Nova Swing

M. John Harrison
Nova Swing Cover

M. John Harrison - The Kefahuchi Tract Book Two: Nova Swing (2006)


"How do we know what we come back to is the same?"

'Nova Swing' is less a direct sequel to 'Light', the first book in the Kefahuchi Tract sequence, than a variation on a theme. Whereas that book played with golden age space opera tropes, 'Nova Swing' focuses down its attention on one work in particular: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's excellent 'Roadside Picnic', quoted in the preface. The Kefahuchi Tract, the negative space wedgie from the first book, is falling to earth, and sections of it have landed on the nearby planets. The areas where the Tract has touched down, event sites, are a dangerous no man's land where the normal laws of physics and causality don't apply, like the Zones from 'Roadside Picnic', and as in that book, the desperate and the foolhardy eke a living smuggling alien artifacts and flotsam and jetsam out of the event sites. 'Nova Swing' is a success because it isn't just an excuse to find new ways to play with the Strugatskys' intriguing set up; it's a deeply thoughtful work on personal change, the illusion of the continuity of consciousness, and the difficult necessity of moving on. If anything I enjoyed it even more than 'Light'.

In 'Nova Swing' a special branch of the police has been set up to deal with artifacts from the site imported into the city and the resulting havoc. With a new type of living artifact making its way into the city, they pretty much have their hands full. While this in itself is a compelling concept, what makes 'Nova Swing' so engaging is its focus on its characters, down and outs whose lives have settled into a rut despite living on the border of this great mess of unknowable constant change. It is this tension between the site and the stagnation of these characters that drives 'Nova Swing' and gives it its heart. So we have Vic Serotonin, a smuggler who earns his living bringing artifacts out of the site and selling them to gangsters and taking foolhardy tourists into the site, a man who is unable to make anything else out of his life because of his destructive fascination with the site. He is being pursued by Lens Aschemann, a brilliant Site Crime detective fashionably altered to look like Albert Einstein, who may or may not be the serial killer behind the one crime he couldn't solve that killed his wife, and who is also driven by an equally destructive infatuation with the site. Their game of cat and mouse drags in various other bystanders, such as Liv Hula, who's tired of tending the failing bar on Straint Street for all these years, Edith Bonaventure, ex-child star accordion player to the space ports and daughter to one of the pioneering explorers of the site, now dying of uncountable forms of alien cancers leaving Edith to look after him, and Antoyne, failed space jockey who once flew with Chinese Ed but hasn't done anything since then.

'Nova Swing' plays as much with the tropes of noir detective fiction as it does with those of SF. The new artifacts working their way into the city are taking the shape of human beings, to disappear in the nightclubs and back alleys where their inherent strangeness goes unmarked. These people appear out of nowhere, no past history to define them or trap them. Elizabeth Kielar, the femme fatale who hires Vic Serotonin to take her into the event site, is one of them. Harrison explores at great length what an alien perspective hers is, and really just how strange the femme fatale archetype is. Compared to the other characters, whose lives and perspectives are shaped by their pasts, Kielar's personality inhabits an uncanny valley where her collection of responses and ticks never quite coalesces into believable human responses, and she knows it. While she may be an archetype character dropped in the narrative to seduce Vic Serotonin for the purposes of the story, she has enough self awareness to be wracked with existential doubt for the obvious and intentional gap she makes in the logic of reality. Similarly, Lens Aschemann is a knowing and twisted take on the invincible detective trope. Like a space age Sherlock Holmes, Aschemann, with his intentionally bizarre appearance and eccentric mannerisms, nevertheless always solves the case so the police have learned to give him the resources and let him get on with it. He wryly dispenses worldly wisdom to his younger and frequently exasperated assistant. However, the more time we spend inside Aschemann, the more we realise he is at least as damaged and obsessive as Vic Serotonin, and in the end their shared unhealthy fascination with the event sites swallows them both. And in the end, for all his grand theorising, Aschemann's understanding of the events that unfold is as flawed and as limited as all the other characters; despite his brilliant powers of deduction he is still limited by his own human perspective with his own personal biases and blind spots.

Aschemann reflects at one point that he views all crimes as some form of crime against continuity. But what are the event sites themselves if a constant crime against continuity? To some extent most of the male characters in 'Nova Swing', with the notable exception of Antoyne, share this rigidity of thought, which shapes both their destructive fascination with the event sites and their inability to change and adapt. Emil Bonaventure, pioneer explorer of the sites dying of multiple forms of bizarre cancer, wonders in a lucid moment, "How do we know what we come back to is the same?" But this applies not just to the sites but to anything we go through in life. The experiences we go through change us, and there is never any guarantee that things will go back to normal when you come through the other side. There comes a time when the illusion of the continuity of our consciousness is revealed as just that: an illusion. We are not the same person that we were ten years ago, and we have to face this fact and move on or risk being buried in the past. The events in 'Nova Swing' in one way or another provide the impetus for Liv Hula, Edith Bonaventure and Antoyne to accept that one part of their lives has come to a close and gives them the courage to move on to the next stage. Liv Hula reflects, after selling her bar:

"When she went inside, ten years of her life tucked themselves away in an instant, like the theoretical dimensions of long-ago cosmology. This was how life went. A single moment seemed to extend forever, then suddenly you were snapped out of it. The forward motion of time stretched whatever rubbery glue-like substance had fixed you there until it failed catastrophically. You weren't the person you were before you got trapped; you weren't the person you were while you were trapped: the merciless thing about it, Liv discovered, was that you weren't someone entirely different either."

Moving on from the past is never easy, and you can never leave your past, or who you were, behind entirely, but it's a necessary part of being alive.