'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... It featured a zinc counter slightly too high for comfort. A row of bottles which contained liquids of unlikely colours. A few tables. The long window steamed up easily... In the morning the bar smelled of last night's garlic. Some mornings it smelled of mould too...'
And, as for the man himself?
'Vic - short for Vico, a name popular in Scienza Nova where he was born - was in the bar most days. He ate there. He ran his business out of it. He used it as a mail drop, and as a place to check out his clients .'
On this particular day, his client is a woman - a little too tall, with long thin hands and 'that way of looking both anxious and tranquil a lot of those tourist women have...elegant and awkward at the same time.' Like all the women who end up in this bar, she is looking for something essential - sex, perhaps, or meaning, or even selfhood - and has come to Vic out of desperation and longing.
In the common parlance of Saudade he is a 'tour operator', one of the rare individuals willing to take 'tourists' into the 'event site', a space-time phenomenon caused when parts of the Kefahuchi Tract fell to earth.* The site is his livelihood: he takes people in, and he brings things out. 'Things' is the best way to describe them - although the official term is 'artefacts' - since what they actually are is anyone's guess. Bits of flotsam and jetsam of rogue matter and code, they're the most dangerous of all contrabands - volatile, incomprehensible and liable to destroy or consume you. Not to mention, pretty freaky:
'He had no idea what it was. When he found it, two weeks before, it had been an animal, a one-off thing no one but him would ever see, white, hairless, larger than a dong, moving away up a slope of rubble somewhere in the event site, then back towards him as if it had changed its mind and become curious about what Vic was. It had huge human eyes. How it turned from an animal into the type of object he had finally picked up, manufactured out of this wafery artificial substance which in some lights look like titanium and in other bone, he didn't know. He didn't want to know.'
Vic shifts his through a broker called Paulie DeRaad, 'one-time vacuum commando, facilitator and all-round Earth Militrary Contracts factotum', who uses his club, the Semiramide, as a cover. The cover is essential since traffic in 'artefacts' is ostensibly forbidden.
Len Aschemann is the detective in charge of halting, or at least limiting, the flow of site goods and he has his eye on Vic (and Paulie too). Haunted by the murder of his wife and almost terminally removed from human society, Len has dedicated himself to limiting the impact of the site on the city. Just around the time that Vic is ushering his female client into the event for the first time, Aschemann is beginning to suspect that he may be behind a major breach in security. He is almost sure, very nearly sure, that people are coming out who never went in.
Or, at least, they look like people.
Such is a basic - read: very basic - synopsis of Nova Swing by M. John Harrison, part hard-boiled noir, part SF and the most challenging and, in my opinion, the most rewarding book on this year's Arthur C. Clarke shortlist. A book, I must admit, which I disliked intensely for a good long while but which has won me over, page by page, until I'm ecstatic at its immense thematic possibility. I would go so far as to say that this is the only novel on the shortlist that fully convinces me of the wealthy potentiality of SF.
It does this in a number of ways, all of them to do with the novel's central conceit: the 'event site'. The site is a multiplicitous and endlessly variable concept, at once 'the independable, the random, the exterior', and yet also the timeless and the enduring, the access point to a deep well of nostalgia. It is a catalyst for change, but also a nexus for stasis and stagnation. People's experiences of it are as numerous as the people themselves and the site has an infinite number of geographies, tesselations and formulations to trick, beguile and swallow them all:
'...streets transposed on one another, everything laid down out of sync one minute to the next. Geography that doesn't work There isn't a single piece of dependable architecture in the shit of it. You leave the route you know, you're done. Lost dogs, barking day and night. Everything struggling to keep afloat.'
It is 'the hypermarket of the meaningless', where ironically everyone (nearly everyone) goes looking for their meaning. This is true of Vic and of Len, of Paulie De Raad and Vic's client, whose name it transpires is Elizabeth Kieler.
Yes, the site is certainly the centre of it all, or, rather, the lack of a centre - the lacuna into which everyone falls. Those who touch it, or dare to dwell on or in it, loose themselves and their lives: Paulie DeRaad is consumed by an artefact Vic brings him, while Vic himself is incapable of distangling himself from it. Throughout the novel he becomes increasingly obsessed with finding a 'map' to the interior created by his mentor and predecessor Emil Bonaventure, who is himself dying slowly of multiple site-caused diseases. Len Aschemann is equally tied up in the site. Although, in some ways at least, he considers it his nemesis and adversary, he is deeply invested in its mysteries. It is like the third rail of Saudade - touch it and you die. It drains you dry, literally, until all that is left is a husk, and the obsession and, if you're lucky, some mindless sex. As Emil explains:
'"What's the difference between what you've seen and what you are? You want to know what it's like in there? The fact is, you spend all those years trying to make something out of it. Then guess what, it starts making something out of you."'
