Empty Space by M. John Harrison

Reviewed by Matthew Cheney

Empty Space UK cover

Empty Space US cover

There's a moment in M. John Harrison's 1989 novel Climbers (a Rosetta Stone to much, if not all, of Harrison's fiction) where a character leaves an opened bottle of Coca-Cola outside for half an hour or so and then returns for a drink. He discovers "a dozen half-dead wasps . . . crawling laboriously around inside it." Later, recalling the moment (telling the story), he says, "I looked in and there they were, flopping about in half an inch of the thing they most desired."

Desire, in Harrison's cosmology, is lure and bliss and death. It's no surprise, then, that in Empty Space there's a spot named the Deleuze Motel, for one of the concepts famous from Gilles Deleuze (and partner in crime Félix Guattari) is that of the desiring-machine. In Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, social-production and desire-production are linked, conjoining labor and libido, replacing the idea of desire as lack with the idea of desire as something produced, a product, a presence. "There is only one kind of production," Deleuze and Guattari say, "the production of the real."

We could have great fun skipping such concepts across the surface of Empty Space and all the realities it produces. We could name the rooms of the Deleuze Motel—Difference & Repetition, Logic of Sense, Negotiations, Regimes of Madness—and look for the novel's tenants in each. We could bring in a concept Deleuze grabbed from Artaud, the "body without organs," and note how many such organless bodies float through these pages (as well as the occasional organs without bodies). We could say that Empty Space might as well be called by one of Deleuze and Guattari's titles: A Thousand Plateaus. We could say that the Deleuze Motel is the place where deterritorialized nomads go to rest their rhizomes.

These concepts might help us come to grips with the mysterious reality that is the Kefahuchi Tract, a massive pile of strange physics and alienated artifacts that mostly lurks in the outer part of outer space, but has also now dipped down planetside, an interstellar Moby Dick becalmed on a terminal beach. We might be able to attach some meaning to the quantum weirdness that suspends corpses in mid-air, causes ghosts to haunt quarantined vessels, and lets cultures move their planets by ritualistic sacrifice. We might come up with a label for the many movements between the mid-21st century and the mid-25th. We might sprout theories for our theories.

But we'd still only be skimming the surface. And that's okay. Empty Space is at least as mysterious as the previous novels in Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract series (Light (2002) and Nova Swing (2006)), even as it brings some means and ends to characters from both. Labeling the mysteries won't solve them. Their insolubility is their meaning. The surface offers a thousand plateaus, at least, but all we can know of the depths is that they can't be known.

Dropping our French thinking, we could posit Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space as part of an alternate history of science fiction, one that casts Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell aside in favor of a lineage that leads from Olaf Stapledon, Alfred Bester, and Cordwainer Smith to James Tiptree, Jr.'s space operas, Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (1961), the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic (1971), Philip K. Dick's Ubik (1969), and Samuel Delany's Dhalgren (1975). (Just to name a few.) Gernsback, founder of Amazing Stories and father of science fiction as a genre, believed that the best SF stories would help people understand science and scientific thinking. His ideal tale would illustrate and expand on the ideas in the articles he published in another of his magazines, Science and Invention. John W. Campbell, longtime editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog Science Fiction-Science Fact), created a golden age by encouraging writers to turn away from the preposterous adventure stories of the other pulps and instead add logical extrapolation and a positive, technologically-informed vision of the human future to their tales of whizbang wonder. Various challenges to the dominance of these father figures popped up in later decades, but their influence holds strong, particularly over ideals of what constitutes the "best" and "most serious" science fiction at the core, which is why the Stapledon/Bester/Smith/Tiptree/Lem/Strugatsky/Dick/Delany lineage I cherrypicked above stands a little awkwardly outside the mainstream of scientifiction. It is, though, a lineage the Kefahuchi Tract novels fit comfortably into—it gives them cousins, mentors, and crazy uncles—while the more familiar SF history of patriarchs descended from the Gernsback/Campbell line looks more like a rejected family, a disowned heritage, a fatherland from which to flee.

Some cognitive dissonance junkie ought to try comparing Empty Space with another book published at nearly the same time, Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312. Robinson's novel seems to me to be the apotheosis of the Gernsback/Campbell strain of science fiction (didactic, expository, positively positivistic), the most richly and traditionally science fictional novel of the last decade at least, while Harrison is more conflicted, less certain, less grandiose.

