July 2, 2008

Book review: "Nova Swing," by M John Harrison

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Nova Swing
By M John Harrison
Bantam Spectra / ISBN: 978-0-553-38501-4

Regular readers know that I've been in a bit of a special situation for the last month, in that by random luck I was able to track down at my local library five of the ten twelve(!) science-fiction books nominated this year for either the Philip K Dick Award or the Hugo Award; added to my review of Charles Stross' Halting State earlier in the year, that makes half of the books I'm going to get the chance to review here at CCLaP, between now and August 9th when the Hugo winner is finally announced in Denver. (The others so far besides Halting State: Jon Armstrong's Grey, Sean Williams' Astropolis: Saturn Returns, and Ian McDonald's Brasyl. Still to come: John Scalzi's The Last Colony. Oh, and even more good news: On my latest trip to the main Chicago library in the Loop, I also found Robert J Sawyer's Rollback and Adam Roberts' Gradisil, making it now at least eight of the twelve nominees I'll get a chance to read for myself. That leaves only Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Minister Faust's From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, Elizabeth Bear's Undertow and Karen Traviss' Ally. And I promise, no more freaking hyperlinks from here until the end of today's review.)

For those who don't know, in fact, these two awards represent very different things within the world of science-fiction (or SF), and with two very different sets of criteria for winning them: The Hugo is in fact supposed to reflect the absolutely best SF novel of the year, as chosen by the members of the annual Worldcon convention and maintained by the World Science Fiction Society; while the PKD Award instead reflects the best experimental or cutting-edge SF novel of the year, chosen by a private panel of professionals and co-sponsored by the Philip K Dick Trust and the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. And indeed, it's no coincidence that an award dedicated to experimental and cutting-edge work would be named after PKD, because that was his own career in a nutshell: visionary, madman, possible drug addict, a man who in 1974 experienced either a set of persistent mystical visions or a nervous breakdown (depending on who you're talking to), Dick was literally decades ahead of his time in his trippy, mind-bending work, making him obscure and controversial in the '70s when he was alive but just now becoming a mainstream cultural figure in the shiny Singularity times of the present day. (But of course I'm giving short shrift to this imminently remarkable artist, since he's not really the focus of today's review: for a lot more about him and why you should care about his work, see my review of Richard Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, from last year. Oh, damnit, and I just broke my hyperlink promise!)

Nova Swing, by M John Harrison

My main point of even bringing all this up is to establish to all you SF non-fans just what's so important about winning the PKD Award, and what it signifies to readers in the know before they ever pick up the award-winner in question; and that of course is because today's book under review just happens to be the winner of this year's PKD Award, M John Harrison's Nova Swing. Because make no mistake, this is not the best of the nominated SF books I've read this year (that honor still belongs to Brasyl); but it's definitely the best experimental or cutting-edge novel I've read this year, and that counts all the other experimental stuff I've reviewed here in the last twelve months, whether or not it was SF. This is a crazy story for people who specifically love crazy stories, a tale which takes elements from half a dozen genres and mixes them all into one giant unique stew; you're going to love it if you already love things like that, hate it (and in fact find it barely comprehensible) if you don't. It's a perfect reflection of what the PKD Award should be about in the first place, because like Dick's work itself the book is a frustrating and fascinating one -- one that requires patience and a lot of digressive thoughts in order to get through, one that is constantly veering off into unexpected directions.

In fact, that's probably a good place to start with any review of Nova Swing, that its particulars make it difficult to offer up any kind of simple summary whatsoever; I mean, just to begin with, this is a sequel of sorts to an earlier book of Harrison's called Light (which I confess I haven't read), although supposedly not really a sequel either, but rather a story that simply takes place in the same fictional universe, a story set a generation after the first one, where the major characters of the former have fleeting cameos in the latter, otherwise not affecting the brand-new story being told. And what is that story? Well, like I said, it's kind of hard to wrap your brain around it all, without sitting down and reading the entire 250-page book yourself; although you can safely say that it is primarily about an alien city, one that has been under the influence for a quarter of a century now of a mysterious galaxian anomaly in the sky above, an unexplainable black-holey-type...thing that scientists have named the Kefahuchi Tract. This in turn has produced a bizarre local effect on the part of the city itself directly below the tract, which is called the Saudade Event; and reflecting the disruptive space-time storm that it is, like a traditional storm this Event has an "eye" (or especially destructive center) and "aureole" (or weaker outer edge).

