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Nova Swing
M. John Harrison
Victor Gollancz, 247 pages

Nova Swing
M. John Harrison
M. John Harrison is a lifelong writer and author of many novels, among them: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, The Centauri Device, and The Course of the Heart. Under the pseudonym Gabriel King, he and Jane Johnson have written The Wild Road and The Golden Cat.

M. John Harrison Website
ISFDB Bibliography: M. John Harrison
ISFDB Bibliography: Gabriel King
SF Site Review: Viriconium
SF Site Review: Anima
SF Site Review: Things That Never Happen
SF Site Review: Light
SF Site Review: The Centauri Device
SF Site Review: Travel Arrangements
SF Site Review: The Wild Road and The Golden Cat
SF Site Review: The Wild Road

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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The bar was about halfway down Straint, a cluttered, narrowish street of two-storey buildings, along which two out of three had their windows boarded up. Like all the streets in that part of Saudade, Straint was full of cats, especially at dawn and dusk, when they went in and out of the event site. As if in acknowledgement, the bar was called Black Cat White Cat.
--p. 1  
Cats figure throughout M. John Harrison's Nova Swing, presumably a reference to Schrödinger's cat, a famous philosophical proposition that places a cat into a locked box with a poison capsule attached to a deteriorating radioactive trigger that has a 50/50 chance of going off in any given minute. One minute elapses. Is the cat dead or alive? You might think the answer is we don't know, or that there's as much chance that the cat is dead as it is that it is alive. Schrödinger held that the answer is that it is both dead and alive, that until the cat is observed, its state does not exist as either one or the other, but as a "superposition," or combination, of both. In other words, an event cannot occur unless, or until, it is observed.

One corollary to this conjecture is that if you open the box, two universes split, one in which the cat is alive (or, more precisely, observed to be alive), and another where the cat is dead.

Which might make you think it would be great to have a heart attack in the woods with nobody around until someone can come around to observe you in the "alive" state.

While it might seem so, this really isn't one of those navel gazing, Philosophy 101 questions such as can God create an object he himself as an all-powerful being can't move, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, stuff to BS about back in the dorm, but of little practical use. It is an underlying principle of quantum physics that, amazingly, helps explain how the universe might actually function. However, I think it makes more sense when you start doing the actual math.

Whether you understand the math, this concept has given a sheen of respectability to depictions of alternate realities that might once have been dismissed as "escapist fantasy." Which helps explain how Nova Swing won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the name of which you might associate with more conventional science fiction. Arguably, there is a scientifically grounded speculation involved here, though it is decidedly weird science.

The science fiction is also heavily blended with noir, a detective story of sorts in which the question isn't "whodunit" but rather "who does it to us." Right from the opening page, the name of the bar, Black Cat White Cat, connotes both the on/off state of the Schrödinger cat as well as the cinematic tones of classic noir film. Indeed, the theme here echoes The Maltese Falcon, though Harrison refers to it only obliquely (a character is called variations of "the fat man," recalling the Sydney Greenstreet portrayal of Gutman), particularly when Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade, says that the object of pursuit (the movie's plotline) constitutes, "The stuff that dreams are made out of."

These dreams take place in the "event site" caused by the fall of the Kefahuchi Tract galaxy that concludes Harrison's previous novel, Light. (While Nova Swing contains a handful of references to Light, it is more a companion piece than a sequel -- you don't really need to have read the one to understand the other. Even if you did, it doesn't make it all that much easier to understand.)

"Reality" is in a constant state of flux in the event site, and the compulsion to observe leads to an illicit tour trade to guide visitors in as well as bring back artifacts. A more recent development is that the travel appears to now be going in both directions, with denizens from the event zone emerging from the rest rooms in the Café Surf.

This has caught the attention of police detective Lens Aschemann, who has modified his appearance to look like Einstein. Aschemann suspects a connection to Vic Serotonin, a tour trade operative who has a couple of problems on his hands: a blonde client with uncertain motives for going to the event site, and the wrath of Paulie DeRaad, a trafficker in recovered artifacts suffering the strange ill-effects of a piece Vic delivered to him. (Note the significance of the names: "Lens," a device to improve sight combined with "Aschemann," suggesting a ruined man comprised of ashes; "Serotonin," a neurotransmitter that regulates aggression and, at diminished levels, can lead to sexual dysfunction and clinical depression; "Paulie DeRadd," a mobster kind of boy-name combined with a Germanic sounding scientific shorthand for a unit of radiation exposure.)

Both Aschemann and Serotonin seek the diary of the dying Emil Bonaventure, one of the first early explorers of the event site, in the belief that it will provide a useful roadmap to plumb unknown possibilities. For Serotonin, that road map promises to make him more successful in his work; for Aschemann, it is the hope of seeing his deceased wife again, whose death the detective may, or may not, have had complicity. The road map proves a red herring, however, as each character can achieve his destiny only through direct experience (observation).

Ultimately, the book isn't about these two central characters. Rather it is the effect they have on others, i.e., those who observe them. After Serotonin and Aschemann meet their respective fates, the concluding chapter details how this causes a host of peripheral characters to change their lives.

Which is not to say this is one of those happy endings resulting from the tragedies of others. Harrison is too skilled and clever a writer to try to be an Oprah Winfrey book selection candidate. He recognizes, and indeed revels in, the complications and contradictions that make existence, if not necessarily happy, highly intriguing

Such confusing difficulties are the stuff of which Harrison deals, with a slew of puns, genre riffs, and perhaps a touch of mysticism. Not the easiest read in the world, but essential reading. And pondering. Or, as a character remarks, "Good book? You're always reading it."

Of course, Nova Swing cannot exist until it is opened by a reader. It's an observation well worth making.

Copyright © 2007 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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