There’s a provoking quote by Harrison floating around on the web, although the original post seems deleted:
“The writer – as opposed to the worldbuilder – must therefore rely on an audience which begins with the idea that reading is a game in itself. I don’t see this happening in worldbuilding fiction. When you read such obsessively-rationalised fiction you are not being invited to interpret, but to “see” and “share” a single world. As well as being based on a failure to understand the limitations of language as a communications tool (or indeed the limitations of a traditional idea of what communication can achieve), I think that kind of writing is patronising to the reader; and I’m surprised to find people talking about “actively reading” these texts when they seem to mean the very opposite of it. The issue is: do you receive – is it possible to receive – a fictional text as an operating manual? Or do you understand instead that your relationship with the very idea of text is already fraught with the most gameable difficulties & undependabilities? The latter seems to me to be the ludic point of reading: anything else rather resembles the – purely functional – act of following instructions on how to operate a vacuum cleaner.”
I guess it’s from the same post as this quote:
“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study.”
Obviously this is all taste, and not law. It’s also no clear cut dichotomy, as there’s some worldbuilding in Nova Swing too, like in all other Harrison books I’ve read and will read. But as a piece of polemic poetics, Harrison succeeds to point sharply at one end of a spectrum.
It also says something about the difficulties I encountered while reading Nova Swing – a book that taxes the reader in an above average way. I had to pay attention, and while things got easier throughout to a certain extent, the first part of the finale was dense again, filled with sentences and scenes to reread and ponder. Not surprising, as it is set in “a stretch of bad physics, a mean glowing strip of strange”, a part of the so-called Kefahuchi Tract that fell to the surface of the planet Saudade in 2444AD – an age in which humans have spread out in the galaxy using FTL technology.
At the same time, this book isn’t difficult qua plot at all – it’s straightforward as can be. As such it reminded me a bit of Gibson’s writing – heavy on mood & language, and the plot just a vehicle. Others have pointed at Ballard or Snow Crash. All that is true, but Harrison managed to write a pretty singular book, combining space opera, New Wave Fabulism, cyberpunk, the surreal and – above all for this volume of the Empty Space trilogy – noir.
The fairly slim plot doesn’t mean there’s no characters to love: like in much of Harrison’s other work we again meet a set of broken, lost people, and Harrison’s knack for psycho-social observation and human commentary is as sharp as ever in Nova Swing.
When I was little, she thought, I wanted nothing except to stop travelling. I wanted time for each new thing, each new feeling, to be held properly in suspension until it could be joined by the next. Given the chance I could easily hold all those beautiful things together. I could be like a box in which they would be held new forever. Instead, everything aged and changed. People too.
Harrison is a master of the quick sketch, managing to paint a full picture of a person in just a few lines.
“She lived here on her own,” he said. “She retreated.” He wasn’t sure how to expand on this. “With her it was drink, fuddled political principles, old emotional entanglements. Help only confused here.”
The central noir characters, a criminal and a cop, are both stereotype and unique. Vic Serotonin and Lens Aschemann reminded me a bit of Neil McCauley & Vincent Hanna from Michael Mann’s phenomenal Heat: both sides of the same coin.
While this is the second novel in a trilogy, it works perfectly well as a standalone, you don’t need to have read the brilliant Light first. And like Light, Nova Swing ends in a hopeful way – framing the former chapters as transitional, and not as a definitive cynical statement on humanity.
The book won both the Arthur C. Clarke and the PKD, and was nominated for the the BSFA, the Campbell and the Derleth – a British horror award. That’s quite an honors list, and there’s quite a lot of glowing reviews to be found. Instead of taking much longer of your time, I’d like to direct you to the reviews of Speculiction, Jeroen Admiraal and the New Puritan. That last one is especially helpful if you’re reading the book and need a way in – even though it has minor spoilers. If you’re the type of reader that would enjoy Harrison, you’re probably also the type of reader that doesn’t mind to do some research before buying or borrowing a book, and these 3 provide a good framework to set your expectations right.