Have I lost you already? See, that's why it's important to actually read Nova Swing, and why it's notoriously difficult to write a tidy summary of such a book; because under Harrison's elegant, veteran hands, he presents a more complex Event site than I ever could today, a city neighborhood that is part haunted house and part Surrealist film, a physical space with all the dread of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves but all the absurdist humor of Robert Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. (And is it just me, or did this book remind anyone else of the obscure, short-lived Vertigo comic Deadenders, by Ed Brubaker? Or was I the only person in America who actually used to read that comic?) Let's be clear, that the Saudade Event is basically the main "character" of Nova Swing; it is bizarre, it is obsessively fascinating, it presents its own geography and inexplicable rules, just like the best "world-building"-style fantastical literature should. Because that's really what Harrison is doing here, building an uncannily real-feeling fictional world for us to get lost in, or at least a city in this case, a proud tradition within SF and sometimes more important to certain readers than the actual story being told.

Because when Harrison gets around to telling the actual story, see, strangely enough it's not too much more than a standard noir, told in a tough and minimalist Chandleresque way, full of street-smart humor you usually don't expect from a SF story, part of why it's been getting so much attention precisely for its language. (Like, take this good example, from when a cop and his assistant are debating the origins of a group of unknown space aliens currently in custody: "What do they look like to you?" "They look like idiots.") Because as you can well imagine, in a city neighborhood where both the weather and the sky-color change every few minutes, where random snippets of music can always be heard and sometimes a thousand pairs of used boots will suddenly appear in the sky for no reason, of course this becomes the hottest extreme-tourist destination this side of Vietnam, and of course people from all over the galaxy are arriving each day for the chance to take a walk through its streets. But because of its danger and unpredictability (dozens have been lost in the Event and never seen again), the local government has made all entry into the site highly illegal; but since the local police can't exactly build physical barriers (they just get swallowed up by the Event in the night, turned into something random and weird the next morning), it is in fact pretty easy to take a walking tour of the site's aureole if you're sneaky and happen to know what you're doing.

And thus enters our anti-hero, professional Event guerrilla-tour organizer Vic Serotonin, one of a whole group of "futured-up" noir stereotypes who populate the seedy bar "Black Cat White Cat" at the center of our tale -- there is also the genetically-engineered warrior-animal underground boxer (he of the elephant-like tusks and three-foot perpetually erect penis), the matching genetically-engineered prostitute (she of the...never mind) who loves him, the weasely gangster who pays good money for "artefacts" snuck out of the site, the cynical cop who's been cloned to look like Albert Einstein, even the grizzled female owner of the bar, a former "K-ship" pilot with a past she doesn't like discussing. And that's the thing I want to try to get across today: that even with Harrison's superior writing skills (and make no mistake, he's a better writer than most others in the genre), this would essentially still be not much more than a blase space-noir tale if not for the grand funk known as the Saudade Event, or least not a book worthy of the PKD Award. By filtering it through this utterly original, utterly mesmerizing concept of the Event itself, by making that concept metaphorically shine and sparkle as much as Harrison does, the noir stereotypes of the plot suddenly become a delight instead of tiring and hackneyed, which I think is where so many other SF authors get things wrong; there are too many writers, I think, who believe the mere futuring-up of other genres to be interesting enough on its own, not realizing that people have been doing this now for decades and that there's not too much originality left just from the act itself.

Harrison understands that, so uses the noir elements of Nova Swing to actually tell a much bigger and grander story -- a story you can literally get lost in if you want, a story full of elements he never does get around to exactly explaining in full (I still don't understand what "daughter code" is), a story you feel like you just peeked in on for awhile instead of getting the entire beginning, middle and ending of. And let's face it, this is yet another element of the genre that SF fanboys and -girls go nuts for, which is why you're always hearing big franchises within the genre referred to as the "Star Wars Universe" or the "Star Trek Universe." It's impressive to watch an author build an entire credible yet fictional universe, complete with its own rules and history, just to tell one specific story within that universe; and by leaving that intact universe behind when the story is done, it encourages fans to create their own stories, whether in their head or as actual fan-fiction. This is an essential part of science-fiction to understand, to understand why SF fans become fans to begin with; that within this particular genre, it's often not enough just to tell a story on its own, but even better when the reader at the end feels like they've been a part of something bigger than themselves.

When all is said and done, Nova Swing is a fine example of something I've talked about here before, of how the world of the fantastical seems to be merging more and more with the mainstream in these techno-happy Web 2.0 times; that much like Lost, Chuck Palahniuk or certain graphic novels, it's one of those projects that bridges the gap between Comic Book Guys and NPR Nerds (and seriously, you two, you're a lot more like each other than either of you want to admit). It's a great SF novel for those who don't usually read SF, but do like weird, challenging stuff; and there's a very good reason it won the PKD Award in the first place, a reason that makes me happy and assured that the entire genre is in a very good, very healthy place these days. It comes much recommended, but only to those who think in advance that they might like it; if after reading this review the whole thing still sounds ridiculous to you, rest assured that actually reading the book won't change that opinion.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.2
Characters: 7.8
Style: 9.8
Overall: 9.0

Read even more about Nova Swing: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:59 AM, July 2, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |