The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy: A future without nostalgia

Devising new identities with technologies of gene splicing, immersing themselves in virtual reality, Harrison's people are people with an overriding impulse to shape their lives even though they lack any clear idea of how they would like their lives to be

The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy – Light, Nova Swing, Empty Space
M John Harrison
All published by Gollancz, £8.99

A place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out, like cheap conjuror’s stuff, magic that might work or might not . . . You couldn’t make anything of an idea like that, but you couldn’t help trying.

The place is a region in deep space called the Kefahuchi Tract, “a singularity without an event horizon”, one of the properties of which is that it seems to enter and alter the lives of human beings in ways they cannot grasp. A cipher for whatever is beyond any understanding, the Tract is at the heart of M John Harrison’s trilogy Light (2002), Nova Swing (2007) and Empty Space: a Haunting (2012).

Writers who make the unknowable their central focus are a rare breed. There are plenty who have experimented with language in order to demonstrate its limitations –Samuel Beckett with darkly playful mastery, many others more laboriously. There are few who have taken the unknowability of the world as a truth about the nature of things and gone on to explore what that might mean for how we tell our lives.

In Britain you must look to authors who fit into no clearly definable genre, but who embody a recognisable tradition of what might be described as hermetic doubt. With their different styles and outlooks, Arthur Machen and Charles Williams share a mistrust of the solidity of everyday things – but without affirming a reality, somewhere beneath the surface, which is any more substantial. If these writers aimed to lift the veil of appearance it was not in order to reveal any final truth. Instead what emerges is a kind of infinite palimpsest, each page peeling away only to expose another. Other versions of this vision can be found in the early-20th-century Austrian Gustav Meyrink, Borges, Walter de la Mare and some of the French symbolists. A masterpiece of metaphysical suspicion and speculative imagination, Harrison’s trilogy seems to me the supreme achievement in this modern hermetic tradition.

Harrison began his writing career with the “new wave” of science fiction that developed in the Sixties around Michael Moorcock’s New Worldsmagazine, becoming books editor there in 1968. Harrison’s The Centauri Device (1975) is recognised as a science-fiction classic, and the first two volumes of the Kefahuchi trilogy have been awarded sciencefiction prizes. Some have read the trilogy as an impish deconstruction of the genre, with the seedy space colonists, dilapidated interplanetary settlements and rusting star ships acting as ironic rebukes to those who envision the future as a pageant of heroic human self-assertion.

Certainly Harrison displays no nostalgia for such a future. Nova Swing, which unlike the other two volumes in the trilogy is set entirely on Kefahuchi Beach – the planetary margin of the Tract – shows human beings of the far future who are much like the human beings of today. Devising new identities with technologies of gene splicing, immersing themselves in virtual reality, these are people with an overriding impulse to shape their lives even though they lack any clear idea of how they would like their lives to be.

There is a satirical intent at work here, as well as mordant humour, a potent mix that reminds one more of the absurdist fictions of the French jazz musician Boris Vian than of anything in the SF canon. Science fiction is not central in Harrison’s work – not even as a target of his sharp wit – and it is a mistake to regard him as being chiefly interested in demolishing a genre that is only one of several he has mastered.

He started by deploying fantastic fiction to resist the charms of alternate worlds. Many writers have shared the Romantic belief that envisioning such worlds is a liberating activity but Harrison seems to see it – rightly, to my mind – as more like a type of solipsism. His novels and short stories set in the Gormenghast- like city of Viriconium have been widely praised for the rigour and beauty of their writing, a feature of all his work. But the rigour of Harrison’s prose has a purpose: Viriconium is described with an exactitude that makes its distance from any possible human world unmistakable. Lacking the blurriness of human settlements, the city seems realistic only when shown to be unintelligible.

In The Pastel City(1971), the first in the Viriconium series, Harrison presents a world that is more precisely envisioned than Mervyn Peake’s and one that is ultimately more elusive. Hidden away in it are machines that preserve memories too old or dissonant for human brains; but something has broken in them and the record is crumbling away. “A decade is missing here, there a century has slipped quietly away, leaving no clues.” The result is a city whose inhabitants are forever getting lost. As one of the characters puts it, “It was a city I knew and yet I could not find my way about it.” Each generation learns to operate the machinery of memory, but each is left scraping together an identity from shards of a forgotten past.

The flimsiness of personal identity is a recurring motif in Harrison’s work. A strand in the trilogy portrays life in the city of Saudade, a run-down place on a planet on the margins of the Tract that is populated by human beings possessed by visions of people they might have been or wanted to be on the planet they have left behind. “Saudade” is a Portuguese term denoting a melancholy yearning for an absent past, and many of the figures in the series spend their days longing to retrieve a life they cannot remember and that may not have existed.