Both Vic and Len are swiftly becoming men bereft of meaningful existence. Neither engages in interpersonal relationships, or takes a joy in eating, drinking, breathing or sleeping; neither has a sense of the future or particularly fond memories of the past. Both are inexorably and solipsistically determined to discover something about the way the site works. It is almost as though there is nothing else in the world.
The real relationships of the novel happen to others - the site sucks away the possibility of making human connections - and even though both Vic and Len have the opportunity to forge friendships and romances, neither is capable of doing so. Not that they aren't aware of their lack or the pathos in their situations. It is Vic's awareness of his loneliness that brings him back, again and again, to Elizabeth Kielar, a young woman with her own gaping emotional holes. When he reads her diary, handed to him in a desperate attempt to access the site, he sees something of himself:
'"Am I meant to live this way?' she asked herself. 'Is it the same for all these other creatures? Is this how they see things here?' Speaking as one of those creatures, Vic would like to know too.
Len also seems to be aware that there is the possibility of an emotional interchange with his assistant, a woman whose name we never learn because he never asks her for it. He rejects her thoroughly though. Out of fear, out of habit.
I read somewhere that 'Saudade', the name of the city, is a Portuguese word that is difficult to translate but means something like: 'a longing for something lost that may or may not return'. It seems to me that the site is the locus of this longing in Nova Swing - its chaotic otherness is some kind of answer to the desperate questions that Vic, Elizabeth and Len seem to be asking themselves. Who am I? Where did I come from? How did my life turn out this way? Where next? The site, then, becomes a signifier of undomesticated meaning - the excitement of facing a raw muddle of time and space makes the viewer feel alive. This is why, perhaps, Vic ends up having so much sex with his clients: the site makes them eager to affirm their fleshy and mortal bodies. Of course, what becomes clear to the reader is that this is not really facing the 'other' at all but rather subjugating the self. Going into the site, or seeking it out in anyway, is an act of self-mortification and destruction.
Which is why, I think, Harrison chooses to shift the perspective of the narrative away from the site-seekers towards the end of the novel, refocusing on the auxiliary characters, those individuals who actively turn away from and reject the glamour of the 'event'. These are, by and large, women: Liv Hula, the owner of the bar in which Vic hangs out; Edith, Emil Bonaventure's daughter; and the nameless policewoman. Nova Swing's most moving and evocative passages belong to these individuals who, without the melodrama of risk-taking and self-sacrifice, set about finding meaning in their world. It is true that they are all haunted by nostalgic longing for the sometime-past of their better selves. But they take their yearnings in their hands and, in the final 30 pages, once the noir trio of Vic, Len and Elizabeth has burnt itself out, bright and riveting, they find ways for themselves to move on. It is Irene, a broken-down prostitute turned business woman who expresses it perfectly:
'"None of us is anyone any more. We all lost who we were. But we can all be something else."'
In the end Nova Swing turns out to be about self-possession, about the extent to which you control your selfhood and the extent to which the 'other' determines who we become. It is also about the extent to which the universe is inscrutable and beyond our understanding, and about the point at which we simply have to shrug and move past it.
I can't tell you how excited all this makes me. And this is despite the fact that I find Harrison a difficult writer to warm to in terms of prose and setting. My only real niggle is Nova Swing's trend in gender relations - that is, that Harrison has men set out to conquer the unknown, while women are largely happy to leave well alone and find themselves elsewhere. I'm unsure how I feel about this, or how it fits with the wider implications of the novel's thematics. Perhaps Nic will helpfully elucidate.
[*I'm aware that the Tract is connected with Harrison's earlier novel Light, and that Nova Swing is a type of sequel. But I haven't read the former and so can't make comment on the connections; I leave that to Nic who has read both.]
