He ate greedily but at the same time with a curious lack of interest, as if his body remembered food but he didn’t.
I think, if I came upon this sentence quoted at random somewhere, I would know who wrote it. There is something that makes it inescapably the work of M. John Harrison. I’m not entirely sure what, but it clearly lies in the conflation of close observation of social occasions, canny use of opposites (who else would notice someone eating greedily and with a lack of interest?), and above all that sense of contingency, as if everything is appearance rather than reality.
As if! As I read through Empty Space I find words like ‘perhaps’, ‘feel’, ‘sense’, ‘seemed’ clustering on every page: ‘he felt as if he was seeing in too many directions at once’; ‘if he was younger than he appeared, some odd things had happened to him’. Mike Harrison characters live in a world of appearance in which the real is hinted at but never fully accessible. (And why, trying to explain this, do I find my sentences starting to take on the character of something Mike might write? Is there no other way of expressing this sense of the numinous that lends a kind of intangible glamour to his best work?)
Actually, the more specific his work, the less it seems to be saying. As if the world can only be fully explored tangentially, looking at it head on you never find the skull beneath the skin. I enjoyed Light because it was a science fiction novel that could not be read as full blooded science fiction. There was always something contingent about it, the sf was in the eye of the beholder but wasn’t necessarily what we were meant to take from the novel. (Conversely, and there is always a ‘conversely’ when we come to talk about Harrison’s work, we were also meant to take from it the old fashioned science fictionality of its creation. We gorge greedily upon its space operatic overtones, but with a curious lack of interest.) I don’t think Light was his best novel (that honour, for me, still rests with The Course of the Heart), but it came close. I was less impressed with Nova Swing precisely because it offered us no way out of the science fictionality of its world, we had to take for granted the fact that this was a future. But Empty Space is, if anything, more contingent and even better than Light. Which means, perhaps, that Empty Space says more, less solidly, that Light. It is, after all, subtitled ‘A Haunting’, which suggests ghosts, revenants, some vague, unspecified and perhaps unreal interlinking between times. But where, in Light, we were given to suppose that the present imagined the future into being; in Empty Space the haunting comes from both the past and a yet further future, and casts itself backwards/forwards into both the other times of the novel: ‘My name is Pearlant, and I come from the future.’
Though, of course, we cannot assume that the future is any more real than the past: ‘The past wasn’t real but it was all she had.’
That, of course, is only the most blatant haunting in the book. There are characters who walk through walls, dead people who rise in the air and then fade away, buildings that burst into flames and do not burn, and, of course, there are the hauntings of memory. Just as the most interesting part of Light was that set here and now and concerning Michael Kearney, the serial killer who may have discovered/invented the Kefahuchi Tract, and whose black and white cats may well have transformed into Seria Mau and Ed Chianese; so the most interesting parts of Empty Space concern Kearney’s widow, Anna, in a time that is just a year or two ahead of now. Anna is now a widow for a second time; she has an uneasy relationship with her daughter, Marnie, who now mothers her own mother; and she is seeing a psychiatrist (though she is just as likely to skip her sessions). She spends her time wandering through the various leafy suburbs of south London, trespassing on private gardens, peering into empty houses. She is, in other words, sideways on to her world, not detached but not engaged, in a way that recalls but does not echo Michael Kearney’s relationship to the world. Is what follows something that actually happens, is it all some psychological projection from a damaged mind, or is it an actuality that is born within a damaged mind? It could be any or all of these, but it means that the way we read the future chapters has to be coloured by the way we read Anna’s chapters, and vice versa.
This near-now is a time of economic collapse, of run-down trains that run late, houses that are showing signs of wear and a vaguely expressed dis-ease with the government and society, while global warming has blown odd plants into Anna’s garden. But it is a sign of decay that is echoed in the future realms on the beach of the Kefahuchi Tract. This is typical of Harrison’s work, it was much the same in The Centauri Device; there is a sense that the future is past, and the rest is aftermath. The many worlds of the Kefahuchi Tract are places where it rains (where else do you experience rain in space opera?), where decaying bars linger beside disused spaceports. In some ways, this is the future we always used to imagine: at one point we see the ship ‘Nova Swing’ standing on its fins, like the cover of a 1950s sf magazine. But it is a future where the glamour has long since eroded away, and what is left is a dull, disillusioned ordinariness.
This is, in other words, the future that our dull, disillusioned now would create. Are we in the future at all? There are still bars and cafes and jukeboxes and middle management types and holidaymakers sitting on a beach and Cadillacs. The furniture of this future would not be out of place in our recent past; the affect of this future would not be out of place in our recent past. Yet at the same time this is a future of K-ships and dynaflow and all sorts of other cool paraphernalia. There is a disjunction between the alienness of the strange devices swept up by the Kefahuchi Tract and the ordinariness of daily life in the many worlds within sight of the Kefahuchi Tract; yet this disjunction is part of the trick Harrison is playing. It tells us at one and the same time that this is a future we can recognise, and that it is a future we should not believe in.
It is all part and parcel of the way he plays with opposites, puts together things that never quite make sense together, swoops in tone from the hieratic to the bathetic, as when he tells us:
the Beach was an interregnum, a holiday from common sense, an exuberant celebration of the very large and the very small, of the very old and the very new, of the vast, extraordinary, panoramic instant they congratulated themselves on living in: the instant in which everything that went before somehow met and became confected with everything yet to be. It was the point where the known met the unknowable, the mirror of desire.
It was, in short, a chance to make some money.
And actually, the more I re-read this passage, which comes pretty close to the mid-point of the book, the hinge about which it all turns, the more it seems to encapsulate everything about the novel in terms of content, style, manner. We soar between the panoramic and the mundane, between the grand scheme and the quotidian, everything becomes linked though it is not always clear how. Indeed, it is not always necessary to even ask how.
you have to understand that your perception is what’s fragmentary, not the space itself. At some level an organising principle exists, but you will never have any confirmation of it. It will always be unavailable to you.
You have to acknowledge that Harrison plays fair with us. This is a novel about empty space, but empty space is full.