I want to stress Harrison’s command of language – there’s some truly great lines and paragraphs in this book. Similarly, his imagination shines, quite starkly, even if it doesn’t take center stage. There’s enough science fictional ideas in this book to fill a book 2 or 3 times its size, and there’s a bodily horror that drops in a few times that marries sci-fi to the uncanny.
This was another successful Harrison for me – and like his latest The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, one that I will probably reread in the coming decade, just as I will reread Light. Now that I think of it, I guess I’ll enjoy Light even more now that I have a better grip on what Harrison tries to do with his books. I might even read Swing‘s last 50 pages again tonight – expect no update here however, it will be a private affair. Nova Swing is recommended, 4.5 stars – caveats below. I’ll read the final Kefahuchi book, Empty Space, sooner than later.
To end this review, another lengthy quote, from R. Scott Bakker, who replied to the bit of Harrison I opened this review with, in a 2008 interview with Pat of Fantasy Hotlist:
“For Harrison, who is an avowed post-modernist, the reader should be continually confronted with the performative as opposed to the representational function of language. They should be reminded (apparently over and over and over) of the power of words to spin realities, to the point where the work becomes a multifarious, promiscuous, meaning event (albeit one that is too often generated by the most mechanical of po-mo tactics, elision). Forcing the reader to draw whole characters out of fragments, narrative arcs out of discordant events – to “fulfill their part of the bargain” – this is the true way to make the reader an active part of the process, and so a critically minded, enlightened citizen.
I don’t know whether to laugh or yawn anymore. For better or worse, readers without literature degrees tend to hate this stuff. They like coherent characters and stories and settings. So when you start screwing with “representational expectations” (in other words, unilaterally rewriting the “bargain”) by and large all you end up doing is preaching to the choir, writing for people with literature degrees, which is to say, for people who already share your values. In other words, you simply end up catering to their expectations. You become an “upscale” version of the very commercial entertainers you continually denigrate.”
We’re hardwired for this shit, which is why you see the same pattern repeating itself over and over in every sphere of cultural production. Every sphere has a self-styled elite who both identify and flatter themselves via their values, then criticize others for not sharing those values. “Our values are the values and you guys are losers because of this and this and this…”
This pattern bums me out because it swallows so much talent in our society and aims it inward. Harrison really is a prodigious talent, but he can’t seem to see his way past this post-modern crap. This is another universal human pattern: whatever your yardstick happens to be, nothing else seems to measure up – it quickly becomes the yardstick.
Don’t blame the cretinized masses for not reading your stuff. If you really are afraid, if you really are a writer with a social conscience, then go out and meet them. Write something that communicates to them, and not just to those who already share your values. Stop writing for “yourself,” or for the “page,” or for whatever clever euphemism you use to cover the fact that you’re simply a producer of a kind of a high-end cultural commodity.
Until you do, you’re just another entertainer. Which is okay, so long as you’re not pretending otherwise. Say, “I write for people like me, and I’m not all that interested in making a social difference.”
I guess Bakker is right too – although I’d hesitate to fully subscribe to the intentional tribunal of Harrison he paints at the end – I simply don’t have enough grip on Harrison to judge either way. But the bulk of Bakker’s argument stands – as I said, in the beginning: taste & polemics. It is clear later day Harrison will not appeal to everybody – although you do not need a literature degree at all, just an open mind and a palate that can handle the poetic, the uncertain and the undefined. Nova Swing is not the same postmodern affair Light was – and as such maybe the best entry level Harrison novel I’ve come across so far. That, or newbies could try one of his short story collections.
“The known is slicked on to everything like a kind of grease. You would do anything to avoid the things you already know.”
ps – I can’t say anything about how it compares to the Strugagksy’s Roadside Picnic, as I haven’t read that – but I did add it to my to buy-list. Update 6/2021: I’ve read Picnic now, and I talk a bit about how the two relate to each other in my review. Whether it is best to read Picnic first, or Nova Swing, I think you can’t go wrong either way – but more on that in the other review.