17 July 2013

Extra Star Drives for Empty Space


As I mentioned when it was published, my review of M. John Harrison's Empty Space for Strange Horizons was a more polished version of a rather ragged, untamed essay.

For the terminally curious, here are the parts that I cut. Most of the cuts were done for reasons of focus; a few I made simply because the sense of the sentences seemed, on reflection, too hermetic (or just wrong).

To indicate context and provide some form, I've included connecting material at the beginning and end.

Pandora's Cluster


In Light we learned that every alien race "had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another's basic assumptions." This is a universe of complementarity, a universe where the type of question asked determines the type of answer given, and where multiple types of answers may lead to similar results. Or perhaps it is a universe in which all basic assumptions are equally wrong. Is this the logic of quantum physics or the logic of dreams?

There is a certain hubris in the confidence that asserts an ability to differentiate between dreams and reality — or if not hubris then egotism: the assertion of a knowable, continuous, immutable self. Nova Swing includes an epigraph from John Gray: "Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactment of conscious selves."

Conscious, coherent selves are a staple of traditional narrative over the last few centuries in places where the dominant European concept of narrative took hold. Such narratives are predicated on the idea of a unified surface self built atop an unconscious foundation plumbed with depths. Most of what happens in our brains, though, is invisible and autonomic, unreachable to the self and still offering oodles of mystery to detective neuroscientists. "I" am a fiction created to get some synapses through the day, a theory driven by a brain and nervous system.

If the surface is a collection of fragmented fractals and the unconscious is beyond our knowledge, what then becomes of us and our narratives of our selves?

Here we have the heart of the challenge of the Kefahuchi Tract novels, particularly Nova Swing and Empty Space. I know readers who loved Light and then found no entry to the later books, or who turned away from them in frustration and spat their frustration outward at the novels, dismissing them as shallow or tedious or meretricious or hermetic, rather than seeing them as mirrors rendering visible the machinery of our desires. These books cannot be read by the standards of science fiction's golden ages. Toward that direction, all they point is a middle finger.

Some of the important questions these books explore are: How do we make sense of a narrative, what causes  that production of sense, and how does that product (sense) affect the other productions of our lives? (A motto hanging above the front desk at the Deleuze Motel: "In short, sense is always an effect." [The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester]) In traditional novels, to put it most obviously and basically, a concept of a character is produced by names, described actions, and words indicated as dialogue. Other words move that concept through the related actions that produce a concept of a plot sequence, where multiple characters encounter each other in various relationships, and the reading mind clusters other words into a concept of a setting where all the characters enact the plot.

We won't get a satisfying sense effect in the same way from the words of Empty Space, but unlike a brazenly surrealistic text, it doesn't signal its difference right off. Instead, it lures us in and lets us fall into our regular habits of sense-making until some point where frustration forces us to realize our machinery has all broken down. This process, too, is necessary. We are being dis-illusioned.

*

Most of what happens and where it happens is comprehensible on its own surface terms, related in regular English words. But unlike puzzle pieces or falling dominoes, the events of Empty Space don't knock one by one into the next; instead, they flow like falling rain or the code that scrolls down the assistant's arm. 

If we reject these books, we reject them because we have been trained, or have trained ourselves, to think that this is not how life and its stories work. We want puzzles to have all their pieces, and we want those pieces, no matter how complex, ultimately to fit together. Flows are scary and unsatisfying, all middle, all movement, all change, with no promontory from which to say, "This plateau is the real plateau."

The characters in Empty Space may seem difficult to grasp because we as readers have been indoctrinated by narrative conventions to see the precepts of psychoanalysis as real. But though its basic assumptions may fuel our star drives, psychoanalysis is merely one narrative theory, one way of wrangling the synapses that propose a self. Harrison gives us something closer to schizoanalysis, rendering psychodramas (a recurring term throughout Empty Space) into their proper place as monological, masturbatory fantasies. Such psychodramas and fantasies, like dreams, are realities of a sort, but instead of letting them work in the waking world, where they produce bad sitcoms and pulp adventure stories and fascism, we should leave them in the twink tanks where they can be safely contained and enjoyed. 

Psychodramas are stories we tell, and they abide by and produce narrative conventions, which lead to effects. Their effect is sense: a sense of the self. No matter what, Empty Space suggests, we ought to see psychodramas as blips on the radar mapping the landscape of life, and not mistake them for the landscape itself.

