By John Clute
30 July 2012
It has been a long week for zoologicals. Having properly groomed each other, we leave our London flat, mosey into the street past sumptuous sigils showing us how to behave Olympic, but no missiles. We begin domain-traversal-2012 by entering the London Transportation Net which shuttles us to an egress opportunity at the new London Blackfriars station athwart the Thames. We contemplate obeyingly the high-husbandry signage tattooed into the walls, which tells us where to go proudly. We descend a multiplex array of stairs smiling for the CCTV like kine, and are exuded without incident into the naked sun, a few hundred yards upriver from the Tate Modern. We wind unshepherded across this fringe uncontracted bit of world until we reach the great Tate Wall; we walk downwards on an extended ramp into the great atrium, turn right into the brand-new Tate Tanks. We find the signage pointing us to Temper Clay, a commission enacted by Sung Hwan Kim, an interdisciplinary walk-in installation consummately and craftily laid out in two adjacent dark chambers. Within the larger of these chambers can be found a visually co-ordinated array of videos, four of them, each intermittently jetlagged into backdrop roles as the silhouettes of walking viewers lay on new narratives. Music can be heard. Choreographies salaam the corner of the eye, but cannot be fixed. Kine-friendly hints of labyrinthine overlays and Undergrounds are profuse. A window connects the two adjacent chambers. When we look through the window from the smaller chamber into the larger, we understand that the larger chamber is now under observation, we are ready to obey any instruction. We are ready for anyone to fuck in our sight. We will push any button we are told to. The other room is spreadeagled before us, we are kings and queens of the future or the past, as though we had suddenly inherited gratis the ontology of things. But we know that is nonsense, and we know Sung Hwan Kim knows. We know we are just taking turns. We know it is a zoo in there.
So it is not much of a wrench, though it does intensify the experience, to return to the first book on review, Adam Roberts's Jack Glass: A Golden Age Story, which I had been reading on the Underground, and now open again. The setting is our own solar system, enough centuries hence so that anything goes. Trillions of us "Polloi" fill the empty spaces, occupying millions of vast orbital habitats known as Bubbles, as well as smaller slummier habitats casually adrift, and asteroids, and the planets. But Earth is mostly for the privileged; we do not visit it at first, as the first of Jack Glass's murder episodes takes place elsewhere, in a prison asteroid much further out. We are told in advance, in a prologue narrated by a yet unnamed "doctorwatson," that Jack Glass has committed each murder described in the tale, and that his/her narrative of these murders will be couched in three different modes: one of them as a prison story, one as a whodunit, the third as a locked-room or impossible crime mystery. Which is which we must decide ourselves; or perhaps we will conclude that each of them is all of them. But that's OK. We have already begun to trust Jack Glass, to identify with him sight unseen: because it is clear he wants something. Certainly Jack Glass: A Golden Age Story trusts Jack Glass.
It soon becomes clear—narrative conventions aside, for we always identify with the figure who moves the story, however vile he may seem to be: secretly we want Iago to get away with it—that it is wise to do so. The solar system depicted in Jack Glass is an enormously complicated, dynamically unstable playpen for Homo sapiens, and an extremely rigorous form of governance has evolved in order to fend off the kind of terminal dysfunction that follows when too many of us vie together in a scarcity arena (like 2012). This governance—articulated through a set of dracontine ordinances named the Lex Ulanova after the ruling Ulanov clan—has been woven in the usual fashion into the workings of an intricate hierarchy tree, so that those who fall out of favour or vie too successfully can be condignly punished by applying bad law to the flux of human behaviour. The Ulanovs, having come to power after the catastrophic Three Wars (backstory may be found in the glossary at the end of the book), have imposed a utopian clarity upon the solar system, which has transformed it, at least rhetorically, into an enclosure; a prison yard. So all the murders Jack Glass commits are prison murders: which is the first important thing to work out: that each prison he breaks out of through murder is encapsuled in a larger prison, and Jack is our Virgil. The second important thing to get clear, however, is that, in the end, he is on the side of prison. He is a zookeeper.