This is the condition of one of Harrison’s most richly realised characters, Anna Waterman, the wife and then widow of Michael Kearney, a physicist who developed the equations that enable humans to reach the edge of the Tract, though the final volume in the trilogy hints that his work may never have been completed. In Empty Space, Anna is shown living in the outer London suburbs in a plausible near future – a sluggish period of semi-stasis that has set in after a Chinese economic collapse – struggling with the help of her daughter and a therapist to make sense of anomalous events that seem linked to the Tract and with her own past. Bushes burst into flame in her garden, but do not burn; a voice announces that it has come from the future.

Whether these events happen in any real world is left open; what is more to the point is that the question will never be answered. Among the fragments of her past Anna is struggling with is that her husband was a serial murderer, who turned to killing in an attempt to escape stalking by the Shrander – a fearful apparition, something like a horseskull clothed in rags, “the colour of tobacco”, whose presence pervades Michael Kearney’s life from his childhood up to the moment of his death. Kearney and Anna are both haunted, though by what or to what end they cannot tell.

The Tract cannot be understood, but one thing is clear. It is a singularity of a sort diametrically opposite to the kind imagined by the techno-magicians who look forward to a point when the human mind (or some post-human, re-engineered successor to it) can encompass the universe: the dream of Ray Kurzweil, the author of The Singularity Is Near (2005) who was recently appointed director of engineering at Google, and of various trans-humanist cults. Far from manifesting itself in any apocalyptic moment, the Kefahuchi Tract is outside time; if it enters the world it does so in a perpetual present tense. Rather than projecting human meaning into the scheme of things as Kurzweil’s Singularity does – by promising deliverance from decay and death in the manner of monotheistic religion – Harrison’s Tract appears in the form of unsettling epiphanies, which act to disrupt any meaning that human beings may have found or made. Yet the Tract is far from being only a symbol of senselessness, for it suggests the possibility that humans may find a way of living by falling away from the meanings to which they cling.

A pivotal text in interpreting Harrison’s work is Climbers (1989), a naturalistic-seeming novel about rock-climbing set in a landscape that looks a lot like the Peak District. Having been a serious climber in real life, Harrison presents a compelling picture of the milieu. But he goes further than description: it appears he sees in climbing the expression of a fantasy of control that aims to escape human vulnerability and limitation. If there is a master metaphor in his writings it is that of falling, and climbing is the willed antithesis of that condition. His picture of the climbers intimates a deep mistrust of fantasies of self-mastery, and of fantasy itself when it serves to mask the fundamental fact of unknowing.

Climbers offers an insight into the dangers of the human need for order, and in doing so shows the subtlety of the hermetic tradition in which Harrison is working. In the form it assumed as a fin de siècle occultist movement, hermetic thinking revived an idea that shaped the work of early-modern scientists such as Kepler and Newton: the world is a text in invisible writing. It was some such conception that attracted many of those who were associated with the Golden Dawn and similar organisations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The idea of the world as a secret text suggests that the text, in principle, might be decoded. But for writers such as Machen, Williams and Meyrink – each for a time linked with the Golden Dawn – any such decipherment came to be seen as a distraction, obscuring what was truly mysterious in human experience. Hence the paradoxical quality of their writings, in which the mundane world is punctuated with epiphanies whose origins and significance are left unexplained.

The Kefahuchi trilogy renews the literature of hermetic doubt in the terms of contem - porary science. Most practitioners of ritual magic believe that the mundane world is governed by natural laws, which initiates can transcend; but in a universe that contains anything like the Tract, no such laws can be assumed. When trying to get a grip on his life, Michael Kearney throws dice that he has stolen from the Shrander. For a physicist, this may seem a retrograde step, but the dice exemplify the indeterminacy of a quantummechanical universe:

. . . they were neither ivory nor bone . . . They might have been porcelain. They might have been ancient. In the end they seemed neither . . . They were unreadable. Each time he picked them up, he knew as little as he had the first time. Every day he started new.

The shifting shape of the dice does not come from Kearney’s darkened vision. They are illegible by nature. As he is dying Kearney returns them to the apparition, which tells him they are only dice: “People play some kind of game with them.” Unlike followers of magical cults, who imagine they can climb out of the unknowable by performing nonsensical ceremonies or re-engineering the human mind, Kearney accepts there is nothing he can do. He realises that he never understood Anna and did not need to spend his life running away. Falling into a velvety blackness, he loses his conscious self and the empty space fills with light. The mystery is not dispelled, but moves to another plane.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

Clouds of unknowing: the alternative worlds in these novels remain layered and shifting. Image: Luke Hayes

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain