervading not just Empty Space but all of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, but contrary to what one might expect, it is not a chill that repels the reader but quite to the contrary is almost a beguilement, drawing readers into the novel.

And this, I think is M. John Harrison’s major achievement with Empty Space (and the whole of this trilogy, if trilogy it is) – the way he gradually transforms the novel into just one of the strange phenomena he describes inside it, something at the same time utterly alien and irresistibly intriguing, something that promises an epiphany, some revelation of meaning any second now, only to collapse into itself and remain incomprehensible. It has been several centuries since the discoveries of Copernicus revolutionised our view of the world; but while we may have accepted on an intellectual that the universe was not created for humanity, it remains very hard to realise this on an emotional level. I think one of the things Science Fiction is particularly suited for is to make us aware, make us really feel what it is like to live in a world that does not care about man, that is sublimely indifferent to his needs for warmth and meaning, and there are few – very few works of SF that transmit that feeling as intensely and viscerally as M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. It is an uncomfortable place to be in, and with a rather bleak outlook, but it is also an extremely fascinating one, and one that possesses its own, unique beauty.

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