Jack Glass, which is a monicker, goes by more than one name in Jack Glass. In the first section, trapped with six other criminalized victims of the Lex Ulanova inside a tiny asteroid, he is known as Jac. In the second section, set in the armoured luxury enclave of a powerful family on Earth, he serves as a mysterious enabler or consigliere for the two female scions of the clan, under the name of Iago (a name cognate with Jack). We are permitted for a few pages to remember Othello's Secret Master, which is good fun; but when on page 136 we learn that Iago's surname may be Prytherch, it begins to come clear—if we hadn't already made a surmise—that Jack Glass is committing murders the way a gardener pulls weeds. It is a Welsh name, first used in print (I believe) by the remarkable though not well-known Welsh poet R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) at the beginning of his career; Thomas's Iago Prytherch is a tough-skinned hill-farmer, a husbandman. He is described in chthonic chords throughout Song at the Year's Turning: Poems 1942-1954 (1955). He is an indomitable preserver of the real world, and of the creatures in his care. He is a
prototype, who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind's attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed even in death's confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.
In Jack Glass we are his stock and are in his keeping.
We had suspected little of this in part one, "In the Box," where, in Roberts's best ironized quasi-scientistic thought-experiment voice, we observe the seven prisoners of the Lex as they attempt to carve a livable space into the heart of their spinning rock with bad tools. We see them as objects of study in a zoo. We watch the alpha males grab the good food and good space. At first we hardly notate Jac at all. He has no legs; he is at the bottom of the tree; he is abused. Then violence erupts, as it can in test enclosures, under conditions of zoo durance. We do not guess how Jac will use the glass he has been acquiring, or the corpse of one of his murderees, until he begins his escape. The narrative until now is coldly bravura; but tells us nothing.
It is only in part two, which occupies most of Jack Glass, and which names Prytherch, that the penny drops and we realize that the novel is not about murder at all; that it is a tale of husbandry. The elder daughter of the two scions of the Argent clan in Iago's care in the island enclave is a physicist, capable of powerful linear cognition; she is attempting to solve the (real) Champagne Supernova puzzle: inexplicably huge discharges of energy in some supernova events. It is when this perplex is understood as a consequence of any method of FTL travel that we begin to understand why Iago has taken it upon himself to frustrate Homo sapiens's understandable longing to escape the solar system (and the Ulanovs) through the dead McAuley's discovery of an effective drive. Iago's complex interaction with the younger sister, a profound lateral thinker who intuitions help impel the story of the book from this point, are fun to follow; and it is fun to work out the second murder, and Jack's second escape from prison, and various melodramatics that extend the page count. But Roberts is not a warm teller of tales, and Jack is not a very heartwarming shepherd, nor does the solar system, which is his fold or installation, much merit crusty good humour from its keeper. Nothing in the human behaviours on show as Jack and his crew traverse the solar system warrant any sense that the keeper should let his people go.
The deepest SF irony of a book whose every line of narrative sighting creates a geometry of irony comes from the subtitle: "A Golden Age Story." The phrase appears inside the book at only one point: when the vision of FTL travel is mooted, just before it comes clear what Jack has somehow always known: that every previous civilization—because of the enormous energies made available through the perilous physics of the discovery—had terminated itself in a Champagne Supernova. The Golden Age we dreamt of last century is forbidden by any shepherd who knows his kine. I will not let my flock drink this champagne, says Iago at the end, enduring like a tree under the curious stars.
It might be said of M. John Harrison's Empty Space: A Haunting that it is a book not easily reviewed in fewer words than it took the author's hot accipitrine claw to craft in the first place, each granite word a claw to grapple shut the evanishment of the world. But why when I say granite do I see electric eel? Why does this book, which claims to be hard as nails to the touch, which seems to claim to be a phenomenology of successful touching, seem porous when you get close to grappling with it? I'm afraid questions as gnomic as this will almost certainly comprise most of what I have any inclination to say after a single reading of this quite astonishingly dense, reader-transformative, implacably not there text, the climax and elimination of the Light sequence that also includes Light (2001) and Nova Swing (2004), and which in sum is a text which may be Harrison's summae. (Reviews of the first two books are numerous, and should be consulted, if only to get some sense as to how these texts have been simultaneously evacuated and enriched in the sequel; my own responses have appeared here and there.)