It may be inadequate, though, to simply position Harrison as following a stolon of the main SF organism. His stance is strongly oppositional, and as such is meaningless without that which he opposes. These books are among the most staunchly SF-critical novels since Barry Malzberg's Beyond Apollo (1972), Galaxies (1975), and Herovit's World (1973). Though they utilize the scattered material of many genres, the foundation of the Kefahuchi Tract novels is interstellar science fiction. They do not merely offer an alternative to the dominant paradigm of such tales, they stand athwart the paradigm, yelling (at it, or us, or everything), "Stop!"

As much as they enjoy playing around with science fictional icons, relics, and vestments, the Kefahuchi Tract books in general, and Empty Space in particular, don't actually seem to believe in science fiction.

At its core, science fiction is a genre of belief and SF writers specialize in producing belief in readers (or, as is more commonly said, they provoke the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief"). Thus, SF is the style of writing most shackled to notions of verisimilitude, most needing the reality effect. Hence the peculiar power of objects in science fiction: things metonymically create worlds in the reader's mind. Any world (no matter how specific, no matter how narrow) is never the sum of its words, and so by imagining worlds through words, traditional SF is an anamorphic format, framing future histories through the light of present language, hoping to project a wide image across the reader's brain screen.

But science fiction that seeks to elaborate worlds through words will always fall short. This is the failure inherent in the promise of SF, the fact that skewers the ideal. Reality eludes language, and even if it didn't, it is simply more rich and strange than any novelist's imagination. Traditional science fiction, like traditional mystery stories, answers that problem by taming reality and explaining strangeness away. Even the most expository science fiction story is, if written by someone who believes in the ultimate knowability of the universe, less complex than a mediocre history book. No text can contain all the implications of the present, never mind the future. And so planets become functionally little more than monocultural city-states, alien species become stand-ins for the writer's unexamined assumptions of biological determinism, plants and animals are background items, technology is controlled by deliberation rather than chance, time is represented as linear, progress exists, conclusions conclude, and the thousand variations of personality, politics, and experience that you will find in one village of one thousand people are simplified to basic extremes. William Faulkner said that he wrote books about his "own little postage stamp of native soil" all the while knowing he "would never live long enough to exhaust it." Interstellar science fiction seeks to write about territories larger by many orders of magnitude, and yet so often presents that territory as if it were smaller than a postage stamp, or at least less colorful.

It is exactly that sort of science fiction that the Kefahuchi Tract novels don't believe in. In the universe of these novels, all explanations are incomplete and temporary, if not, as is more likely, a delusion. ("Do any of you understand anything at all?" a character in Nova Swing asks, as if yelling at roomful of writers at a science fiction convention. "Why do you all act as if you know something when you don't?") Such metaphysics might seem terrifying—a universe that fates its citizens to ignorance must fate them to the ignorance of meaning, too—but Harrison, while acknowledging the inevitable terror, suggests instead realities of radical, pragmatic possibility. In Light we learned that every alien race "had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another's basic assumptions." This is a universe of complementarity, a universe where the type of question asked determines the type of answer given, and where multiple types of answers may lead to similar results. Or perhaps it is a universe in which all basic assumptions are equally wrong. Is this the logic of quantum physics or the logic of dreams?

There is a certain hubris in the confidence that asserts an ability to differentiate between dreams and reality—or if not hubris then egotism: the assertion of a knowable, continuous, immutable self. Nova Swing includes an epigraph from John Gray: "Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactment of conscious selves."

Despite living like fragmentary dreams, the characters and their relationships are not hard to elucidate. We can say that Empty Space is the story of Anna Waterman some decades after the disappearance at the end of Light of her first husband, the physicist/serial killer Michael Kearney; and it is also the story of Fat Antoyne, Liv Hula, and Irene the Mona after they left Saudade on the old freighter the Nova Swing; and it is the story of the unnamed or polynamed assistant cop that Lens Aschemann left behind; and of new characters, too, and characters who were just passing mentions in the previous books. Anna wanders around and tries to find herself, all the while experiencing anomalies. The stories of Antoyne, Liv, Irene, and the assistant pick up pretty much from the moment Nova Swing left off, and bring those characters to new places where they meet new people and do new things, experiencing their own anomalies, making and breaking their selves.

