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Monday, September 24, 2007

"Nova Swing" by M. John Harrison

Order “Nova SwingHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

I readily admit that when it comes to science fiction literature, I’m not much of an expert. Sure, I’ve read such classics as Robert A. Heinlein, Orson Scott Card’sEnder’s Game”, William Gibson’sNeuromancer”, and I’m a fan of cyberpunk, Richard K. Morgan, Neal Asher, space opera, military SF, et cetera, but I’m still naïve in a lot of ways regarding the genre and I’ve only recently been introduced to the likes of Joe Haldeman, Peter F. Hamilton and now, M. John Harrison.

Highly regarded in many circles, Mr. Harrison is a British writer of fantasy (the Viriconium Sequence), science fiction (The Centauri Device, Light), short stories and other fiction (Climbers, The Course of the Heart). The writer’s latest novel “Nova Swing”—originally released in the UK November 2006 via Gollancz—won the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award, was a finalist for the 2007 John W. Campbell Award, and is a loose sequel to the James Tiptree Jr. Award-winning “Light” (2002). And it also happens to be my first M. John Harrison experience…

Even though “Nova Swing” is labeled as science fiction and bears the evidence to prove it—set in 2444AD; utilizes such concepts as nanotechnology, interstellar space travel, alien tech, holograms, body modifications, etc.—it doesn’t really fall in any category that I’m familiar with such as space opera, hard SF, or cyberpunk (though there are traces of the last). Instead, there’s a strong noir influence running through the book that is partly due to the story which features a detective and a mystery, but mainly is because of the nostalgic/retro milieu—bars (Black Cat White Cat, Café Surf, the Semiramide Club) are prominent hangout spots; tango, bebop and other vintage styles of music are in vogue; one character drives a 1952 Cadillac roadster; rickshaws are a popular form of travel; and so on. What makes “Nova Swing” even harder to define is that a lot of the futuristic ideas in the book are quite bizarre—the physics-bending Kefahuchi Tract, daughter code, cultivars (a type of sport fighter), Monas (prostitutes), shadow operators, the Uncle Zip franchise, the altered rickshaw girls—and are left to the reader’s imagination rather than explained in detail. In addition, the actual plot – an entradista being investigated by a Site Crime detective who believes the travel agent is smuggling illegal artefacts from the event aureole – is overshadowed by the characters. Thankfully the characters are a pretty interesting bunch. While tour guide Vic Serotonin is arguably the novel’s main protagonist, I actually found him a bit bland compared to the others such as the Albert Einstein look-alike Detective Lens Aschemann who pines for his murdered wife and Edith Bonaventure, daughter of the famous entradista Emil Bonaventure. Also involved in the story are barkeeper Liv Hula, ex-EMC (Earth Military Contracts) Paulie DeRaad who runs illegal activities out of the Semiramide Club, Aschemann’s new nameless partner, Fat Antoyne, Irene the Mona, and Vic’s latest client Elizabeth Kielar. Strangely, the book actually reaches its climax about 200 pages in (out of 252) with a convergence of events that involves Vic, Aschemann, Paulie, the nameless partner and Elizabeth with the remainder of the novel focusing on some of the supporting characters. This direction was a little bit different from what I’m used to, but I actually found the ending of the book to be quite satisfying & uplifting.

If I had read any of Mr. Harrison’s other works, the opportunity for further discussions regarding “Nova Swing” would be endless—How does the book relate to its predecessor “Light”? How does it compare to the author’s other SF books? His fantasy novels? How does “Nova Swing” work as a novel compared to the short story it was based on? Should readers new to the author pick up “Light” before starting “Nova Swing” or should they start out with another title altogether? And so on. Instead, all I can offer readers are my opinions as someone who has only read “Nova Swing” and is not that well-versed in science fiction literature. So from this perspective, what I can say is that the book is quite a bit different from other SF that I’ve read and is probably not something the casual reader would enjoy. I mean, “Nova Swing” doesn’t have balls-to-the-walls action, an epic story, or cool heroes & villains. Instead, the plot is fairly simple but can be confusing to follow; the pacing is not so much slow but methodical; the characters, while wonderfully developed aren’t exactly memorable; and the book as a whole requires a certain commitment from the reader. In fact, I would say that “Nova Swing” serves as some sort of metaphorical examination about loneliness, humanity, hope, or some other such theme. In other words, using movies as an example, don’t expect Star Wars or The Matrix with “Nova Swing”, but something more along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Fountain. As for myself, “Nova Swing” wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had with a science fiction novel, but it impressed me enough that I plan to continue reading M. John Harrison, especially his Viriconium novels, and I can easily see why the book is an award-winner. Fans of accomplished prose, a surreal imagination, and storytelling that makes you think will definitely want to pick up M. John Harrison’sNova Swing”…

FYI: The American cover featuring the cat makes a nice companion piece to the cover for “Light”, but personally I like the UK version better, which seems to capture the ambiance of the story more accurately…


Jon Courtenay Grimwood said...

Interesting, I actually prefer the US cover and will probably buy a second copy of the book when I'm in NY in November. As with most of MJ Harrison's books, pretty much everything is going on under the surface!

Robert said...

Jon, thanks for sharing that :) I'm actually almost finished with your book "End of the World Blues". Since it's the first book of yours that I've read, I was going to draw some parallels between it and "Nova Swing" when I review it. All I'll say right now is that I'm enjoying it very much :D

Katie said...

This sounds pretty good. I'm not big into SiFi but I love noir stuff.

Blue Gargantua said...

The Viriconium collection is especially good. I liked it better than Light, although I did enjoy Light a fair amount.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I'm gonna have to check this one out, too! And if there are parallels between this one and Jon's book, I'll have to check his out as well!

I'm not sure which cover I prefer -- I normally go for simplistic ones, so that would be the cat, but I'm also quite fond of the UK artwork. Ambiance. Hmm.

Nice review :)

The Book Swede

Mark Newton said...

Good review, especially if this is your first MJH book. I'm a big Harrison fan. He's certainly someone to re-read, take your time over. Marvel at the sentences, the things that go on just underneath the prose, the superb dialogue. He's a stylist, perhaps the genre's best. And most importantly, he pushes the boundaries of the genre. We need people working at this end of things.

Robert said...

Katie, if you like noir, I think you'll enjoy "Nova Swing" as well as Mr. Grimwood's "End of the World Blues".

Blue Gargantua, glad to hear you're a fan :) Viriconium is definitely on my To Read list...

Chris, both of the books are definitely worth checking out :) I wouldn't say that "Nova Swing" and "End of the World Blues" are really that similar. There was just an angle that I used in my review for "End of the World Blues" that uses "Nova Swing" in it ;)

And Mark, thanks for the contribution! I might be mistaken, but I think this might be your first comment ;) Anyways, I'll have to read more novels by Mr. Harrison...

Mark Newton said...

Yeah, I shall dip my toe a little more in future! Lets just say I'm passionate about MJH's fiction, so it was an incentive... A good place to go is the Viriconium stories. I think it's important to realise just how important they were at the time, and the influences they've had since. He really shook things up back then. Light is great, a mind-blowing journey. Again taking deep physics, but having more fun. Harrison is a wonderful short story writer too. There's a great Gollancz edition THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPEN that has a huge body of his work. I'll stop now, but I could go on!

Robert said...

I could tell you were a M. John Harrison fan. I'm definitely planning on reading the Viriconium books because I remember what you said about your book's influences ;) I haven't really read much short fiction, but I might have to pick up that collection you mentioned :)

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