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Empty Space by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 2012, 302 p. Reviewed for Interzone 243, Nov-Dec 2012.

Empty Space cover

Sub-titled on the cover and the main title page as “€œA Haunting,” Empty Space follows on and amplifies the universe Harrison constructed with his novel Light and continued in Nova Swing.

In early twenty first century London, Anna Waterman, obsessed by the memory of her first husband Mike Kearney, shuttles in an affectless way between her psychologist Helen Alpert, her daughter Marnie and other rather shiftless denizens of her world. Every so often on her night strolls she imagines her summerhouse is on fire.

In Saudade City, on the planet Saudade, overshadowed by the lurking strangeness of the astronomical anomaly called the Kefahuchi Tract, riddled by its impossible physics, Enka Mercury and Toni Reno are bizarrely murdered to the sound of a disembodied voice saying, “My name is Pearlant and I come from the future.” Their bodies hang suspended, rotating and slowly disappearing. An unnamed police assistant with data scrolling down her arm helps investigate the crimes.

R I Gaines is struggling to make sense of the mysterious apparition known as the Aleph, the figure of a woman contorted in an awkward way (and mysteriously accompanied by a cat) and who may bear some sort of relation to the Tract.

Meanwhile Fat Antoyne, who is no longer fat, and Liv Hula, undertake a commission from the elusive M P Renoko to transport odd containers called mortsafes in their spaceship “€œNova Swing.”€

Many of these characters are familiar from Light and Nova Swing but here Harrison extends and refines their relationships.

The Waterman sections of Empty Space, at least in the early stages, are related in what seems a straightforward mainstream prose and are at odds with the SF elements – which are as jargon-filled as any devotee could wish. But this highlights a problem.

The trouble with “€˜six impossible things before breakfast”€™ scenarios, with impossible physics, is that if nothing is explicable, if things just happen, then nothing means anything – or everything. When chains of causation are lost narrative becomes problematic and the trust between writer and reader can be undermined.

While considering the Aleph one of Harrison’€™s characters muses that the universe is “€œa useless analogy for an unrepresentative state.”€ This could, though, be a description of the novel Empty Space itself as Harrison is attempting a literary description of that unrepresentativeness, with all the cognitive dissonance that implies.

What redeems the book is Harrison’€™s prose; which sweeps grandly along, his descriptive powers manifest, the Waterman sections being the most flowing, apparently effortless.

Nevertheless; that Harrison in the end brings all the strands together – thus also resolving the whole of his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy – comes as something of a release – and relief. The connections between the various types of haunting are finally made; though they are more than a little strained. Maybe even impossible: for the strangenesses around Saudade and the wrongness of the Tract physics remain pretty much unresolved.

Still, Harrison devotees and those who loved Light and Nova Swing will find Empty Space a notable conclusion.

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