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Empty Space: A Haunting
M. John Harrison
Gollancz, 303 pages

Empty Space: A Haunting
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: Nova Swing
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

Well, it's been one helluva long, strange trip. Concluding a trilogy (according to the publisher's promotional copy, though certainly not in the typical Lord of the Rings sense), M. John Harrison's Empty Space: A Haunting is more directly connected (if it can be said that anything here is directly connected) to Light (2002) than the in-between Nova Swing (2007). All three share strands of genealogy set in an existence influenced by the presence of the Kefachuchi Tract, described as "a singularity without an event horizon."

Which means what, exactly?

The singularity (see Ray Kurzweil, Vernon Vinge) is a geek's wet-dream rapture in which the boundaries between human and machine blur and technological evolution outstrips human ability to keep up. In literary theory, a singularity is an event from which multiple narratives branch, at least one of which may represent a timeline in which the event did not occur.

With me so far? Regular readers of science fiction and even English majors who aren't can probably wrap their heads around this, but even they are likely to get lost (I did) in the myriad layers of Harrison's jokey, discombobulated and probably profound storyline. Actually, multiple storylines, somehow connected to explaining how the universe functions, or perhaps doesn't function, as a series of random incidents that nonetheless create the coincidental links that signify meaning (or at least can be interpreted as meaningful).

Still with me?

Some quick and incomplete back story. Michael Kearney is a quantum physicist who, with colleague Brian Tate, developed the math that enabled humanity to travel to the Kefachuchi Tract. Or, maybe not. Kearney is also a crazed serial killer, compelled by a perceived monster that is either a psychotic manifestation of his own fears and inadequacies, or a bona fide monster. Though whether the monster is real or not is perhaps irrelevant.

Kearney inhabits a world more or less familiar as our own mundane existence. An alternating and contrasting reality is that of the Kefachuchi Tract as well as Saudade City, a 25th century metropolis located on some kind of Tract beach head. Gene-tailored humans fashion their identities (which ironically can be easily copied for mass duplication), frequently based on dead celebrities (not just the archetypical sex kitten femme fatale, Marilyn Monroe, but also the archetypical geek Albert Einstein). Ed Chianese, a virtual reality addict and pilot of "dipships," is a nexus to a host of recurring characters and mythologies. These include Ed's sister, Seria Mau Genlicher, a "K-captain" inextricably cybernetically fused to her spaceship and the Assistant, an anonymous investigator who tries out various names/personas while conducting investigations sometimes official, sometimes personal. There are a host of others. Including various cats (see Schrödinger's cat).

The "hauntings" of Empty Space (consider that space is by definition "empty space," though at the same time what we define as "space" is filled with stuff -- stars, planets, asteroids, cosmic debris albeit separated by immense distances) -- concern the regrets, frustrations and continual seekings of the various point-of-view characters in these multiple narratives.

Kearney's widow, Anne Waterman, has remarried and been widowed again and has a grown daughter. Anne visits a psychiatrist when she can't avoid not going, maybe because she's seeing things, or maybe because she is unusually perceptive. She may be having, or is imagining, an affair with a boy. She has possession of Michael's computer hard drive and searches for Brian Tate in hope of an explication. She ruminates about her past and what could have been. "The past was clear enough to see, but you felt as if you were engaging with it from too far away" (284).

Meanwhile, other narrative strands concern the investigation of murders in which victims are literally left hanging in space and time, Ed Chianese hijacking the spaceship named Nova Swing in search of the origins of the Tract, and the revived consciousness of cyperpunked Seria Mau (speaking of cyberpunk, in one of the many "insider jokes," one of the minor characters is named "Case," presumably a nod to William Gibson's Neuromancer).

To what ends, exactly (although there is a conclusion of sorts to all these narratives) I don't really know. Which I think is the point. That you can never really know. Significantly, the story ends in the narrative timeline closest to our own, the "normal" world, with a minor character experiencing an epiphany of sorts, but not one which leads to any greater comprehension of what's been going on.

From Harrison's blog:

  The nightmare of the self: whatever you discover, it will never actually allow you to say anything about the foundation of things. Each discovery will only open up another scale, which, probed, will almost immediately begin to imply a further scale, a finer-grained space. The very small always has something smaller inside it. Whatever you find isn't the end, it's only ever the beginning of something else. Worse, the characteristic of these successive foundational states is that they're composed increasingly of emptiness, of the gaps between things. Everything diffuses out into nothing. And the tools you develop operate only at the scale for which you develop them–though they have just enough sensitivity to alert you, as you push towards each outside edge, to the possibility of the need for another, yet more subtle, toolset.  

Yep, that about sums it up, as much as it is possible to sum up this satire of space opera and just about every SF trope you can think of in attempting no less than pondering the profundity of existence. In this reality or any other.

Copyright © 2013 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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