Popular genres are psychodramas, and they, too, flow through the Kefahuchi Tract novels. Nova Swing made this most obvious, moving some of the costumes, props, and dialogue of 1940s and 1950s noir movies into the Saudade, bumped up against the beached Tract and its wave-machines producing multiplicities. (The cinematic imbrications here are a hoot — the best description of Nova Swing might be not a plot summary or character list, but a movie theatre showing classic noirs like The Big Sleep and Out of the Past next to slow, strange Tarkovsky movies like Stalker and Nostalghia.) Another epigraph from Nova Swing (from A.A. Gill in the Sunday Times) would fit any of the three books: "Nostalgia and science fiction are spookily close." Both science fiction and nostalgia are resilient desire-machines energized with yearning for that which is beyond the reach of any force except imagination. Both nostalgia and science fiction, too, lend themselves to fashion and performance.

In Harrison's novels, the Saudade is the place where 20th century British and American culture reveals itself to be a roadshow performance, as portable as masks, as fungible as cash. All selves are constructed, so why not make yourself look like Einstein, ride around in a '52 Cadillac roadster, and talk like Mike Hammer? It's nostalgia, sure, but it's also coherent: as fashion and as theory. Science fiction and nostalgia are literatures of artifacts, but where nostalgia adds sentiment to archaeology, science fiction adds teleology. Both help our stuff make sense.

The Kefahuchi Tract novels are science fiction without teleology and nostalgia without sentiment, and the effect is, for readers used to strict causal structures and motivated psychologies and linear coherence, alienating. Nova Swing and Empty Space compound this effect the way the later books of Harrison's Viriconium series compounded the alienation effects hinted at and implied by the earlier books. As people and as readers we want our lives and stories to give us settled realities rather than chosen and constructed ones. We may read to enter imaginary worlds, but we have been trained to want those worlds to be coherent, because otherwise they don't work as theories, and our star drives won't take us to the land of comforting, or at least satisfying, conclusions.

Though we may not like it, decoherence is a theory, and perhaps as close to reality as we can get, as Michael Kearney himself argues to Anna in Light. Decoherence undoes all our meanings, though, leaving them as ghost limbs haunting our philosophies.

Empty Space is subtitled A Haunting, and we should take this seriously. (Remember, too, that science fiction and nostalgia are spookily close.) It sent me to another theorist for some basic assumptions. 
First suggestion: haunting is historical, to be sure, but it is not dated, it is never docilely given a date in the chain of presents, day after day, according to the instituted order of the calendar. Untimely, it does not come to, it does not happen to, it does not befall, one day, Europe, as if the latter, at a certain moment of its history, had begun to suffer from a certain evil, to let itself be inhabited in its inside, that is, haunted by a foreign guest. Not that that guest is any less a stranger for having always occupied the domesticity of Europe. But there was no inside, there was nothing before it. The ghostly would displace itself like the movement of this history. Haunting would make the very existence of Europe. It would open the space and the relation to self of what is called by this name, at least since the Middle Ages. The experience of the specter, that is how Marx, along with Engels, will have also thought, described, or diagnosed a certain dramaturgy of modern Europe, notably that of the great unifying projects. One would even have to say that he represented it or staged it.
That's Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx (rendered into English by Peggy Kamuf), and that passage seems to me to work perfectly well as a star drive to get us to Empty Space

The Kefahuchi Tract, like capitalism, produces endless products without meanings. The possibility of purpose is the specter that haunts it. (In Nova Swing, as Vic Serotonin guides Elizabeth Kieler through the event site, we are told: "It was a hypermarket of the meaningless, in which the only mistake — as far as Vic could discern — was to have shopping goals.") The good, bad, and ugly physics of the universe warp time, making the past and its artifacts into ghosts in the chain of presents (while archaeology might suggest that the past itself is another sort of chain of presents: gifts, products, objects, things). But the present isn't only about time and physics, for these books, and Empty Space especially, are about economics as well. Money flows as an object of desire, a subject of discourse, growing ever more abstract from century to century, until by the latest times of Empty Space value is meaningless and all that remains is the movement of products, the flow of capital.

A bit more Derrida to drive us up to warp speed:
What is the time and what is the history of a specter? Is there a present of the specter? Are its comings and goings ordered according to the linear succession of a before and an after, between a present-past, a present-present, and a present-future, between a "real time" and a "deferred time"?

If there is something like spectrality, there are reasons to doubt this reassuring order of presents and, especially, the border between the present, the actual or present reality of the present, and everything that can be opposed to it: absence, non-presence, non-effectivity, inactuality, virtuality, or even the simulacrum in general, and so forth.
The Tract and the event site, the shadow operators, the alien artifacts, the old gods and bad physics all require us to doubt the reassuring order of presents throughout these novels. All borders must be doubted. Empty Space gives us a cartography of absence, non-presence, non-effectivity, inactuality, virtuality, and even the simulacrum in general, then insists that we distrust all maps.

