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Empty Space: A Haunting by M. John Harrison

Empty Space: A Haunting (edition 2012)

by M. John Harrison

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134689,677 (3.64)9
Title:Empty Space: A Haunting
Authors:M. John Harrison
Info:Gollancz (2012), Hardback, 302 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, read

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Empty Space: A Haunting by M. John Harrison



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Empty Space is – after Light and Nova Swing – the third installment in M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. Nobody who has read the previous volumes (and I strongly recommend doing so before tackling this one) will expect any major reveals or a neat tying-up of loose threads from this, but even so, the lack of closure here is quite amazing, and I for one can not discern any reason why the author should not continue the series, should he feel so inclined.

Having said that, I should add, however, that Empty Space is tied more closely to both Light and Nova Swing than those two novels were amongst each other – the most recent (I do hesitate to say “final”) novel is populated by characters first encountered in the two earlier ones, and it makes use of the same three-threaded narrative as the first volume, again presenting the reader with one thread taking part in the twenty-first and two taking place in the twenty-fifth while retaining at least some of the noir atmosphere from the second. While the previous novel had a strong element of pastiche, this seems to have been curtailed in Empty Space – or rather (unless, of course, I simply missed something) this third novel does not so much mimic other Science Fiction authors, but appears to be a pastiche of the two previous novels – as if the third novel was haunted by the two earlier ones, or maybe in turn was haunting them. Given the way Harrison messes around with time it is hard, maybe impossible to tell which it is, but in either case I think Empty Space bears its subtitle “A Haunting” not only because of the various kinds of ghosts we encounter on the plot level but also for the way it picks up, repeats and distorts themes and motives from the earlier novels. And for the way it is haunted (or in turn haunts) the history of the Science Fiction genre – Harrison might have toned down the pastiche somewhat, but Empty Space is still filled with references and allusions to SF movies and literature; hardly a page went by where I did not stumble across something and it is likely I missed a lot, too.

The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy has always been about Science Fiction, about what it is, was, and could be, and Empty Space, possibly the saddest of three novels none of which is exactly cheerful, comes across (at least it did to me, but I’m certain it will mean different things to different readers) as an elegy on the genre – a story of failures, missed chances, outright betrayals, populated by spectres of lost hopes. At the same time, however, the novel is a wonderful example of what Science Fiction is still capable of.

I might be wrong (it has been quite some time since I read the earlier volumes) but I had the impression that in Empty Space there is given considerably more room to descriptions than in the previous novels, paragraphs upon paragraphs of dense, detailed descriptions piled on top of each other, demanding that the reader to remain tightly focused on the text or else become mired in impenetrability. But possibly the difference is not so much quantity but rather quality – M. John Harrison, who always was a writer with a keen ear for the English language, appears to have reached new heights of intensity here, and the writing in Empty Space seamlessly melds the precision of travel narratives with the semantically ambivalent imagery of poetry. This results in breathtaking, utterly gorgeous writing, but it also keeps the reader at a distance from things happening (or not happening) in the novel – this is not a novel for readers who want their fictional characters to be likeable and easy to relate to and identify with. This is clearly a narrative strategy – the characters themselves appear strangely distant from their own experiences, and even seem unable to identify with themselves, watching their own actions and even emotions as if from afar. There is a distinct chill pervading not just Empty Space but all of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, but contrary to what one might expect, it is not a chill that repels the reader but quite to the contrary is almost a beguilement, drawing readers into the novel.

And this, I think is M. John Harrison’s major achievement with Empty Space (and the whole of this trilogy, if trilogy it is) – the way he gradually transforms the novel into just one of the strange phenomena he describes inside it, something at the same time utterly alien and irresistibly intriguing, something that promises an epiphany, some revelation of meaning any second now, only to collapse into itself and remain incomprehensible. It has been several centuries since the discoveries of Copernicus revolutionised our view of the world; but while we may have accepted on an intellectual that the universe was not created for humanity, it remains very hard to realise this on an emotional level. I think one of the things Science Fiction is particularly suited for is to make us aware, make us really feel what it is like to live in a world that does not care about man, that is sublimely indifferent to his needs for warmth and meaning, and there are few – very few works of SF that transmit that feeling as intensely and viscerally as M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. It is an uncomfortable place to be in, and with a rather bleak outlook, but it is also an extremely fascinating one, and one that possesses its own, unique beauty.
2 vote Larou | Dec 8, 2014 |
"Deep in explicatory failure, he had no way of placing himself with regard to what he had witnessed" (230). In much of his work, but especially the three innovative space opera novels of the Kefahuchi Tract series, M. John Harrison is a literary artist who excels at representing incomprehension in its myriad shades and registers. In the third volume Empty Space: A Haunting he manages to knot together the coexistent but barely-touching narrative threads of the first two books by means of what had been key supporting characters, now made central.

