Nova Swing by M. John Harrison
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
04 December 2006
It starts with a dame. She's out of place: too classy for this dim and shabby bar off an unimpressive street in a run-down part of town. She's looking for a man. God knows how a woman like her tracks down a man like him, but people do strange things when they need something badly enough. She has a job for him. She's looking for something, and he's the one who can lead her to it.
Thus begins Nova Swing, not so much a direct sequel as a companion piece to M. John Harrison's much-lauded 2002 space opera, Light. The corner of Science Fiction and Noir has been seeing a lot of traffic over the last half-decade, and it should come as no surprise to his long-time fans to learn that in his first foray into the neighborhood, Harrison subverts the very quality that the two genres have in common—the solvability of their world—in an attack that doubles, as it has in many of Harrison's previous novels and stories, as both literary criticism and social commentary. The mysterious woman whose appearance jump-starts Nova Swing's plot (whose name, we later learn, is Elizabeth Kielar) is therefore not searching for a lost love or pilfered riches, but for the missing piece of her soul.
The man she approaches is called Vic Serotonin, and although he's as burned out on his drug of choice as any of Raymond Chandler or James Crumley's leading men, he isn't a private eye. Some time after Ed Chianese piloted the K-ship Black Cat into the heart of the Kefahuchi Tract at the end of Light, a piece of the Tract fell to earth. In the heart of the human city Saudade (a Portuguese word, considered devilishly difficult to translate, which means a longing for something lost that may or may not return), there exists a locus of otherness, through whose porous barrier men like Vic and his mentor Emil Bonaventure, now dying of a host of illnesses probably brought on by prolonged exposure to the crash site, ventured in the hope of gaining an understanding of something beyond human comprehension. Vic, Emil, and their fellow "entradistas" broke themselves against the alienness of the event site, sometimes losing their lives, sometimes their minds, but never arriving at a true understanding of what lay at the heart of it. Nowadays, the site is a tourist attraction, a beacon for the bored and disenchanted, to whom Vic desultorily offers his services as a guide.
Meanwhile, traffic is also coming out of the site, ineffectively curtailed by the Site Crime police department, represented in Nova Swing by the melancholy detective Lens Aschemann, whose compulsion to understand his long-dead wife is rapidly transforming into an obsession with the site itself. Ranged against Aschemann and his underlings are heavily connected operators like Paulie DeRaad, who at the beginning of Nova Swing purchases from Vic an artifact from within the site, which turns out to be contaminated by malignant code—dubbed "daughter-code" by Emil Bonaventure—which physically transforms anyone who comes in contact with it. Detective Aschemann has also discovered a new kind of incursion from within the site: reverse tourism. Emerging into Saudade's streets, called forth by the lights and music of its clubs and bars, are what appear to—but can't be—people.
In his 1989 novel Climbers, a semi-autobiographical portrait of a group of mountain climbing enthusiasts, Harrison touched on the process by which adventure calcifies into safe entertainment:
That Christmas she sent me a collection of climbing photos taken in the late nineteenth century. Strings of heavily bearded men in nailed boots struggled up gullies and ridges in Gwynedd or Borrowdale. By 1920 these adventures were already domesticated, a part of the Other absorbed into the Self. (Climbers, p. 175)
The Saudade entradistas—Vic, Emil, and their colleagues—are searching for the method by which the event site can be domesticated. They seek to map and describe it—when he first entered the site, Emil obsessively documented his forays in a succession of journals, now barely comprehensible—and through that process of explanation, to absorb the site into themselves. Set against the entradistas' urge to conquer, to absorb the Other into the Self, are their clients, the tourists—a word which in Nova Swing takes on a harshly derogatory tone—who do not even comprehend the Other's existence. The tourists travel the Beach—the edge of the Kefahuchi Tract—gazing at its wonders, but see only themselves. They seek to experience without being altered, to bring about a change in themselves by doing nothing more than changing their surroundings. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that most of Vic's clients don't even venture into the site. What they really want is to have sex within sight of it.