Language and time dance together in Harrison's writings. In Climbers, the narrator, Mike, says, "Moments like this spoke to me in a special language, an invitation to decode a whole way of life." Words are codes, and codes (statistics, physics, maths, synapse tracks) are the basis of realities. Words and codes create patterns, and the Kefahuchi Tract novels are filled with repeated objects, phrases, and words: cats, dice, top hats, Black Heart rum, pulled up skirts. They are abstracted from whatever meanings they once possessed, more ritual than symbol, taunting us to fill them up with sense, but always wriggling away like ethereal organs in search of a body without. Just because we get an invitation to decode a whole way of life doesn't mean that we should accept it. It could be an invitation to a rockin' party, but it could also be an invitation to a funeral for concepts we're barely acquainted with, or an invitation to stand out in the rain, drenched by the pneumonia of semiotic flow. 

Still, some semes like to make sense. The word present appears repeatedly throughout Empty Space in all its forms, as adjective, noun, and verb. Not only is present the time of now, it is also a symptom, a manifestation, and a performance. The present presents as presentation. Reality in Empty Space is a symptom (and pattern) of performances in a multiplicity of nows. Sense is a reality effect.

For Marx & Engels and Derrida, the specter is haunting Europe. For Harrison, Europe haunts his specters, particularly if we extend Europe to its rambunctious former New World colony, the U S of A. Specifically, 20th century bourgeois Europe/USA haunts Empty Space, for it is the language, imagery, and artifacts of that time, class, and place that pop up everywhere through the realities of the Kefahuchi Tract. Einstein is not merely an old scientist, but an icon, one that can be embodied. His statement that God doesn't play dice with the world is parodied through endless appearances of dice and men playing games. Cats, like Schrödinger's, are everywhere. The assistant's favorite masturbation fantasy makes her a 1950s housewife. (One could chart a pattern of masturbation throughout the three novels, but I, reluctantly, will not.) The Nova Swing is a rocket ship just like the ones on countless covers of Amazing and Astounding pulps. Even the smallest details are our own: A character in the 25th century in Empty Space is described as having what looks like dried toothpaste on the side of her mouth, as if centuries of technological and biological change have not removed from the world the knowledge of toothpaste.

Science fiction cannot, of course, actually be about the future, and Harrison doesn't sweat it. A novel truly about the 25th century would be unreadable to us, just as a novel from today would be unreadable to someone in the 16th century. Plenty of SF hides from this fact, not wanting to alienate readers from entertainment, but Harrison throws it to the foreground, taking for granted that science fiction is about our present and our past, and "we" are not everyone. The future of these novels is built on the detritus of particular histories, and the last chapters of Empty Space (one titled to contradict Marshall McLuhan, one named for an early, obscure Bob Dylan song) suggest just how particular that history is. Desires produce realities, and those realities themselves create products. (In 1976, right around the time Anna was born, Bob Dylan released an album called Desire.) These novels demonstrate how the products of those realities get used, alienated, and abstracted — fueling new desires which then produce new realities, new products, new narratives, new alienations and abstractions.

*

In Empty Space, we find out how important or unimportant everyone was, and we learn that the most important beings, if not the only truly important beings (for this universe at this time at least), were Anna and her cat. We don't exactly find out how or why, and I couldn't explain the nature of Anna and the cat's importance without retelling what happens in the last few chapters of the book, but what I can say is that Anna gets to play the perhaps unique role of both protagonist and MacGuffin within the novel's realities. In those roles, Anna embodies the truth of our synaptic productions: "I" is both the protagonist of our mind's narrative and the object the protagonist spends a lifetime seeking, the object that gives purpose and shape to the story of the self. But more than that, to place her into Derrida's schema, Anna is the foreign guest haunting the new reality, carrying with her some taint of the certain evil that was Michael Kearney and the dramaturgy of Europe and its great unifying projects.

And there is our specter. The great unifying projects (whether imperialism or science fiction, which so often borrows from the imperialist narrative) haunt Empty Space, which seeks to snuff them out, to deny them, to deconstruct them into oblivion. Tales of unified selves, causal narratives, progressive chronologies — these things satisfy us, particularly when their conclusions are conclusive, because they lend order and meaning to the play of multiple presents that is life, they flatter our civilizing missions and justify our resource extractions. Most people hate the sense of living as a fragmented dream, and so we fire up our desiring machines, our social machines, our war machines. We call this sanity. We produce coherent realities, whether in the stories we tell of our selves or the stories we get from most novels and movies. We flee from the knowledge that all is transient and the suspicion that even the best of what we know is likely an illusion. 

Could we do otherwise? Could we be otherwise? Might there be other stories beyond the future?

Empty Space ends back in the 21st century, this time in the point of view of Anna's psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Alpert. She has learned the limits of her work and knowledge. "Later," Harrison writes, "in the hotel restaurant, she listened to a mid-level pharma executive telling his friends about a recent trip to Peru. Really, she thought, he was less entertaining them than issuing a set of instructions." 

