Jetsam on the Terminal Beach: M. John Harrison’s “Empty Space”

Science fiction is conjured out of the past, made anew, and torn apart.

May 21, 2013

    Empty space is kind. Everything’s negotiable out there.

    — Nova Swing

    M. JOHN HARRISON’S Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (Light, Nova Swing, and now Empty Space: A Haunting) is the most significant work of science fiction to have appeared so far this century. If Walter Benjamin is right that great writers either create a new form or destroy an old one, then M. John Harrison can be said to both create and destroy science fiction in this trilogy. And it is precisely that balance between creation and destruction that makes this such a major work.

    The balance takes on many different aspects and is to be found throughout the trilogy. At its most superficial, perhaps, it can be seen in Harrison’s use of genre tropes. The three books are filled with figures and devices that recall science fiction of old. There are space battles and cigar-shaped rocket ships that settle upon their fins, distant worlds and alien wonders. Yet the very science-fictionality of the work is constantly undermined or deconstructed. Distant worlds are revealed to be provincial or are marked by the grim, rain-lashed ruins of some already dying and heavily polluting industry. Spaceport bars, usually an embodiment of the exoticism of science fiction’s encounter with the alien, here become dispiriting places where old men huddle over desultory dice games. Hundreds of years in the future Detective Aschemann drives through the crowded streets of Saudade in a pink Cadillac convertible, while his assistant immerses herself in a virtual-reality tank to relive the bored, narrow, sexually-deprived life of a 1950s housewife. This is a future anchored in the past, a vision of far away that illuminates what was. And in this distortion of what the genre is most popularly assumed to do, this collapse of the SF future back into some dreary remembrance of the past, the trilogy makes us question the scope and range and possibilities of science fiction. And we are left to wonder whether we are actually reading science fiction after all.

    The balance is more subtly represented by the creation and destruction of characters, a recurring theme throughout the three books. Harrison makes it explicit that the science-fictionality of the novels is embodied within his key central characters, that they bring the future into being and sustain it. And yet these characters are constantly being torn apart and remade, so that the universe into which these works plunge us can never be more than contingent, hesitant, open to doubts and uncertainties.

    We begin, inevitably, with Michael Kearney, not because he is the key character in any of this — in many ways he is actually a peripheral figure — but because it is events around him that kick-start everything else. Kearney is a physicist working on quantum computing with his colleague Brian Tate, and we learn quite early in Light that it is the Tate-Kearney calculations that allow humankind to reach the Kefahuchi Tract. At least, that is what Light would lead us to believe; but early in Empty Space we are told, quite bluntly, that Kearney achieved little in his career, that the project with Tate was never completed, that Tate had a nervous breakdown at about the time Kearney committed suicide, that there were no Tate-Kearney calculations. Moreover, even as we first encounter that mysterious region of space known as the Kefahuchi Tract in Light, we discover that among its many peculiarities any form of physics will work here, even if they seem counter-intuitive, contradictory, or just plain weird. So the Tate-Kearney calculations are apparently rendered redundant even as we are first told of their necessity. But this example of the character being built and destroyed is only part of the story of Michael Kearney, because he is also a serial killer.

    The logical physicist, we discover, is also deeply and perversely illogical. He began building an elaborate system of psychic controls and rules for himself based on the Tarot while at university, but from that moved on to other things that have seriously damaged him. As with the unnamed narrator of Harrison’s 1991 novel The Course of the Heart (and we will see significant echoes of Harrison’s other work running like a thread throughout the trilogy), a youthful quest for meaning has turned into a lifelong flight from reality. In Kearney’s case, he believes himself pursued by the Shrander, a monster whose face is shaped like the skull of a horse (a figure that has appeared in other stories by Harrison), and which can only be distracted, deceived, or eluded by killing. Every time that Kearney feels the Shrander closing in on him, therefore, he must kill someone else. Curiously, although Kearney watches the television news obsessively, we never hear reports of any of these killings or get any sense that the police are hunting a murderer, and those crimes we witness are committed so much on the spur of the moment that there must be clues scattered all over the place. Nevertheless, they are clearly real to Kearney, so that his whole life becomes a confusion of mayhem and flight, often in the company of his former wife, Anne, who is herself damaged, and seems to spend much of her time waiting willingly for him to kill her.