There is an illusion to dispel, something I know I've succumbed to in my reading of Harrison over the past forty years or so; for it is an easy mistake to think of him as an author who is in any genuine sense (for good or for ill) playful, that he is an author who plays universe with his dice. He is, I think, too arrogant, too humble, and in terms of shaping knowledge too old for that. He is in fact no more postmodern than (say) the otherwise radically different Adam Roberts: neither sees the world as flippable through the affrays of telling, the way Michael Moorcock may have done once, before Pyat. For both Harrison and Roberts in 2012 the affray of telling is a barbed labyrinth, not a pleasaunce, and there is no bingo! As close to "reality" behind the veil as we're going to get for Harrison may be some pleonasm of disjunct descriptors, perhaps overheard on the street or witnessed at the corner of the eye, and yearningly hypostasized; for the latter it might be a thought experiment, where what we see is through glass into a zoo chamber. What truly distinguishes writers like these from postmodernists—I think this of Harrison in particular—is a conviction that "reality" matters desperately, that it is worth any cost to bleed yourself dry against the briars that scratch our eyes out: which is to say epistemology may not give us the truth, but it's all we have of Beauty: which is to say Harrison is a modernist. And if Light is his Ulysses, then Empty Space: A Haunting—which can be read as a dream trying to get through the night—is his Finnegans Wake.
Another way of describing modernist epistemology may be to think of Alice: that infinite recursions of search are like falling down the rabbit hole, gravity-free but toppling, along with the bricolage and the earnest clock faces and the pharmakon, forever. Certainly in the case of Empty Space, the "subtactile pulse" that shapes almost all great art (certainly music) may be specifically located in sensations of falling. The universe of the twenty-first century, as we remember from the earlier volumes, is almost literally falling into the Kefuhachi Tract out there in the interstellar wilds, a light-years-long riff of irrealities that entraps sentient species in the way Light traps moths, and which exudes camouflage epistemologies like a stripper whose jelly roll recedes infinitely, no matter how many veils you pierce. The protagonists of the trilogy bleed themselves across the firmament like bricolage aflame from falling. From a suffient distance, so that they shoot like stars, they seem almost isomorphous with the gear accompanying Anna Waterman centuries earlier (or not) as she topples downwards into the time abyss at the end of Empty Space: for at the end of the novel in her garden near the Ouse where Virginia Woolf left the building she falls, almost literally, down a rabbit hole, and never lands, for there is no reality we can perceive beyond the falling. She may be falling through time into Kefahuchi, though she may be Kefahuchi; or the Aleph, which first appears in this volume, "an artifact at least a million years old . . . the purpose of which was to contain a piece of the Kefahuchi Tract itself," may be absorbing her (or her the Aleph).
Anna has already been portrayed fairly extensively in Light, where her husband Michael has stumbled over a crazed physics that seems to work through correspondences: this world is reminded that it is another world too. It is now some years later; she has remained in south-east England, a region Harrison portrays with more than Wellsian intensity, a saturated pointillism that confuses the vision, as though Wells had ingested Francis Bacon (who is namechecked at least twice) in his attempts to describe world so intense it cannot stay in phase for human eyes. It is a world about as easy to fix as Dickens's haunted London a "sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither." Like a needle weaving or unweaving this world, Anna ("I never wanted to examine my life") drifts back and forth, choked on bricolage and routine and death, like flotsam awaiting the hole, which haunts the riverrun by Eve and Adam of her dreams. And then she falls through.
The various venues of the 24th century Beach are similarly saccaded by attempts to trump the epistemology Sublime, and to capture something whole between the quote marks, or a least stable. It does not happen. Nothing is reached. Search missions, criminal investigations, constant fucking, morphological transforms (Francis Bacon painting multiple bodies in the same frame, like the cats who peforate the scene, always hard to see as one cat): nothing works. An abiding truth of modernism, that the fuck is empty space, that there is vacuum between the quote marks, haunts the universe of Empty Space all the way down the rabbit hole.
The modernist enterprise, which M. John Harrison continues to honour in 2012, is about teaching grace to humans. Empty Space: a Haunting, a masterful hymn to the subtactile pulse of nada, is about telling us how to fall through.