In the end that was what most of his clients wanted. They never got any further than the Lots. They had sex with you in open view of the thing out there—as if that was how they understood it; not as a state of affairs but as a live thing, perhaps even a conscious thing, they wanted it to be watching when they came—and then didn't speak on the way back. It was just a choice that made life more interesting. (p. 161)
The urge to experience without cost or consequence, as well as the urge to comprehend the unknown without any alteration to the self, are frequently criticized in Harrison's novels, most notably 1990's The Course of the Heart and 1997's Signs of Life. As he did in those novels, Harrison overstates his point in Nova Swing, and ultimately spends a significant portion of the novel reiterating a fairly straightforward argument to the point that it begins to lose its sharpness (like The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life, Nova Swing had its genesis as a short story—a version of the novel's first chapter appeared on Amazon.com under the title "tourism" in 2004—and the expansion into novel-length may have something to do with the dulling of the stories' rhetoric). It's also worth noting that whereas the human tourists are sharply criticized for the emotional laminate through which they experience the site, the reverse tourists coming out of the site—most of whom also seem interested in nothing more than having sex in an alien environment—are described without comment, and sometimes with considerable affection.
Nova Swing diverges from The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life, however, in positing a third alternative. If ignoring the existence of the Other is wrong, and absorbing the Other into the Self is impracticable (and, perhaps, also wrong), there still remains the possibility of allowing the Other to absorb the Self. As might be expected, the aliens show us the way. Most of the reverse tourists fade into nothingness after a few hours in human Saudade, but some of them stick around.
"There's a fierce attrition rate, Vic, most of them are worn to nothing inside an hour. But the ones that survive!" Aschemann shook his head. "How can I describe that? They learn to eat, Vic, how to dress. They learn what the city wants from them. They get a room—" [...] "Suppose they are fitting in, Vic? Why? What happens to them next?" (pp. 128-9)
Nova Swing strongly suggests, although it never confirms, that Elizabeth Kielar, for whom Vic develops a deep obsession, is one of these surviving tourists, so altered by her stay in Saudade that she comes close to approximating humanity. In helping her escape from this alien state, Vic, with Aschemann in hot pursuit, allows himself to be consumed and altered by the site—the only honest interaction he can have with it, although on the question of whether this fundamental alteration is a good or desirable thing, the novel remains silent.
Whether or not Elizabeth Kielar is meant to be read as literally alien, she is certainly figuratively so—as are the novel's other female characters. Harrison's treatment of female characters in his previous novels, Light in particular, has drawn accusations of misogyny (despite which, it won the Tiptree award), and although I think this criticism misses the point—Harrison is, if anything, an equal-opportunity misanthrope, ladling out misery and punishment to male and female characters alike—I can see how it would be an easy mistake to make. Harrison may not dislike his female characters any more than he dislikes the male ones, but he certainly treats them differently, or rather, as if they were different. Especially in Nova Swing, the narrative maintains a detachment from women that makes them carefully Other, so that, even when delving into their innermost turmoil, the reader is kept at a distance: understanding, but incapable of empathy.
The detachment with which Nova Swing's narrative views its female characters is one of the novel's most overtly noir-derived aspects. Women, in noir fiction, exist outside rationality. They catalyze and motivate the actions of men, but their own actions are inscrutable—motivated by brutal passions and deeply held, though dimly understood, convictions. The roles that men and women play in Nova Swing are obviously informed by the novel's noir underpinnings. It is the men who take action—although, and in keeping with Harrison's habit of skewering genre conventions, these actions are futile, ineffectual, and ultimately self-destructive. The women of Nova Swing, meanwhile, seem to embody saudade: Liv Hula, proprietor of the bar at which the novel's action begins, views her past as a hotshot pilot with equal parts longing and disdain; Irene the Mona, tailored into a production-line concept of beauty, bounces from man to man spouting platitudes about self-actualization and wish fulfillment; Emil Bonaventure's daughter Edith spends her days nursing her father and reminiscing about her teenage stardom as an accordion player. However obvious it may be to the reader that Vic Serotonin will never achieve his goal of understanding the event site, his desire to do so is still comprehensible, within the realm of rationality. The cycle of depression and self-pity in which so many of Nova Swing's female characters are locked is, by its very nature, alienating—we can understand, intellectually, how a person could dwell so completely in the past that they forget to live in the present, but unless we ourselves are in the midst of a similar depressive cycle, we can't empathize with them.
The women of Nova Swing are a mystery to the men in their lives, one that is often ignored and occasionally attacked in an ineffectual effort to comprehend its alienness—as Aschemann attempts to do with the memory of his dead wife. Even Emil Bonaventure's name for malicious code brought out of the event site hints at the unbridgeable divide between men and women—to a father, a daughter is something that comes from the self, but is not the self. About fifty pages from the novel's end, however, a startling perspective shift takes place. The male characters are marginalized or got rid of entirely. Women take the center stage, and the narrative develops an empathy with them and an understanding of them. Liv Hula sells her bar and decides to head back into the stars. Irene the Mona finds a new man and a new direction in life, and the narrative, which had previously treated her with great disdain, begins to show her affection. Edith Bonaventure resumes her musical career. Returning to her father one night, she muses:
"When you named the daughter-code after me, you were wrong. While a daughter is all of those things you implied, she's none. She is what comes out of you, why do you need to go in the site to look for her?" (p. 200)
One by one, the women of Nova Swing begin to embody a healthier, more rounded approach to change. They stop short of being absorbed by what they don't understand while still allowing it—allowing the vicissitudes of life—to alter them. "None of us is anyone any more. We all lost who we were. But we can all be something else," (p. 226) Liv Hula patiently explains to Fat Antoyne, the novel's sole male survivor, whose endurance, the narrative strongly suggests, is directly linked to his ability to give up on the unknown, to accept the limitations of his knowledge and direct his attentions to those mysteries that can be unraveled by human understanding—to look to the stars, rather than into the depths of the event site. (Fat Antoyne's female counterpart, who like him behaves atypically of the novel's perception of her gender, is Aschemann's female assistant. At the beginning of the novel, she is blithely oblivious to both her past and the event site's draw; at its end, she is beginning to break herself against the mystery that was her boss, and may very well be on her way to an obsession comparable to Aschemann's with his dead wife.) At the beginning of this review, I pointed out that Nova Swing subverts the shared convention of science fiction and noir detective fiction by positing a mystery that can't be solved. To distinguish noir from ordinary detective fiction, however, we observe a second convention: at the end of a noir story, even as the detective solves the murder and shakes off the femme fatale with a cold word, we know that nothing has changed. The world is just as corrupt, and that corruption is just as inescapable, as it was before this objectively tiny injustice was put right. True to form, Harrison subverts this convention along with all the rest. There may not be an answer to Nova Swing's mysteries, but for those characters capable of accepting this brutal truth, there is a way out.
It's hard not to be won over by the cautious optimism of Nova Swing's ending, by the compromise it offers between the hopelessness of Harrison's earlier novels, which cruelly trapped their characters between madness and despair, and the explosive benevolence of Light, which posited a future so marvelous, so full of promise, that it was almost too much to believe in. (It's worth noting that textual clues in both novels suggest that the events of Nova Swing are not a direct result of Ed Chianese's flight into the Kefahuchi Tract. Light's ending promised a beginning, but it doesn't seem to have happened yet.) There is obviously a problematic aspect to the juxtaposition of male and female attitudes towards the unknown, which buys into the stereotypes of a masculine obsession with conquest, as opposed to a feminine ability to incorporate the numinous into everyday life—a variant on the myth of feminine intuition or instinctive wisdom. That said, Nova Swing is in many ways Harrison's most human—perhaps most humanistic—novel, and the troubling implications of its treatment of gender are more than made up for by the fact that while it starts with a dame, it ends with women.