Nova Swing (2006) by M John Harrison

Don't miss out on the other works in the series:
Light (2002) Book Review
Empty Space (2012) Book Review 
Available works by M John Harrison


Set in the region of the Kefanuchi Tract decades after the events of Light (2002), Nova Swing is the second instalment in M. John Harrison’s Kefanuchi Tract Trilogy (2002-2012). It continues to interrogates a future 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. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award (2007) and the PKD Award (2008).

Since the events of Light (2002), the halo of the Kefanuchi Tract has fallen to earth on planets within the Tract’s rim. In the spaceport of Saudade City it is known as the ‘event zone’, a permeable space-time membrane that defies known laws of physics. The story weaves together three narrative treats. Event site tourist guide Vic Serotonin has sold an artefact from the event site to nightclub owner Paulie DeRaad (who starts to change when interacting with it), unaware that it contains infected code, thought to be incubating something. This attracts the attention of detective Lens Aschemann from the Saudade artefact police, specialising in illegal artefacts recovered from the event site. 

Just as the spacetime anomaly of the Kefanuchi Tract shaped and guided the characters in Light (2002), so the quantum mechanic weirdness of the event site in Nova Swing becomes a vehicle for the characters’ hopes and dreams, but as nothing is ever resolved, everyone is frozen in a suspended state of neither/nor. Cats proliferate in Nova Swing as they do in Light (2002): at dusk and dawn waves of black and white cats flood the interstices between the event zone and Saudade City. In physics, Schrödinger's cat is an allegory for entanglement and superposition, the idea that we can only describe reality in terms of probability waves. And like Schrodinger’s cat, each of the characters is caught in a state of superposition. Saudade is a waystation populated by denizens entirely distanced from their past lives, lives which they hope against hope they can somehow recover. While Aschemann, still suffering from the loss of his wife who died under mysterious circumstances, believes he can find her inside the event site, his assistant, a heavily augmented human, has lost all recollection of her past life, obsessively trying to figure out what her name was/is (of could be), finding solace only in a virtual reality tank as a 1950s housewife. Vic Serotonin has made it his mission to crack the event site, his life on hold until he does so, which of course never happens. Contrary to the posthuman aspirations in space operas such as Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997) and David Zindell’s Neverness Universe (1988-1998), people here never move beyond the all-too-human, they remain all too mundane.

The event site is also a symbol of uncertainty and the unfathomable alien. Those that enter the site return changed or contaminated. Some never return at all. Others merely want to have sex within sight of it. A week spent in parts of it and a whole year passes by in the outside world. What can be observed from the outside is rarely encountered inside. According to Aschemann’s theory, recent changes in the event site are part of the lifecycle of a new species of artefact. Weird, infantile, human-like creatures have emerged from the site, and he thinks they are there to start a conversation with humans but that humans simply do not understand them. While we can never be sure of anything when it comes to Harrison’s work, Aschemann’s theory runs parallel to the entity known as the Shrander from Light (2002), which also tried (and failed) to communicate with humans.

An amalgamation of detective and noir fiction, Nova Swing lets the action unfold in the neon-lit streets, bars and clubs of Saudade City. There is a real Cyberpunk feel to the cityscape: small shops selling everything from body modifications, to gene modification therapies, smart tattoos, mind and skills uploads. Courtesy of the Uncle Zip franchise, you can buy an off-the-rack disposable body. In Saudade City, you can look like anything, be anyone, acquire any skill. Like much Cyberpunk literature, nefarious corporations shape events from a distance: Earth Military Contracts (EMC), slips in and out of the narrative, but its objectives are never revealed.