Isn't this what entertainment always does? Pedagogues may not be famously entertaining, but, as Hugo Gernsback knew, entertainment may be pedagogical. Even if entertainment seeks humility (or humiliation) in how merely itself it is, nothing human is free of ideology. The most humble, diverting, and apparently least instructive entertainments are simply the ones with the most subtle shadow operators.

The key, Harrison seems to suggest, is to recognize the instructions, whether we follow them or not, and extract whatever pleasure we can from them. Say hi to the shadow operators lurking in the corners of the ceiling. Enjoy their gnomic utterances in response. Let desire be desire while remembering that it machines reality. (Some machines kill fascists.) Don't be afraid to flow across the surfaces of realities; accept the unknowability of the depths. Beware of what leaks out of the twink tank. Gaze down in the river’s mirror, watch its winding strum, the water running smooth like a hymn, and lay down your weary tune.

The last sentence of Empty Space lends concrete form to my abstractions. Instead of giving away that beautiful, painful, necessary stopping point, that place from which we step out of the narrative flow, I'll leave you on the shore with a wave from O'Neill:
But here's the point to get. I swear I'd never act like I have if I wasn't absolutely sure it will be worth it to you in the end, after you're rid of the damned guilt that makes you lie to yourselves you're something you're not, and the remorse that nags at you and makes you hide behind lousy pipe dreams about tomorrow. You'll be in a today where there is no yesterday or tomorrow to worry you. You won't give a damn what you are any more.

7 comments:

  1. This is fabulous. Thank you. I'm reading Empty Space right now - having read Light and Nova Swing - and your interpretations and commments here are helpful, and really speak to me. I haven't found any of the books "easy", nevertheless the pull of MJH's writing is so strong - like its own form of gravity - that I can't help but keep going, loving the feeling of free-fall that I get from his language, his images and his outrageous sense of humour. I fear that quite a lot of it does float by me, but I relish the knowledge that some of it sinks in and that one day I will go back and re-read the trilogy and it will speak to me in different ways. For me, his work is something to admire and aspire to. Your comments confirm that, and make the process of interpretation a teeny bit easier. Nice work whoever you are!

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  2. "The Kefahuchi Tract, like capitalism, produces endless products without meanings."

    Reminds me of Solaris, that does.

    I have to admit, I've tried to read Harrison twice, neither time with much patience...Nova Swing turned me off in precisely the same way most contemporary space opera does within a few chapters, while twenty pages into Light I had to stop, finding it unreadably macho. Neither experienced jibed at all with what anyone ever says about him, let alone your fascinating writing on him (your review has me filled with "I agree wholeheartedly"/"I disagree violently"/"But that's beside the point isn't it?" vacillations; where I disagree the disagreement is productive, which is a refreshing change where sf criticism is concerned). I guess I need to try again.

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    1. Thanks! I would never fault somebody for not getting into Harrison -- even beyond the basic fact that nothing is universally appealing, Harrison is especially tough for all sorts of different reasons. A lot of his writing speaks to concerns that tend to obsess me, so I write about what the books do in my brain. I ended up with some much extra material because the books kept me thinking, so I threw a lot at the wall to see what would stick. There are a couple things (at least!) that really deserved to be cut, things that, on reflection, I didn't even much agree with myself, but I kept them here because otherwise a few of the things worth preserving would lack context.

      I couldn't ask for a better response than for my scattered, splattered thoughts to incite more thoughts in someone else. "I agree wholeheartedly"/"I disagree violently"/"But that's beside the point isn't it?" is pretty much the ideal I'd be hoping for, and I feel lucky to have written anything that inspires such a reaction!

      It's a great reason to read: to keep our brain screens blazing!

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    2. Just to say--the reason I wanted to mention my reaction to Harrison is that the way people (especially, or possibly just most recently, you) write about him makes him seem very much like someone I would love (these concerns obsess me too!)--and my immediately negative reaction when I've tried him has puzzled me. I'm guessing I just haven't been patient enough.

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    3. Well, if it's any consolation, the first time I read Nova Swing, it was a complete act of will to finish it. I loved some of the stuff at the end, but I couldn't really fit the book into any sort of template in my brain, and it made me mad, and every page felt like it was 100 pages long. (That's where a lot of the writing about how I experienced the book comes from in the review and in some of the stuff above.) Once I read Empty Space (which I struggled with at first, too), Nova Swing made a whole lot more sense to me, and I went back to it and suddenly, for whatever reason, it was readable and enjoyable in a way it hadn't been before. (Light I've always loved, but I think that's because I read it at perhaps the single best moment in my entire life to read that book.)

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  3. (If it's not uncouth to link to myself, I've posted a preliminary--and hastily composed, hah--response on my blog, here.)

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    1. Not uncouth at all. The wonder of the internet is that conversations can grow and spread all over the place! Thanks for the link.

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