Fiction Reviews

Empty Space

(2012) M. John Harrison, Gollancz, trdpbk, £12.99, 303pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09631-8


This is the final part of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, which started with Light and continued with Nova Swing (the latter winning an Arthur C. Clarke Award). This is not mentioned anywhere inside the book nor on the cover; I only found out because of a press release which had been included with the review copy of the book.

I have long been aware of the author but, for reasons too numerous to mention, have never actually got round to reading one of his novels; I was therefore looking forward to my first M. John Harrison! Empty Space is described in the press release as the 'glorious conclusion' to the trilogy; I have not read the other parts so I cannot comment on the nature or fitness of the conclusion, but glorious is not a term I would have used to describe this book.

As I started to read I was impressed with how well written it was, of how full it was of little details of this and of that, of how the general scenery and background was being fleshed out; it was a joy to read. By the time I was halfway through, however, I had lost this enthusiasm; I was still waiting for the story to get going! All this detail was all very fine but when were interesting things going to happen? It seemed to be all detail and precious little story. By two thirds of the way through I was getting distinctly bored; nothing much was happening, it was just lots of detailed scenes but no real meat. I even debated with myself whether I should give up on it and instead pick up something with a story worth telling. In the end I finished the book out of a sense of duty and in the vain, it was to prove, hope that the story would finally kick in, that things would be explained, and there would be a point to it all. If this is typical of the author then I shall not concern myself with any of his other works (even if those that decide upon such things do give him awards).

But let us look at what story there is. First I have to say that it did not feel like Part Three of an ongoing story, it felt like a complete story in its own right. Either the author has done a great job of blending in all that I needed to know from the earlier books, without it ever seeming like I was reading inserts, or maybe it is simply the third (and final) story set in the same setting. The narrative is mostly set in a future where mankind has travelled out into the stars and populated countless planets over the vastness of space. Mostly we are concerned with goings-on in that part of space which is near the immense Kefahuchi Tract, an area many hundreds of light years across where strange things are happening to the universe and the laws of physics are radically different to those we know.

We will start with the enigmatic M. P. Renoko, who may or may not be human, and who wants a number of items which he calls mortsafes collected from various locations and delivered to an unnamed final destination. For this he hires the cargo ship Nova Swing, operated by Fat Antoyne and his partners/crew. Their journey starts from the spaceport of Saudale and is commissioned by Toni Reno, a local fixer. Shortly afterwards, Toni’s body is found and it is mysteriously floating in the air and refusing all attempts to move it anywhere else. As the local police investigate, they are joined by a lady known simply as the assistant (not, note, the Assistant), so called because she was assistant to one of their (now deceased) top investigators. She is rather unusual in that she has been highly tailored; that is to say she has been surgically enhanced and adapted; she can move so fast she appears as only the slightest of blurs, she can hear mice moving in neighbouring buildings, she can sense in various wavelengths of radar, and has many other unnatural abilities. She is also a cold, emotionless woman who has no memory of who she was before she was tailored and who is forever trying to find a name for herself. Meanwhile, more bodies turn up and the assistant is left perplexed, especially as it appears that the murderer may be a woman who is even more tailored than herself.

Into her life steps R I Gaines, an agent of EMC (Earth Military Contracts). He has the sort of equipment that allows him to project himself and communicate instantly across the vast distances of known space and who has access to the K-ships which warp reality and allow him to travel quickly to wherever he wants to be. He is involved with a project to understand the Aleph, a construction at least a million years old, probably many more, and which seems subject to its own set of physical laws, and the Aleph keeps asking for the assistant. Gaines also keeps tabs on his colleague Impasse van Sant, who is slowly piloting his craft, the Tub, towards the Tract.

Lastly, in the world of today, we have Anna, a twice-widowed lady of late middle age. Anna lives on her own and in a world of her own; if she is not senile then she is heading that way. She has a grownup daughter, Marnie, who has her own problems. Whilst the two of them often meet and talk, neither understands, nor really tries to, the other. Her mental state aside, odd things seem to happen to Anna; there are the strange copper poppies by her summerhouse, growing there one day but of which there is no trace either the day before or the day after; and the summerhouse itself seems to be enveloped in flames some nights yet remains untouched, still intact the next morning.

The story weaves back and forth between these various characters and slowly, slowly makes its way somewhere. However such progress as there is is very slow and, even at the end, it is difficult to say exactly where it has got to as clearly many of the characters are still on their way to wherever it is they are going and their activities are unfinished. There is an ending but it is only an ending of sorts, it is hardly definitive and much (if not most) remains unexplained or unresolved. The details and on-going descriptions of their here-and-now activities are well written and would be interesting if they lead somewhere, but, in the end, all they do is fill the pages. It is as if the author had had the germ of an idea about “what if there is somewhere where time and space are all mixed up and lots of strange things happen” but not fleshed it out much further than that. All told, as a story, I found it most unsatisfying. Mysterious places where time and space work differently and the laws of physics are not what we know are all very well and good, but if the story is to work as a story then it needs to go somewhere with them, not just hang around them.

I recently read Total Recall, a book of short stories by Philip K. Dick. It strikes me that if PKD had written Empty Space it would have been about 20 pages, full of punch and ideas, and devoid of waffle - and it would have worked wonderfully. In 1976, in The Best of Philip K. Dick, in a piece named 'Afterthought by the Author', he wrote: “The advantage of the story over the novel is that in the story you catch the protagonist at the climax of his life, but in the novel you’ve got to follow him from the day he was born to the day he dies (or nearly so). Open any novel at random and usually what is happening is either dull or unimportant. The only way to redeem this is through style. It is not what happened but how it is told. Pretty soon the professional novelist acquires the skill of describing everything with style, and content vanishes. In a story, though, you can’t get away with this. Something important has to happen. I think this is why gifted professional fiction writers wind up writing novels. Once their style is perfected, they have it made. Virginia Woolf, for instance, ended up writing about nothing at all.”

It strikes me that that is what has happened with Empty Space. Whilst the book is of itself very well written and stuffed full of finely crafted scenes, there is very little story. Indeed, story-wise, this book is best described by its title - empty space.

Peter Tyers

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