As in the first book Light (but unlike the second Nova Swing), Empty Space alternates among multiple stories in the twenty-fifth century, and one in the twenty-first. The application of the "Tate-Kearney transformations" to create the possibility of interstellar travel, implied in the first book, continues to be dangled outside of the immediate accounts of this book, to the point where it seems that that story must be infinitely deferred. But there are revelations in this book, which takes the future outer-space polity into war, while advancing the mysteries of the "quarantine orbits" where metamorphosed victims of space-time anomalies and alien relics have been confined by political authorities.

The principal characters of Empty Space are more likable on the whole than those of the foregoing books, so that while the narrative context becomes harsher (with both 21st-century economic malaise and 25th-century war), Harrison seems to mellow somewhat with respect to the people whom he shows to the reader with such intimacy. On the poetic-symbolic level, he continues to orchestrate a set of motifs including dice, cats, dislocation, semiotic detachment, and the tropes of noir fiction. All this is seasoned with some truly sublime weirdness clustered around events and objects that elude explanation.

I'm a sucker for this stuff.
5 vote paradoxosalpha | Nov 16, 2014 |
The best way to understand this novel is to jump into your time machine and head back to the early 1960s and then skim through some of the 'New Wave' science fiction being written at the time. It eschewed any boundaries imposed by both science and writing style and explored whatever it wanted however it wanted. This novel's author was writing then and this book is heavily influenced by its 60s roots. Although being the third in a trilogy, (the earlier parts being Light and Nova Swing) do not expect any catch up notes nor even a conclusion to this novel,

The story goes like this this: Micheal Kearney was a quantum physicist who might have been responsible for the Kefachhchuchi Tract, a sort of a future pocket universe, as well as possibly being a serial killer..

In present day London, Anna, Michael Kearney's widow, has re-married and has a grown up daughter Anne. She is failing to deal with her demons. She is seeing a therapist and does all sorts of odd things in the part of present day London she lives in. Strange things have happened to her : her summerhouse caught fire, but the fire was static and unsmoking.

In the far future, Vic Serotonin's former bar friends have taken a job collecting artifacts aboard the ship "Nova Swing" they bought. The 'artifacts' seem to be coffins.They are also are trying to find out what is haunting their ship.

Meanwhile The Assistant has a case to solve, involving corpses slowly levitating towards the ceiling and a figure saying "My name is Pearlant and I come from the future."

This is just a taste of the future weirdness that drives this novel.While all this might seem too much work to read, the writing is absolutely brilliant through out. All those years spent writing mean that every page has some gorgeous, witty writing, Dull it is not...

Finally, instead of reading this novel. you might be better going into the far far future in your time machine until you find a reality which catches up with the novel... ( )
1 vote AlanPoulter | Jan 31, 2014 |
I was mostly confused as to what was going on, but that may be because I read it in bits and pieces instead of a long session. Anyway, I still enjoyed it. ( )
  SChant | Apr 26, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
M. John Harrisonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jensen, BruceCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Popovich, AmyDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wade, MarthaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"No point is more central than this, that empty space is not empty. It is the seat of the most violent physics."

--John A Wheeler
"Our instruments have limits. Since knowledge of physical reality depends on what we can measure, we will never know all there is to know...Much better to accept that our knowledge of physical reality is necessarily incomplete..." --Marcelo Gleister
"In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times." -- A E van Vogt
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0575096314, Paperback)

EMPTY SPACE is a space adventure. We begin with the following dream: An alien research tool the size of a brown dwarf star hangs in the middle of nowhere, as a result of an attempt to place it equidistant from everything else in every possible universe. Somewhere in the fractal labyrinth beneath its surface, a woman lies on an allotropic carbon deck, a white paste of nanomachines oozing from the corner of her mouth. She is neither conscious nor unconscious, dead nor alive. There is something wrong with her cheekbones. At first you think she is changing from one thing into another -- perhaps it's a cat, perhaps it's something that only looks like one -- then you see that she is actually trying to be both things at once. She is waiting for you, she has been waiting for you for perhaps 10,000 years. She comes from the past, she comes from the future. She is about to speak-- EMPTY SPACE is a sequel to LIGHT and NOVA SWING, three strands presented in alternating chapters which will work their way separately back to this image of frozen transformation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:01 -0400)

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In the near future, an elderly English widow is stirred from Centuries later, the space freighter Nova Swing takes on an illegal alien artifact as cargo, with consequences beyond reckoning.

(summary from another edition)

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