Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2007 Clarke and PKD Winner - NOVA SWING by M. John Harrison

In the year 2444, in the city of Suadade, Vic Seratonin is a tour-guide. He takes clients into The Anomaly, an impossible place of weird, reality-warping physics that spews out black and white cats. A new client, a femme fatale named Elizabeth Kielar, leads Vic to a new artifact spewing malignant "code" that can infect people like a virus. This begins a chain reaction, spilling out to the other characters in the novel and changing their lives. We spend much time with detective Aschemann, who wears the body of an older Einstein and mourns his dead wife in an age when death is a thing of the past. We learn about Vic's mentor Emil, and his daughter Edith who's trapped taking care of the dying man. We meet former space pilot and current bar-keep Liv Hula, a crime boss named Paulie, his minion Fat Antoyne, and a prostitute (Mona) named Irene. We get evocative descriptions, in noir style, of all of their exploits on the fringes of the Anomaly.

As this novel progressed, I found myself repeatedly asking "what's the point?" That probably sounds ruder and more dismissive than I want it to; I asked it sincerely. There's enough material about trampled dreams, being down and out, sex, and loss to point to the idea that Harrison wants to say something, but it's all presented in noir cliches within an amorphous, dead-ending plot. If it's supposed to be a character study, why present the characters as recycled tropes from old movies? There are interesting moments with each of the characters, but they tend to get overshadowed by the familiarity of everything. In some ways, most of the book reads like an epilogue, as Harrison is constantly summing up their thoughts and the directions of their lives, without letting them breathe as people or act for themselves. If it's not a character study...well, there's not much plot to speak of. The world-building mixes elements of space opera, cyberpunk, and Weird in interesting ways but leaves a lot of questions as well (since I finished, I learned this was a sequel.  Maybe reading Light would have helped me?)  Even the surrealism was dull. The prose is very strong, and Harrison does a very good job of establishing the mood, but there just wasn't anything new about the story, characters, or world to engage me. In a lot of ways, this novel seemed to hearken back to all the worst features of the New Wave - shallow, trite observations about the human condition and a focus on style over substance.

Grade: C-

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