Empty Space: A Haunting, By M John Harrison


Roz Kaveney
Tuesday 04 September 2012 12:58 BST

The New Space Opera – as exemplified in Iain M Banks's Culture novels – had always an element of whistling hopefully in the dark.

That really bad thing might happen but there was always a chance something would turn up. But M John Harrison has always been one of the great miserabilists of genre fiction. His Viriconium books explained why the heroics of heroic fantasy lead nowhere but disillusion and the grave, and much of his supernatural fiction does the same for the promises of magic. He was never going to let us be happy with giant robot ships and witty aliens for long.

Starting with Light and Nova Swing, Harrison has been chipping away at space opera's wide-screen baroque optimism. Kearney, the man whose mathematics takes humanity to the stars, is a serial killer haunted by an incomprehensible monster. The great ships are captained by mad children who have had their humanity removed; and the cities humans build on strange new planets are just the grimy streets of noir fiction all over again. It will all end in tears.

In a near future where economic collapse has reduced expectations to less than zero, Kearney's widow, Anna, potters around while her cat brings in translucent internal organs; a woman detective investigates a series of murders that leave floating ghostly corpses; a cheery trio of vagabonds learn the hard way that taking on dodgy machines as cargo is never going to end as happily as in comic short stories. Any illusions from earlier sci-fi that readers of Harrison may have had left are stripped away.

Yet he knows that there is an element of bad faith in all these proceedings. We luxuriate in his mockery of our enjoyment and he gives us, page by page, glorious gaudy neon gadgetry, Borgesian twistiness, philosophic twiddles – and people whose company we enjoy even as we watch them walk to their dooms. Part of the bliss of Harrison's work is the sardonic glee that goes along with the dour gloom-mongering. He braces us to be ready for the worst and tickles our fancy at the same time.

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