The Long Bar at the Cafe Surf was full of fractured sunlight and bright air. Sand blew across the floor from the open door; the staff were sleepy and vague. Someone's toddler crawled about between the cane tables wearing only a T-shirt bearing the legend SURF NOIR. Meanings - all incongruous - splashed off this like drops of water, as the dead metaphors trapped inside the live one collided and reverberated endlessly and elastically, taking up new positions relative to one another. SURF NOIR, which is a whole new existence; which is a 'world' implied in two words, dispelled in an instant; which is foam on the appalling multitextual sea we drift on. "Which is probably," Aschemann noted, "the name of an aftershave."
He beamed down at the toddler, which burst into tears.
I'm not sure this will be either helpful or elucidating, but I'll give it go... Light is made up of three story strands. One, in the present day, concerns a physicist who moonlights as a serial killer and who first discovers the Kefahuchi Tract (with the partial help of two cats, one black and one white - referenced in Nova Swing as the name of Liv's bar). The other two strands, set among the human space colonies of the year 2400, follow a pair of characters who live in the shadow (figuratively speaking) of the Tract, essentially a weird thing in space described as "a singularity without an event horizon". No-one knows what exactly the Tract is - and the impression is that human beings are far from the first species to fail to understand it - but the human society of 2400 makes extensive but uneasy use of K-tech, hybridised machines that use code from the Tract.
At the end of Light, Ed Chianese flies a ship into the Tract, which may be the event that causes the splendidly-named "wrong physics" to fall down to Saudade and form the site. Nova Swing does appear to be set some years after Light, but still in living memory of it; I've read the date of 2444 in several places online, although I can't for the life of me recall whether it's actually mentioned in the book. (Anyone help?)
When we first meet Ed Chianese in Light, he's immersed in a tank having rather film noir-ish virtual reality adventures. That the reality is only virtual isn't apparent until the end of Ed's first chapter, when a giant duck turns up to signal his time in the tank is up - Harrison loves to wrongfoot his readers (the quote I began with hopefully gives a indication of how disorientating his prose can be). In the simulation, those Ed interacts with address him as "Chinese Ed". In Nova Swing, there are a number of references to Ed - but always as Chinese Ed. Which rather threw me. Now, I assume the implication is not that the whole of Nova Swing takes place in a VR simulation - although there were definitely times when I wondered, not helped by, say, one character having an existential crisis framed as "What if we're all code?". But still. Did the wrong physics have some bizarre warping on reality, somehow bringing Ed's noir game to partial reality on the streets of Saudade? Are the unreal people coming from the site in fact players of the game, out for hedonistic kicks? Or did Ed just adopt this variant name after the events of Light? Am I reading too much into this? (Undoubtedly.)
Which is very likely all a blind alley, in terms of working out what the book's about, but my confusion strikes me as thematically very appropriate. I talked about some of the structural and thematic concerns of film noir in our End of the World Blues discussion on Friday. Nova Swing has all this in spades - as might be guessed from what Vicky quotes above about the bar and the gumshoe and the dame - even down to a clever evocation of the visual conventions. Photography in film noir is all about chiaroscuro (sharp contrasts between light and dark, faces obscured by shadow, etc.); and time and again in Nova Swing, attention is drawn to the play of light and shadow on character's faces:
Aschemann's driver proved to be a woman who gave Vic a smile like salt, which Vic returned. Her face was alighted from complex angles in two or three different registers, by the dashboard, the neon, the splashout from The World of Today doorway: but he could see she had good tailoring and blonde hair cropped down to nothing much.
Similarly, Harrison's characters are trapped into dead-end lives they despise, whether by fate, circumstance, or simply fear of letting go of the past; everything they do only seems to mire them more deeply. There's Edith, for example, caught between caring for her dying father and trying to revive her own dreams; or Vic, spiralling into despair over his fixation with the site; or Len, obsessed with the unsolveable murder of his wife; or bartender Liv, who has been resting her head on her elbows for so long they're actually wearing dents in the countertop of her bar:
Liv Hula looked amused. "They never talk like that for me," she admitted to the woman in the fur coat. Then she had a sudden vision of her own life as hard-won, dug out raw from nothing much even the few times it seemed to swoop or soar.
As Vicky has said, the site is both a focus for the characters' hopes and fears, and a representation of their stasis and existential bewilderment. It's the possibility of change, and the dread of chaotic meaninglessness:
He used the stem of his pipe to indicate the Kefahuchi Tract, which lay draped across the night sky of Saudade like a string of bad jewels. "I used to dream of that," he said with a shudder. "Night after night, when I was young. You can't get change less ordered. Look at it, so raw and meaningless! The wrong physics, they say, loose in the universe. Do you understand that? I don't."
