Monday, 3 March 2014

Under The Kefahuchi Tract Tonight

 Nova Swing - M. John Harrison

Welcome to Saudade, found on a distant planet in a galaxy light years away, somewhere beneath the Kefahuchi Tract. A far future city awash with retro bars, genetic chop-shops and eager tourists. At it’s heart lies the mysterious ‘event zone’ where physics and reality are altered in inexplicable ways. The zone exists as a result of a piece of the Kefahuchi Tract (a space-time anomaly), falling to the planet and is a nexus of sorts for the events of the novel, much like the Zone from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. You may be more familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation Stalker or perhaps even the 2011 PC game of the same name. Or perhaps not…

Nova Swing won both the Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick awards in 2007. It is set in the same universe as and follows on from Harrison’s 2002 novel Light. I had not read Light and had only a basic idea of what it was about before reading Nova Swing. This didn’t seem to be a problem as I was still able to understand and follow the events of the novel without feeling like I was missing information so feel free to dive right in.

Vic Serotonin is a tour guide of sorts, taking tourists on illegal expeditions into the zone for cash. Vic is lured into the zone once more at the request of an attractive tourist who is not all that she seems. Paulie deRaad is a successful trafficker who exploits the zone for personal and financial gain, illegally buying and selling the artifacts discovered within it. When Vic sells him a problematic artifact it sets in motion a disturbing chain of events. Meanwhile Lens Aschemann, a local law enforcement agent who has altered his appearance to look like Einstein is tasked with monitoring and enforcing restrictions on the zone. His attention is drawn towards Vic and Paulie as he investigates strange new artifacts that have begun emerging from the zone.

All three characters are obsessed with the zone in some way and the novel shows us how they and their obsession with trying to understand the inexplicable affects them and the large cast that surrounds them. The story is presented in a noir style complete with all the tropes that you would expect to come with it. Flawed heroes, seedy bars and dangerous and seductive women are all present. Not a first time pairing for sci-fi and noir, but Harrison uses these tropes in a unique way that somehow skewers both genres. There are plenty of future oddities and technological marvels crammed into the city of Saudade to satisfy the sci-fi buffs but I'll leave out the details as I found it was a lot of fun being thrust into the futuristically alien and borderline psychedelic world that the novel inhabits without any prior concepts of it. But as a noir novel this is essentially a mystery story with a mystery that is by it’s very nature inexplicable and undefinable at it’s heart.

If you have ever read any of the authors previous work you would be familiar with his tendency to twist the genre in which he is working to a point where one suspects he actually disdains it. A stylistic trait which can be frustrating if you’re not expecting it and is present throughout Nova Swing. The one sci-fi action sequence is called to mind, as well as a significant change of focus occurring late in the novel. Ultimately though it is this approach that I find so appealing, intriguing and thought provoking about the author's work.

If you’re looking for a standard sci-fi action lark then you’re in the wrong place. Nova Swing is a strange and challenging novel but well worth persevering with as the ideas, themes and even the very execution of the novel will have you thinking for a long time afterwards.

9 / 10

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