Empty Space (2012) by M John Harrison

Don't miss out on the other works in the series:
Light (2002) Book Review
Nova Swing (2006) Book Review
Available works by M John Harrison


Set in the region of the Kefanuchi Tract decades after the events of Nova Swing (2006), Empty Space is the final instalment in M. John Harrison’s Kefanuchi Tract Trilogy (2002-2012). It continues interrogates a future (and present) where the weird conundrums of quantum mechanics such as superposition, entanglement and tunnelling bleed into the macroworld. Harrison builds a world where time, space, narrative and lives are suspended in different states of uncertainty, ultimately collapsing in on themselves.

In Empty Space, we are reminded that by the time humans arrive in the region of the Kefanuchi Tract, everything from AIs, to lobsters and lizard men have tried, yet ultimately failed to solve the problems humans are now grappling with. Since the tract fell to earth and artefacts that look human came stumbling out event sites, the Earth Military Contracts (EMC) has taken a keen interest. There is talk of a plague outbreak: leaked navigational nanoware, eleven-dimensional code running on protein substrates. Repeating the narrative structure of Light (2002), the story weaves together several narrative strains separated in time and space. In Saudade City, the crew of the spaceship Nova Swing – all featured in the prequel – have been hired to collect a series of cargo boxes known as mortsafes. The mortsafes which contain aliens, and which stem from Sandra Chen’s Circus (also from Nova Swing (2006)), cause a series of mysterious deaths: bodies floating in mid-air, gradually vanishing. The late Aschemann’s heavily augmented assistant – still without a name – is hired by the EMC to lead the investigation into the deaths. In near future England, Anna Waterman, widow of the late Michael Kearney, and still obsessing about him, is starting to experience weird things in her back yard, repeating the narrative dynamic of Michael Kearney’s encounter with the Shrander from Light (2002). These events are connected by an entity that declares: “My name is Pearlent and I come from the future.”

Nobody understands who Pearlent is or what she wants. Yet the mystery builds a bridge – literally a quantum tunnelling bridge if we are to insist on a hard sf premise for the work – between future and present. Late in the novel, the EMC is experimenting medically on the assistant in an alien, long since abandoned research station, which is home to an atemporal labyrinth that is somehow connected to the Tract. Already, a woman who calls herself Pearl has appeared in the containment area of the research station, appearing to be in a constant state of falling, drifting in and out of focus, half woman, half cat. When the assistant wakes up she jumps into Pearl, and they both disappear. Also late in the novel, Anna Waterman enters the summerhouse in her back garden – the focal point of her weird experiences – together with her cat and a hard drive belonging to the late Michael Kearney, only to fall out of her timeline, eventually merging with Pearl and the assistant. However, even before Anna disappears, she has had a dream where she is caught in a state of superposition between woman and cat (just like Pearl at the EMC research site). The suggestion of collapsed timelines beg the question of whether Anna was always pearl. And as both Anna and the assistant, who are now overlaying one another, aware of one another, report that they have been trying to interfere in their own pasts, warning their past selves, we are left with the temporal paradox of trying to make head or tail out of the causal connection between present and future.

The trilogy’s finale – everyone heading for the Tract in a repeat pattern of Light (2002) – is equally open-ended. Was humanity, similar to past civilisations, always destined for shipwreck in the Kefanuchi Tract? Is humanity merely an engineered pawn, part of an alien race’s attempt to understand the Tract, as suggested both in Light (2002) and by the alien mortsafes which not only guide events in Empty Space but also come together to form a new engine for the Nova Swing spaceship? The finale does come closer to solving the mystery of the Kefanuchi Tract though. The assistant describes her state in superposition as if her life lay open to her at all points and along all axes. Ed Chianese, now returned from the Tract and a k-ship captain, describes it as an eleven-dimensional-everything. The Kefanuchi Tract thus promises an unlocking of life into eleven dimensions, a String Theory construct.