Nova Swing

M. John Harrison‘s latest SF novel, Nova Swing, is set in the same 24th-century futurescape as his previous novel Light, but it’s a very different sort of book. (Also see Harrison’s blog, here).

Nova Swing could be described, perhaps, as film noir meets Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (the Soviet SF novel perhaps best known as the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s Stalker). The novel and its characters revolve around a place known only as “the event site”, a zone where, as the result of an obscure catastrophe, the laws of physics are suspended. The site provides the background for life in the city (or on the planet?) of Saudade (as it is appropriately named). The characters are a group of anguished refugees, habitues of seedy bars, petty hoodlums, down-on-their-luck hookers, world-weary detectives, burnt-out grifters and con men, etc. Nobody lives in and for the present; nobody imagines any sort of future; instead, they all seem to brood upon past failures, or former moments of glory that proved all too evanescent.

The culture of Saudade is itself a kind of postmodern simulacrum; it is entirely void of vigor or novelty, and seems to be composed mostly of 24th century nostalgic remakes of artifacts from the mid-20th century. The detective rides around in a lovingly recreated simulacrum of a vintage 1952 pink Cadillac convertible; all the hookers have gotten DNA retrofits to become clones of Marilyn Monroe; all the bands play versions of bebop or “New Nuevo Tango.” Harrison’s own noirish stylings for the novel seem similarly hollow and inauthentic; indeed, the invention of a morbid melancholia which persists precisely on the basis of undermining its own assumptions and stylizations is precisely Harrison’s great achievement in Nova Swing.

Noir and hardboiled stylings seemed brilliantly appropriate for science fiction twenty-five years ago, the time of Neuromancer and Blade Runner. They expressed a kind of edgy, alienated energy, and a sort of affirmative sense of style even in the midst of a landscape of physical decay and political or economic oppression. Now, however, there’s nothing left of it all. Our culture’s continued references to the 1950s have become tired, and as empty as they always pretended to be. Harrison paints a landscape of demoralization and debasement, doing for science fiction pretty much what he did for fantasy in his novella “In Viriconium” (the next-to-last of the stories in his Viriconium collection).

As k-punk says in his brilliant discussion of Children of Men: “how long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?” Nova Swing deals in its own way with this sort of cultural and social (and also, or ultimately, political and economic) exhaustion. In the world of the novel, “tailoring” (genetic alteration, whether for fashion, or for physical enhancements, or for cyborgian interfacing with machines) is as easy and as commonplace as getting a tattoo or a piercing is today. And about as meaningful. As for the romance of interplanetary traveling, it has given way to tourism for rich people (if it’s Tuesday, this must be Saudade). The critic Darko Suvin famously defined science fiction, several decades ago, as a genre defined by “cognitive estrangement”: in projecting its futures, or in extrapolating from existing social and technological forces, SF leads us to see the limitedness, the contingency, and the bizarre parochialism of everything that we take most for granted, that we regard as “natural” or given. I’m tempted to say that Nova Swing is the exact inverse of this: rather than presenting us with wonders, or making us aware of the contingency of the present, it makes genetic engineering and space travel so banal and commonplace that they do not give us any “utopian” sense of otherness at all. We’re stuck, not so much in an eternal present, as in an eternal past, where our late-capitalist culture of pseudo-nostalgic recycling and imaginative exhaustion becomes a permanent and inescapable state. No “estrangement” (cognitive or otherwise) from this situation seems possible at all. Indeed, the characters’ estrangement, anomie, etc., is itself an inescapable cultural cliche.

The novel’s one source of novelty, invention, or difference is the event site itself, where nothing is stable, nothing happens the way it is supposed to. This is why the event site is such a magnet of attraction for most of the novel’s characters, several of whom are “tour guides” who specialize in expeditions into this realm of the unknown, and several others of whom are police from the “Site crime” division, seeking to prevent the contamination of Saudade by illicit visits to the site, or by “artifacts” emanating from it. Indeed, several of the novel’s key characters end up lost in the event site, wandering around endlessly (or until death) and never emerging. But the event site, although literally a “utopia” in that it is a displacement of all space, and therefore “nowhere,” is not in any sense a source of redemption, or even renewal. What happens there seems to be a reflection of the desire of the person exploring it, but only in the negative sense that it offers mocking reflections of one’s fantasies, and lures or allures one into extended episodes of frustration. People like to fuck when they are there, as if in search of some sexual transcendence or transformation; but none of their experiments ever pans out.

If human beings are always seeking to enter the event site, the reverse is also the case: pseudo-humans are continually emerging from it to explore the “real” world of Saudade. They are invariably described as being eager, full of appetite, yet entirely blank and naive. They are always “trying to have sex” without quite knowing how to go about it, greedily scarfing up whatever drink or drugs or whatever other forms of mind-altering entertainments are on offer, and eventually just fading away or dissolving into thin air. Their blank slates of cheery impulse are the flip side of jaded and culturally saturated (you might say over-written) minds of all the “real” inhabitants of Saudade.

As for the “artifacts” brought back by explorers from the event site into Saudade, they usually turn out to be sources of infection; they seem to offer strange powers, but instead draw whoever has contact with them into distressing metamorphoses, known as “escapes”: it “presented, like the majority of escapes, as a loose, luminous fluid medium sometimes the consistency of rice pudding or lentil soup, sometimes having the visual qualities of a pool full of chlorinated water agitated gently in powerful sunlight; often too bright to look at, and developing intricate internal flows independent of input. If there was code in there, no one knew what it was doing. No one knew how it bound to the substrate of proteins and nanotech. It looked beautiful, but stank like rendered fat. It would absorb you in seconds. Was it an end-state? Was it a new medium? No one knew” (p. 231).

This would seem to be the only alternative offered us to a culture of ultra-commodified recycling and repetition. No wonder the authorities put it into quarantine at the first opportunity. I think the passage I have quoted also gives a good indication of Harrison’s gorgeous prose, with its own rhythms of attraction and repulsion, allurement and debasement. Although I should add that the novel ends (as Light did) on a strangely upbeat note, as those of the characters who do not end up wandering forever in the event site all seem to rejuvenate themselves with bursts of (entrepreneurial?) enthusiasm and energy, whose pathos comes from the fact that these upbeat feelings are in themselves real, even though their object (the idea of a non-lethal “escape,” and of a more vital and interesting life) remains entirely illusory. All in all, Nova Swing is simultaneously a powerful expression, and a stinging critique, of what Fred Jameson somewhere calls “nostalgia for the present”, that affective state where the future has been entirely drained of possibility, the past converted into nothing more than a storehouse of static images, and the present thinned of all duration until it is nothing more than a nearly imperceptible membrane in between such a future and such a past.

2 Responses to “Nova Swing”

  1. M John Harrison says:

    Thanks for this powerful reading of Nova Swing.

  2. dejan says:

    I’m surprised you liked CHILDREN OF MEN, though. It was all about the dekline of simbolik efikasy and the Second Coming of Marx.

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