    Of course, given the nature of the work, Kearney is not just running away from the Shrander, he is running towards it. The whole of Light is shaped towards Kearney’s eventual confrontation with the Shrander, a being very different from how his fears have shaped it. In one sense, this confrontation takes the form of his suicide on a beach near Boston; in another, it is his transformation out on the beach of the Kefahuchi Tract, a transformation that may actually be the creation of the Kefahuchi Tract and the realms we explore throughout the rest of this trilogy. In this, Kearney stands for the trilogy as a whole, for every major character will come in the end to their death or transformation, should there be any difference between the two. It is, indeed, possible to read the two far-future narrative strands in Light as being the creation of Kearney’s delusional mind. Though, in fact, the trigger that takes us out of the late-twentieth-century setting of Kearney’s story, 400 years into the future and countless light years across space, to the Kefahuchi Tract, is actually Brian Tate’s black-andwhite kittens.

    The cats are fascinated by the strange, hypnotic, fractal pattern that appears briefly on the screen of Tate’s experimental quantum computer. Indeed, they seem to pass straight through the screen and into the Kefahuchi Tract. Here, in the other two narrative strands of this first novel, we follow in one case Seria Mau, who is captain of the K-ship White Cat, and in the other her brother, Ed Chianese, whose totem animal is a black cat. Since the cats pass, symbolically, into the box of the computer, it is significant that their two far-future avatars are both literally boxed in. In order to become the captain of a K-ship, Seria Mau had her body broken, most of her insides removed, and what remains plugged directly in to the high-powered mathematics of her ship; she exists now inside a box of nutrients that she can never hope to leave. Ed Chianese, meanwhile, is a “twink,” addicted to virtual reality, and is first seen in a full-immersion tank, a box he would hope never to leave. Later, when he joins the Circus of Pathet Lao, he foretells the future by immersing his head in a tank of nutrients. The two figures through whom we engage with the vast openness of space and the future, the archetypal landscapes of science fiction, are thus physically constrained throughout most of the novel.

    The trilogy constantly echoes and plays upon themes from Harrison’s other fictions. As early as his first Viriconium novel, 1971’s The Pastel City, he was presenting abandoned technologies that cannot be understood in the present, an image that perfectly sums up the beach of the Kefahuchi Tract. In Empty Space he mentions, in passing, an article in a style magazine about a woman having her skin genetically modified to produce feathers, which is a central plot element of his novel Signs of Life (1996). But the trilogy also cannibalizes, deliberately and knowingly, other science fictions. Seria Mau’s situation clearly recalls Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang, the Circus of Pathet Lao is a nod towards Charles G. Finney’s classic novel The Circus of Dr Lao; in Nova Swing the explorations of the Event that are at the heart of the novel echo Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatski, while we also get a passing reference to a cruise ship visiting the planet of the Alphane Moons, which intentionally brings to mind Clans of the Alphane Moon by Philip K. Dick.

    From major plot elements to casual asides, in other words, Harrison makes overt the fact that this is a science fiction built of other science fictions; that he is using our knowledge of the genre to evoke our recognition of the milieu he presents. Then he distorts and subverts those science fictions. Where McCaffrey’s Helva, for instance, finds becoming the ship brain a liberating experience, an escape from the prospect of euthanasia as a result of her disabilities, and a chance to enjoy the freedoms of space, Seria Mau, in contrast, turns to space to escape being sexually abused by her father, and finds her new life both limiting and stunting. Sex is never an issue for Helva, while Seria Mau uses her ship’s facilities to spy on the sexual activities of her human passengers.

    The science fictionality of the building blocks that make up the Kefahuchi Tract signal that this is an imaginative construct, perhaps a construct, as I have proposed, conjured out of the fevered imagination of Michael Kearney. This sense, that the future presented here is both real and unreal at the same time, is further emphasised when Harrison (in Light) describes the Kefahuchi Tract as

     a singularity without an event horizon. A place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out, like cheap conjuror’s stuff, magic that might work or it might not, undependable stuff in a retro-shop window. You couldn’t make anything of an idea like that, but you couldn’t stop trying. You couldn’t stop trying to engage it.

    The contrast with the contemporary world of Kearney, a blighted life on the run from something that may be magical, is a future of cheap stuff and fake magic. Seria Mau and Ed Chianese, for instance, are no more in control of their lives than Kearney is. Seria Mau is hunting the shape-shifting figure of Uncle Zip, while being subtly maneuvred by him into entering the tract itself. Ed Chianese, once he has been forced to leave the relative safety of his virtual-reality tank, finds himself hunted across town by gangsters who want to kill him for no reason he can remember, until he finds himself taken up by another shape-shifter, Sandra Shen, who again maneuvres him into entering the tract. All of this is played out against a background that should be full of wonders. For the Kefahuchi Tract is the most mysterious place in the universe. Countless alien races have been drawn there, trying and failing to penetrate its mysteries, and leaving scattered along the trail of planets known as the Beach a host of abandoned technologies that are a source of wonder in their own right. As Harrison puts it in Empty Space:

    Every form of intelligent life that came here had taken one look and lost its nerve.… 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 is a place where we play with the shiny toys abandoned on the beach rather than entering into the heart of the mystery (a comment that could equally apply to science fiction itself), and this dispiriting sense is made more manifest in the second volume, Nova Swing.

    One of the puzzles we face in reading Light, and which is replicated in reading Empty Space, is whether we should be reading it as science fiction at all. Yes, two-thirds of the novel in each case takes place in what seems like an archetypally science-fictional setting, and Harrison is adept at using technical-sounding language that gives a neologistic buzz to his creation. Yet it is a future that seems to have been deliberately drained of the new, in which the yet-to-be has been infected with the what-was. It is easy, therefore, to see these parts of the novel as a distorting mirror held up to the confused dreams and desires of Michael Kearney. We have no such escape in Nova Swing. This is a novel set wholly, almost claustrophobically, upon the beach of the Kefahuchi Tract. We are seemingly, therefore, denied the option of reading the Kefahuchi Tract as a concretized metaphor for the workings of a deranged psychology.

    Except that the future of Nova Swing seems no more real, no more escapes the past, no more encourages our suspension of disbelief than does that of Light. It is the same future, or so we trust. Certain minor characters from the first novel move center stage, while central characters move back into the shadows. Liv Hula, who once flew with Ed Chianese, is now the owner of a bar called the Black Cat White Cat; while someone else hallucinates “a huge white bird flapping slowly and ecstatically through vacuum” and we recall that Seria Mau was translated into just such a creature at the end of Light. At the same time, the perspectives are wrong, some things are seen to be subtly different, enough to make us hesitate, if only for a moment, over such an identification. Sandra Shen, once the owner of Pathet Lao’s Circus, is here renowned as the “celebrated tableau artiste,” and Uncle Zip is here the name of a tailoring franchise where you can have your genes snipped and patched to make you into any fancied ideal. One of the minor characters in Light, Mona, was the result of such gene tailoring; by Nova Swing, the identical body type proliferates, and they are collectively known as Monas; by Empty Space they are even more common and have lost their capital letter: monas.

    This progression from the specific individual to the generic through the trilogy is illustrative of the way Harrison’s characters are constantly trying to become someone else, or at least to get away from who they are. There is a deliberate element of artifice about the characters in Nova Swing. “None of us is anyone anymore. We all lost who we are,” we are told at one point, and again, just a few pages later, “That year, and every year after, he was like a man reassembling himself — not as something new, but not entirely in his own image either.” This is a theme that runs through all of Harrison’s fiction — a sense that his characters don’t quite fit the world, indeed that they don’t belong in the world. This sense comes to the fore in the trilogy, where the overt artificiality of this science-fictional future serves to emphasise the inappropriateness of human individuality. This is made explicit in Empty Space: “Past every surface, he had taught her, at every level, things were so wrong and inhuman: get below any surface and instantly you saw how wrong things were for us.”

    Past the surface of Nova Swing, therefore, we still cannot be convinced of the rightness of a solid and consistently imagined future. Rather, we are looking at a construct. It may not be clear how or by whom this construct came to be, but the fictionality of the science fiction is persistently emphasised. This is a work about science fiction as much as it is a work of science fiction.

    So the world of Saudade that we inhabit within this story is the future as we used to imagine it, a world that is itself obsessed with the detail and the furnishings of the time that imagined it into being. Not that there isn’t novelty here: Harrison skilfully juggles familiar genre elements to come up with something that feels fresh and innovative, that takes science fiction in a new direction. But underneath this novelty, the affect, the scenery, the costumes, the references all belong in the latter half of the twentieth century. The neon-lit clubs and bars of Saudade resemble Soho in its heyday, patrolled by Monas gene-tailored to look like Marilyn Monroe and dressed like a streetwalker of the 1970s. A portion of the Kefahuchi Tract has come to earth in Saudade, cutting off part of the city and bringing with it strange effects, yet for the vast majority of the inhabitants of these rain-washed streets, this most science-fictional of events has no real meaning.

    Only an underclass of misfits and petty criminals have any interest in the Event, as it is known. Chief among these is Vic Serotonin, who describes himself as a travel agent and who takes curious tourists into the fringes of the Event while smuggling out artefacts whose purpose is unknown. Ranged against him is that branch of the police known as site crime, whose job it is to prevent the infection of the real world by digital viruses coming from the Event. Remembering how we first entered the future of the Kefahuchi Tract by way of Brian Tate’s two kittens crossing through into a computer simulation, it is tempting to think of this infection from the Kefahuchi Event in terms of a computer virus.

    Meanwhile the leader of site crime, Detective Aschemann, who has himself been gene-tailored to look like Albert Einstein, has become fascinated by “a kind of discontinuity of things at the Café Surf.” Here he has noticed “shocked-looking men, white-faced, tall, wearing raincoats; thin shaven-headed boys like camp inmates; women with an eye pulled down at the corner: poor, shabby people, people crippled in small and grotesque ways” emerging from the lavatory, though there is no guarantee that they ever went into the lavatory. There is an echo here of the story that capped Harrison’s Viriconium sequence, “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,” in which the narrator happens upon a way from our world to Viriconium through the mirror of the gents’ toilet in a café in Huddersfield, only to find that Viriconium is as mundane and unwelcoming as our world. The poor, shabby people that Aschemann witnesses seem to be the other end of the young man’s journey, arriving blinking and uncertain from somewhere within the Event. But they are no more at home here than the young man is in Viriconium. Mostly they seem to fade away after a very short time, the more robust of them establish some sort of tenuous existence in Saudade, while some seem to seek a way of returning to the Event. There is a suggestion, never explicit, that Vic Serotonin’s latest client may be just such a returnee, though the fact that she runs away the moment they cross the event horizon suggests that, like so many of Harrison’s characters, she is not really at home there either.

    None of the three books that make up the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy could be described as plot heavy. Stories run through them, though they tend to proceed by allusion and indirection, and are often unresolved. For instance, the death (murder? suicide?) of Aschemann’s wife is central to his character, but we never find out exactly what did happen. And even when we are fairly sure of events, a later volume might cast a different light on things. You always need to read Harrison’s work with close attention, and re-readings are still liable to open up different interpretations. But one thing that always comes across is the fragility, the instability, of his worlds. In Light he describes it thus:

    A long curved wave of bleakness raced towards Ed Chianese’s shore: the Alcubiere break, which is the black surf gravity; which is the coiled swell of empty space that sucks into itself one significant event of your life after another, and if you don’t move on you’re left there gazing out across nothing at nothing much again.

    Harrison’s characters are always gazing out at nothing, unable to engage with the world, because there is nothing underlying the world with which to engage, and consequently they are filled with an abiding sense of regret. This becomes more explicit than ever in Empty Space: A Haunting.

     As in Light, this final novel in the sequence breaks out of the hermetic science-fictional world of the Kefahuchi Tract. In many ways, this novel follows the same trajectory as the first book in the trilogy. We follow three narrative strands, one pretty close to the here and now, and two out in the Kefahuchi Tract. The three strands gradually intertwine until they all come together in a deliberate blurring of character; but where I would interpret the climax of Light as bringing the future of the Kefahuchi Tract into being, while in Empty Space I think the climax destroys that future.

    The two future strands of Empty Space form a direct sequel to Nova Swing. At the end of the second novel, Liv Hula sold her bar and bought a third share of a rocketship, along with two of her customers, Fat Antoyne and his girlfriend, Irene. Now the three of them are running a small-scale freight service when they are hired by a mysterious client to transport a number of mortsafes. These are strange, coffin-like objects of alien origin that are scattered about the Kefahuchi Beach, and as they criss-cross from one run-down, out of the way planet to another to collect their cargo, they encounter death, abandonment, and sounds of war.

    Meanwhile, when Aschemann disappeared into the Kefahuchi event at the end of Nova Swing, he left his nameless assistant in ambiguous charge of the site crime office. The assistant has been transformed by gene tailoring in ways that no-one, she least of all, can understand, though it certainly includes advanced military capabilities. But this creation of her is incomplete: she hasn’t been given a name, and so tries at various points to imagine a name for herself, always without success. Unsure of her own identity and mistrusted by her colleagues, she finds herself having to investigate mysterious deaths around Saudade. People are being killed in sudden, shocking ways, then their corpses are floating unaided into the air and slowly, over a matter of weeks, fading away. What is particularly unsettling for the assistant is that a record of one of the murders seems to show her as the killer.

    If the assistant is a person without a name, there is also a name without a person. A strange female voice is heard at odd moments saying, plaintively, pleadingly, “My name is Pearlant and I come from the future.” No-one knows who or what Pearlant might be, but she could be connected to a curious phenomenon being investigated in a secret military research establishment. Explorers, who made their way to the heart of one of the deadliest and most mysterious objects abandoned on the beach of the Kefahuchi Tract, have found a strange device, which at first they imagine to be some sort of ultimate weapon that will give them the upper hand in the approaching war. But now that discovery is manifesting itself as a white-clad woman forever in the process of falling, though at times she seems to be a cat rather than a woman. What’s more, she seems to be asking for the assistant, which is why the assistant now finds herself being pursued by a government agent.

    The counterpoint to this, the story of Anne Waterman, is a direct sequel to Light. Michael Kearney’s story was set in the late-1990s, shortly before the book was published; Anne Waterman’s story is set a decade or so in our future. It is a world that is recognizable to us, though signs of decay and economic collapse are even more prevalent than they are today. Anne was Kearney’s widow; she married again and was widowed again, and now lives alone on the outskirts of London, mothered by her grown-up daughter and avoiding her regular visits to see a psychiatrist. We saw, in Light, that Anne was nearly as disturbed as Kearney, and there is no reason to suppose that she is any better now; certainly the need to see a psychiatrist suggests that she stands at a slight tangent to the world. The strange things that begin to happen to her, therefore, may be outside in the world or inside her head, and we cannot tell the difference. As Anne sees it, however, her garden keeps being filled with alien plants, and her garden shed regularly bursts into flame but does not burn. Are these events any more or less real than the brief sexual fling she has with a disaffected youth she meets at a local pub, or the curious synchronized masturbation she watches through the window of a near-derelict house? The air of exasperation given off by her daughter Marnie suggests that her view of the world is not shared — though by the end of the novel, the psychiatrist, Dr. Alpert, does seem to be coming round to Anna’s view.

    One practical consequence of these eruptions of strangeness into the world is that Anne rediscovers a computer drive given to her by Kearney. Since we know, in Dr. Alpert’s coldly factual summation of the case, that none of Kearney’s work reached completion, we sense that this computer drive could be the missing link. If Anna can relocate Brian Tate and pass the drive to him, then the Tate-Kearney calculations might reach fruition and the Kefahuchi Tract come into being. But the fact that she never makes that final connection is only one of several ways in which Harrison destroys his science fiction. In Nova Swing one of the signs that the Kefahuchi Event is opening up is that the street outside Liv Hula’s bar becomes filled with black and white cats, so when a host of black and white cats appear from nowhere in Anna’s garden we know that the Event is closing.

    When a voice from nowhere announces, “My name is Pearlant and I come from the future,” this must be the future looking back, and hence the focus of attention is upon the past. Anne Waterman dwells upon the past in her run-down future; the citizens of Saudade recreate the past in their own run-down future. The futures we imagine, the futures we call into being, are all based upon the past, and as such they are quotidian, vulnerable. Ed Chianese reappears to lead a fleet of small ships into the mystery of the Kefahuchi Tract; Seria Mau, transformed into something resembling an angel, reappears as a harbinger of the end times. Vic Serotonin and Detective Aschemann have both disappeared into the event. Michael Kearney and Anne Waterman both fall into the future, and the assistant is absorbed into the being she finds at the heart of the labyrinth. The whole trilogy is about transformation in one form or another, and the instrument of transformation is the imagination. Science fiction is conjured out of the past, made anew, and torn apart so that something fresh might be formed from its atoms. As he did in his earlier deconstruction of the space opera, The Centauri Device, M. John Harrison offers a future we recognize, and that we should not believe. Because the future is not a real place but a concoction of our stories and dreams, and these, in their turn, are the product of our own derangements.

    In the three novels that make up the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, M. John Harrison has produced work that makes us excited about the limitless possibilities of science fiction, and at the same time makes us stop and wonder what science fiction is. The cycle of creation and destruction of the genre that runs through the entire trilogy reinvigorates the tiredness of old forms that the genre has hugged to itself for too long, and in the process allows science fiction to open out in strange and unexpected ways. Nothing else in science fiction has come close to matching it.



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