Review: Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison

NovaSwing

(Gollancz, 2007, ISBN: 0-575-07028-5)

(Review first published on the ASIM website, July 2007.)

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Vic Serotonin describes himself as ‘travel agent’, a tour guide into Saudade’s forbidden Event Site, a section of the city in which a mysterious cosmic calamity has unleashed the bad physics of the Kefahuchi Tract. Lens Aschemann is a Site Crime detective whose role is to ensure that Saudade’s less reputable citizens, Serotonin included, are prevented from bringing dangerous and nebulous alien artefacts out of the Site. These two protagonists orbit around each other like particle and antiparticle in a story that’s intriguing, memorable, and difficult to satisfactorily categorise.

M. John Harrison shares with Iain M. Banks Britishness, the initial M., and an extensive writing career that includes significant works in both the literary and speculative fiction spheres. However, while Banks’s Culture novels are often marvellously obsessed with gadgetry, Harrison’s work here shows a greater tendency towards the cyberpunk themes of wetware and genetic modification. If this is cyberpunk, however, it’s a variant that is filtered through the genres of classic American detective fiction, space opera, and modern European literary fiction.

Nova Swing is a companion volume to Harrison’s most recent previous novel, Light, but the current story stands perfectly well on its own. (In any event, I haven’t yet read Light, but Nova Swing is sufficiently intriguing that that’s likely to be rectified soon.)

Nova Swing is peopled with memorably flawed characters. Serotonin is presented as a drifter, a loner, a man incapable of understanding himself (let alone the shifting, unreliable urban landscape around him), but for all that he’s no fool. Aschemann, who chooses to look like the older Albert Einstein, is persistently haunted by the mysterious death, some years before, of his estranged wife. As the novel progresses, events are portrayed through their eyes, as well as through the eyes of Alice Nylon, an eight-year-old gun-toting security guard (and leader of an entire posse of gun-kiddies); Liv Hula, barkeep at a run-down bar near one of the entry points to the city’s event site; Paulie DeRaad, gangster and racketeer, suspected by Site Crime of involvement with a nightclub that appears reluctant to obey the law of mass conservation; and many others. Harrison does a masterful job of describing his characters deftly, succinctly, and without cliché: these are people with troubled pasts, each with his or her own agenda, and with competing, sometimes irreconcilable motivations. Furthermore, we learn about them incrementally, in short but highly descriptive phrases that Harrison weaves through the narrative very skilfully. There’s also much acerbic humour, as for example in Aschemann’s frustrated characterization of Paulie: “The problem with DeRaad will always be the same. He’s never quite intelligent enough for his own good, and never quite stupid enough for ours.”

The attention Harrison lavishes on character development is also focussed sharply on locale. Again, it’s a matter of brief descriptive flashes, but Saudade emerges as a vividly distinct and multifaceted future city. Like any sci-fi setting worth its salt, it would be fun to visit although you wouldn’t want to live there. The Otherness of the place is cleanly conveyed through Harrison’s hip-futurist argot, as much as through any conscious description: styles in vogue in Saudade include ‘that old New Nuevo Tango’, retro-radio, repro fashions, and a bewildering choice of genetic modifications, even off-the-rack wear-once bodies, if your tastes run to that, courtesy of the Uncle Zip franchise. Words such as ‘tailor’, ‘chopshop’, ‘cutter’, and ‘daughter’ take on new, often disturbing meanings in this environment, meanings that the reader quickly assimilates, though it took me until embarrassingly close to the end of the book before I realised that the ‘lights’ in phrases like ‘fifty lights down the beach’ were in fact light-years. This, I suspect, is where it would have been helpful to read the preceding book, Light, before taking on this one …

Do I have any qualms? There’s a multiple-way confrontation in the latter half of the book which, for me, didn’t work completely: it felt like a set-piece, installed to channel the narrative into the appropriate stream, rather than an organic extension of the preceding events. However, the tale both before and after this brief episode is something to savour, and many of Harrison’s turns of phrase are pure genius, whether the theme is interpersonal relationship (“Between them they summed up the sex industry and the fight industry. When Joe and Irene were together you couldn’t be sure which industry was which. They were a new form of entertainment in themselves.”) or locomotion (“… the car’s character changed. It became like a big, blunt animal, some species adapted neither for stealth nor pursuit but which, despite Darwinian constraints, had decided to learn them both.”). This is writing of a style and a standard unfortunately rare in speculative fiction.

If Nova Swing sounds like your kind of reading matter, then you can get it spliced into your current genetic matrix at the nearest Uncle Zip chopshop. Alternatively, it’s also available at discerning bookshops everywhere.

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(Reviewed by SImon Petrie, 2007)

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