In some respects, I think Edith is the key to much of this. Here, she reflects on her early life, as a immensely-talented accordion-player touring space with her father:
She had no idea where they started from, or why, but she could still remember the endless stubby Dynaflow freighters, noncorporate rocket ports, afternoons in sawdust bars, Monas and barkeeps exclaiming over her, filling her with bad bar food and milk blued by the effort of keeping itself milk in the face of where it found itself. In return she filled the vacuum for them, the day they saw her and maybe even thereafter, as a cheap blurred smiling memory they could keep until whatever they'd been denying caught up with them at last.
I love the idea of "milk blued by the effort of keeping itself milk". This could describe the dilemma of any number of the characters: so determined are they to hold themselves together, to hang on to the image they have of themselves, to not grow up and accept change and take responsibility for their future, that they push away the present reality and live in the past, in a holding pattern. They try so hard to stay the same that they end up warping themselves. Even if they're not all sims in a VR game, what sort of volition or self-awareness do they possess? And frankly, faced with a universe that's not only vaster and stranger than you ever imagined, but where the alien and incomprehensible is just a few streets away and busy filling the air with old shoes and freak weather, who wouldn't spend quite a lot of time drinking or having failing relationships or fixating on trail-gone-cold old crimes?
Edith's recollection also link all this back to the question Vicky raises about the position of women in the novel. Because one possible reading (after noting that the active/passive divide isn't wholly gendered - consider Antoyne and Elizabeth) is, again, a noir-derived one. While women in film noir are a much more diverse bunch than the popular angels-or-whores perception implies, they do tend to be the observed rather than the observer - only men ever get voiceovers, and men's value judgements always frame the presentation of women. Their interior lives are closed to us. This attitude is encapsulated in Len's encounter with a woman from the site (emphasis added):
"I've seen you here," Aschemann said.
She leaned towards him when he spoke. Asked him for a match, upper body bent forward a little from the waist, head tilted back so that the dress offered her up wrapped in silk, jazz, light from the Live Music Nightly sign. She needed only a brushed aluminium frame to complete the image of being something both remembered and unreal.
I'd suggest that the women in Nova Swing start out this way, as their noir archetypes - Irene the knocked-about whore, Elizabeth the women-with-a-secret/possible femme fatale, Liv the sardonically sexless sidekick, Edith the spoiled but faithful brat. (Len's assistant being that cyberpunk adjunct to the collection, the souped-up, hard-as-razor-tipped-nails ice maiden). All are repositories for the expectations, assumptions, demands and fantasies of the people around them, like Edith was in her touring youth; all appear passive (even Len's assistant must do what she's told, or get slapped-down). All are slightly unreal. But when these women come into their own plot-wise, as Vicky describes, part of what they are doing, perhaps, is breaking out of this noirish framework of personal and narrative stasis - revealing themselves to be much more complex, active individuals, with their own hopes and strivings. Unlike the other characters, they don't waste energy on seeking an external intervention (via the site). They leave the construct behind, and become real.
Of course, not even accepting change necessarily alters much. But it's a start:
This was how life went. A single moment seemed to extend forever, then suddenly you were snapped out of it. The forward motion of time stretched whatever rubbery glue-like substance had fixed you there until it failed catastrophically. You weren't the person you were before you got trapped; you weren't the person you were while you were trapped: the merciless thing about it, Liv discovered, was that you weren't someone entirely different either.
As for Vicky, it took time, and several days' post-reading reflection, for me to fall for this book. But fall I have - even though I still don't really have a clue what's going on (as the above rambling will doubtless have shown...). Well worth the battle.
Vicky: Definitely worth the battle. :-) In an email earlier today Nic said something along the lines of (and I paraphrase): 'writing/thinking about Harrison involves bouncing off an intellect way bigger than our own'. I absolutely agree - I feel that I've hardly comprehended one aspect of 'Nova Swing' before another is jumping out at me.
Still, between us Nic and I have brought out what I think is the most vigorous and important of its facets - Harrison's reapproachment of strategies of change and intervention; of the ways in which people reinvent themselves and their lives. Beneath all the genre-steeped nostalgia and noir, all the deft descriptive turns and the sardonic asides, I feel this is the key to unlock the heart of the piece.