Nova Swing, By M John Harrison

Poet of decay gives a voice to the doomed of a second-rate humanity
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M John Harrison is the guilty conscience of science fiction and fantasy: the man who warns us that great adventures, Borgesian murder mysteries and hanging out in bars with names like Surf Noir all come down to degradation and disappointment in the end.

You get what you want and you pay for it, and it is a wager lost by winning. When he takes us to far galaxies, and to port cities that serve as the jumping-off points between worlds, he does so in the same spirit that he has taken us to artists' colonies in cities once full of gods and monsters, or to the cult-haunted backstreets of northern industrial towns.

Harrison is a poet of decay, of torn newspaper blowing in a pollution-laden wind, of the sparse plants on waste ground and the whining of half-born dogs.

Nova Swing is unusual in his work, in that we spend some time with ordinary people who are content with small pleasures and with each other. There is Fat Antoyne and his pushy whore Irene, the pilot-turned-bar owner Liv, and Edith, who cares for her dying father but dreams of going back to the act in which she played tango on the accordion. In the end, these are wiser in their generation than the book's major characters.

If their pleasures - watching large-phallused clones batter each other in the arena, say - are tawdry, that is the best you can expect when high ideals lead you to death in the dirt.

The tour guide Vic, the police investigator Aschemann and the gangster Paulie never find what they are looking for in the borderlands between realities. Instead, they half-grasp the ineffable and they sacrifice others - the child- thug Alice, for example - to get there, and to become what they are seeking.

For the reader, though, Harrison's gloomy, seedy world is a constant delight of precise images, of sounds half-heard on the wind that delight even more than they disturb.

His doomed heroes and villains have charm and sexual charisma. Vic's relationships with women convince, perhaps most of all that with Elizabeth, the woman he lost in the borderlands and who seemed to find her own way out. We believe in every pant, groan and droplet of sweat.

Harrison writes with tremendous panache of vast machines and bizarre cosmetic therapies, and about the reaches between stars.

But his real love is for doomed second-rate humanity - its ideals, its agues and its wonderful banality.