But character lists and plot summaries do no good because the story of these characters is a series of patterns (of differences and repetitions) that, in terms of plot, do not function through traditional causality; and, in terms of character, do not function in terms of traditional psychology. We can cluster words of the text into concepts of character, plot, and setting without any trouble—but these concepts don't do much within our habitualized logic of narrative sense. Lots of things happen, lots of people participate in events, plenty of places are described (and often quite beautifully, for Harrison is one of the contemporary masters of landscape writing, a sublime anti-pastoralist). Most of what happens and where it happens is comprehensible on its own surface terms, related in regular English words. But unlike puzzle pieces or falling dominoes, the events of Empty Space don't knock one by one into the next; instead, they flow like falling rain or the code that scrolls down the assistant's arm.

Light showed us the last moments of 1999, and put a kind of apocalypse there. Empty Space, by revealing the role Anna performs in the production of reality centuries later, suggests that every year after 1999 was shaped by shockwaves of that apocalypse. Harrison is cannily science fictional in this suggestion. Typically, science fiction, like classical tragedy, is about Important People (whether they know they are or not) doing Important Things. It is tales of heroes who save worlds, not tales of folks who muddle through their everyday lives. Until now, the Kefahuchi Tract novels have seemed to be more on the everyday side of things than not. In Light, we suspected some of the characters were important to the fate of the universe, but it was difficult to say quite how that was so. In Nova Swing, nobody seemed particularly important at all. (I sometimes thought of it as a science fictional version of Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh (1946), where various characters sit in a bar and talk about the joys and perils of their pipe dreams.) In Empty Space, we find out how important or unimportant everyone was, and we learn that the most important beings, if not the only truly important beings (for this universe at this time at least), were Anna and her cat. We don't exactly find out how or why, and I couldn't explain the nature of Anna and the cat's importance without retelling what happens in the last few chapters of the book, but what I can say is that Anna gets to play the perhaps unique role of both protagonist and MacGuffin within the novel's realities.

The patterns that create characters and stories in these books are often echoes and revisions of other patterns, creating a future flashburned by the past. In Harrison's novels, the Saudade is the place where twentieth-century British and American culture reveals itself to be a roadshow performance, as portable as masks, as fungible as cash. All selves are constructed, so why not make yourself look like Einstein, ride around in a '52 Cadillac roadster, and talk like Mike Hammer? It's nostalgia, sure, but it's also coherent: as fashion and as theory. Science fiction and nostalgia are literatures of artifacts, but where nostalgia adds sentiment to archaeology, science fiction adds teleology. Both help our stuff make sense.

The Kefahuchi Tract novels are science fiction without teleology, nostalgia without sentiment. The effect is, for readers used to strict causal structures and motivated psychologies and linear coherence, alienating. Nova Swing and Empty Space compound this effect the way the later books of Harrison's Viriconium (1971-1985) series compounded the alienation effects hinted at and implied by the earlier books. As people and as readers we want our lives and stories to give us settled realities rather than chosen and constructed ones. We may read to enter imaginary worlds, but we have been trained to want those worlds to be coherent, because otherwise they don't work as theories, and our star drives won't take us to the land of comforting, or at least satisfying, conclusions.

Empty Space ends back in the twenty-first century, this time in the point of view of Anna's psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Alpert. She has learned the limits of her work and knowledge. "Later," Harrison writes, "in the hotel restaurant, she listened to a mid-level pharma executive telling his friends about a recent trip to Peru. Really, she thought, he was less entertaining them than issuing a set of instructions."

Isn't this what entertainment always does? Pedagogues may not be famously entertaining, but, as Hugo Gernsback knew, entertainment may be pedagogical.

The key, Harrison seems to suggest, is to recognize the instructions, whether we follow them or not, and extract whatever pleasure we can from them. Say hi to the shadow operators lurking in the corners of the ceiling. Enjoy their gnomic utterances in response. Let desire be desire while remembering that it machines reality.

The last sentence of Empty Space lends concrete form to my abstractions. Instead of giving away that beautiful, painful, necessary stopping point, that place from which we step out of the narrative flow, I'll leave you on the shore with a wave from O'Neill and The Iceman Cometh:

But here's the point to get. I swear I'd never act like I have if I wasn't absolutely sure it will be worth it to you in the end, after you're rid of the damned guilt that makes you lie to yourselves you're something you're not, and the remorse that nags at you and makes you hide behind lousy pipe dreams about tomorrow. You'll be in a today where there is no yesterday or tomorrow to worry you. You won't give a damn what you are any more.
Publication of this review was made possible by a donation from Richard Palmer. (Thanks, Richard!) To find out more about our funding model, or donate to the magazine, see the Support Us page.

Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Weird Fiction Review, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He was the series editor for three volumes of Best American Fantasy, and is the co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His weblog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a 2005 World Fantasy Award. You can also find his work in our archives.