(2006) M John Harrison, Gollancz, £17.99, hrdbk, 246pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-7027-7
Nova Swing is set in the same universe as Harrison's much-praised Light (2002), though is not a sequel to, or continuation of, that volume (except, perhaps, in the most oblique and/or thematic terms). In other words, you can safely read this book without having read the former volume. Nova Swing owes more than a little to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic and features a noir-ish protagonist, Vic Serotonin, in the role of a guide into a 'forbidden zone' on the planet Saudade, where a portion of the Kefahuchi Tract has 'fallen' to earth. The Tract is, for want of a better way of putting it, composed of sentient light, and physics as we know it does not work there. Indeed, it seems to have physical laws all its own, where quantum physics is not observer dependent, and causality and 'choice' no longer apply. Not that that matters much: though Harrison is respectful enough of science that, where he uses it, he tries to get it right, his work is more 'literary', in the sense that his work is mainly character-driven and it is they, and their internal states, that provide the 'drama' of the story. In other words, the forbidden zone is more of a 'device' than it is important in and of itself. That is worth mentioning because, if you are a reader who wants a simple plot, with an explanation of the zone, and something to come out of it other than revelations for the characters, then you're going to be disappointed, and this book probably is not for you. By the same token, if you believe (as many of us do) that science fiction is not 'literarture's poor relation', then reading Nova Swing and, more so, Light will confirm for you that SF is nobody's poor relation. Anyway, bearing all that in mind...
Vic Serotonin runs his business out of a bar, the Black Cat White Cat, owned by former spaceship pilot Liv Hula. Here he kills time with a fat man called Antoyne while waiting to be hired to get people into the forbidden zone. Tourists and collectors try this all the time, trying to circumvent the Saudade artifact police, and hoping to bring out of the zone something of value, some technology or biological organism that can be sold on. Aschemann is a detective who polices incursions into the zone and who, furthermore, worries that the zone is expanding its borders, swallowing more of the town which has already lost a goodly chunk. His assistant thinks he's nuts. Vic's last client got scared and chickened out just a little way into the zone, but she keeps hanging around, hoping to try again. Meanwhile Vic owes favours to the local gangster, Paulie DeRaad, and hopes to get the zone diaries of another old pilot, Emil Bonaventure, to help him make a score. But is there really any such thing as a reliable map of the zone? After all, it's different every time you go in there. And what is it with all the black and white cats? With half the planet trying to get into the zone, and the other half trying to keep them out, a conflict can't be far away. Meanwhile it seems a new disease is coming out of the zone, one which affects humans in surprising and awful ways, and Fat Antoyne gets an ambitious new girlfriend, Irene, who is a Mona, a bio-engineered physical type, but without the usual stupidity... Who can come out on top out of all this confusion? And what do people really want? And what does the zone want? Because Aschemann has noticed that there seems to be a hell of a lot more people coming out of the zone these days than ever went in...
Harrison does reference elements of Light, and even portions of The Centauri Device (1975), but Nova Swing stands alone quite happily. The zone is almost a McGuffin, not unlike the Maltese Falcon (in much the same way - it is the stuff that dreams are made of). And it is that characters' dreams and desires that are important here: Liv Hula's dreams of selling up the bar and moving on; Irene's dreams of being more than 'just' a Mona; Fat Antoyne's near lack of dreams; Paulie DeRaad's greed, and what it gets him; Vic's clients' dreams and the past he's lost; even Aschemann's dreams of understanding the zone. How these people orbit around each other, and what they come to value, is the engine that drives the book. If you are just in it for the ray-guns, aliens and spaceships, you are going to be very disappointed (and more than a little confused) but, if you like real meat with your two-veg - if you follow my drift - then this book is a feast for the mind. On the whole I would recommend Light more, but Nova Swing is also a good addition to the book shelves.
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