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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The Gupta scandal: how a British PR firm came unstuck in South Africa

Bell Pottinger was accused of exploiting racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles.

Thuli Madonsela, who helped write South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution and made her name as a fearless public protector, calls it a “reckless and dangerous dirty tricks campaign”. The journalist Max du Preez, who exposed apartheid’s death squads, describes a knife being thrust into an old wound. Jonathan Jansen, a respected voice on race relations, sees “despair and distress” cast on a fragile democracy still struggling with apartheid’s legacy.

Following reports of a campaign that allegedly exploited racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles, South Africa – a nation admired around the globe for its ability to forgive – is not in a magnanimous mood.

One source of the public anger is familiar: the Gupta family, which has accumulated vast wealth and influence and has close relations with President Jacob Zuma. The other was until recently unknown to most South Africans: the British PR firm Bell Pottinger, which was co-founded by Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser Lord Bell (who left the company last year). On 6 July, Bell Pottinger announced that it had fired one of its partners and issued a rare apology for the work it did until April for the Guptas.

The story begins in early 2016, when the family signed a contract with Bell Pottinger, whose previous clients include the repressive governments of Egypt and Bahrain, the Pinochet Foundation and Trafigura, the commodity firm involved in a waste-dumping scandal in Côte d’Ivoire. Unverified correspondence leaked to the media suggests that President Zuma’s son, Duduzane, who is in business with the Guptas, was involved in brokering the Bell Pottinger deal, reportedly worth £100,000 a month, to help defend the family brand.

The brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta arrived in South Africa from India when apartheid ended in the early 1990s and started building a business empire. They operated inconspicuously until 2013, when stories about how their private wedding guests were allowed to land at an air force base revealed their deep political connections.

Since then, the scandals have multiplied, with the brothers accused of directing Zuma’s decisions for their own benefit. The family has always denied wrongdoing, but the evidence against it includes a claim by the former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that the Guptas offered him the top job in the ministry, which he declined. By last year, the family’s reputation was so stained that South Africa’s four major banks closed accounts connected to it. By the time the Guptas engaged Bell Pottinger to handle their public relations, they were under heavy media scrutiny.

A large email leak in May from inside the Gupta empire enabled the South African media to expose the nature of the family’s alleged efforts to distract attention from its businesses and dealings with the state, which, among other things, reportedly involved the targeting of journalists, rent-a-crowd protests and the “capturing” of political leaders. Twitter users, the emails suggest, were paid to troll journalists or spread propaganda; digital bots were used to amplify fake stories; Wikipedia pages were allegedly altered. The website WMC Leaks was set up and proceeded to smear some of South Africa’s top editors. (The allegations against Bell Pottinger are limited to its communications work.)

Meanwhile, journalists were also subjected to sexual slurs, or had their homes vandalised. “I have never in my life encountered a situation where I have clearly been surveilled and then accused of cheating on my wife by faceless people,” says Peter Bruce, a columnist and former editor of Business Day, a leading broadsheet.

Central to the campaign was the promotion of the idea of “white monopoly capital” – that white-owned business is the true enemy standing in the way of South Africa’s progress. The term was spread online and used in political speeches and in media outlets linked with the Guptas. Critics of the family and Zuma were accused of colluding with or being in the pocket of wealthy whites.

“Running a campaign that stokes racial tensions and the anger of the poor and others who feel the bite of poverty and inequality was bound to and did exacerbate racial polarisation,” says Madonsela.

Jonathan Jansen, the former vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, says that Bell Pottinger should donate the money it earned from the Guptas to civil society organisations in South Africa. He accuses the company of having “played the colluding role of the neo-colonial paymaster with a stunning lack of self-reflection”.

After the emails were leaked, South Africans sent thousands of tweets to Bell Pottinger, forcing the firm to make its Twitter account private. In April, the company finally parted ways with the Guptas, and this month the Bell Pottinger chief executive, James Henderson, felt compelled to issue an “unequivocal and absolute” apology to anyone impacted by the “economic emancipation” campaign on social media.

“Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true. But enough of it is to be of deep concern,” said Henderson.

Bell Pottinger has hired the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to investigate its work with the Guptas and says that it will publish the findings. Besides firing the lead partner on the Gupta project, Bell Pottinger also suspended three other employees. The UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association is conducting a separate investigation.

In his statement, Henderson admitted that the social media campaign was “inappropriate and offensive”. “For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope… is a matter of profound regret… These activities should never have been undertaken.”

This has not quelled the anger in South Africa, where there are growing calls for Bell Pottinger to appear before the country’s parliament and for criminal prosecutions.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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