Nova Swing

M. John Harrison
Nova Swing Cover

Nova Swing: polemic world buidling



This was another successful Harrison for me - and like his latest The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, one that I will probably reread in the coming decade, just as I will reread Light. Now that I think of it, I guess I'll enjoy Light even more now that I have a better grip on what Harrison tries to do with his books. I might even read the last 50 pages again tonight - expect no update here however, it will be a private affair. Nova Swing is recommended, 4.5 stars - caveats below. I'll read the final Kefahuchi book, Empty Space, sooner than later.

To end this review, another lengthy quote, from R. Scott Bakker, who replied to the bit of Harrison I opened this review with, in a 2008 interview with Pat of Fantasy Hotlist:

"For Harrison, who is an avowed post-modernist, the reader should be continually confronted with the performative as opposed to the representational function of language. They should be reminded (apparently over and over and over) of the power of words to spin realities, to the point where the work becomes a multifarious, promiscuous, meaning event (albeit one that is too often generated by the most mechanical of po-mo tactics, elision). Forcing the reader to draw whole characters out of fragments, narrative arcs out of discordant events - to "fulfill their part of the bargain" - this is the true way to make the reader an active part of the process, and so a critically minded, enlightened citizen.

I don't know whether to laugh or yawn anymore. For better or worse, readers without literature degrees tend to hate this stuff. They like coherent characters and stories and settings. So when you start screwing with "representational expectations" (in other words, unilaterally rewriting the "bargain") by and large all you end up doing is preaching to the choir, writing for people with literature degrees, which is to say, for people who already share your values. In other words, you simply end up catering to their expectations. You become an "upscale" version of the very commercial entertainers you continually denigrate."

We're hardwired for this shit, which is why you see the same pattern repeating itself over and over in every sphere of cultural production. Every sphere has a self-styled elite who both identify and flatter themselves via their values, then criticize others for not sharing those values. "Our values are the values and you guys are losers because of this and this and this..."

This pattern bums me out because it swallows so much talent in our society and aims it inward. Harrison really is a prodigious talent, but he can't seem to see his way past this post-modern crap. This is another universal human pattern: whatever your yardstick happens to be, nothing else seems to measure up - it quickly becomes the yardstick.

Don't blame the cretinized masses for not reading your stuff. If you really are afraid, if you really are a writer with a social conscience, then go out and meet them. Write something that communicates to them, and not just to those who already share your values. Stop writing for "yourself," or for the "page," or for whatever clever euphemism you use to cover the fact that you're simply a producer of a kind of a high-end cultural commodity.

Until you do, you're just another entertainer. Which is okay, so long as you're not pretending otherwise. Say, "I write for people like me, and I'm not all that interested in making a social difference."

I guess Bakker is right too - although I'd hesitate to fully subscribe to the intentional tribunal of Harrison he paints at the end - I simply don't have enough grip on Harrison to judge either way. But the bulk of Bakker's argument stands - as I said, in the beginning: taste & polemics. It is clear later day Harrison will not appeal to everybody - although you do not need a literature degree at all, just an open mind and a palate that can handle the poetic, the uncertain and the undefined. Nova Swing is not the same postmodern affair Light was - and as such maybe the best entry level Harrison novel I've come across so far. That, or newbies could try one of his short story collections.

"The known is slicked on to everything like a kind of grease. You would do anything to avoid the things you already know."

Full review on Weighing A Pig Doesn't Fatten It: