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 can't we stop for death?

The Black Mirror and The Worm at the Core reveal the human obsession with, and denial of, our mortality.

When he was entering what he knew would be the final stage of his terminal illness, Bob Monkhouse used to joke that the terrible thing about dying was how stiff it left you feeling the next day. There is something pleasantly cavalier in the comedian’s quip. Why make a tragedy of something that will happen to us all? Perhaps we’d be wiser if we didn’t think of death at all, but instead – as the philosopher Spinoza recommended – only of life. But that kind of wisdom seems to be beyond our capacity. The human preoccupation with death is pervasive and universal, and every society offers remedies for the anxiety that the fact of mortality evokes.

Religions have their afterlives, while secular faiths offer continuity with some larger entity – nations, political projects, the human species, a process of cosmic evolution – to stave off the painful certainty of oblivion. In their own lives, human beings struggle to create an image of themselves that they can project into the world. Careers and families prolong the sense of self beyond the grave. Acts of exceptional heroism and death-defying extreme sports serve a similar impulse. By leaving a mark, we can feel we are not just fleeting individuals who will soon be dead and then forgotten.

Against this background, it might seem that the whole of human culture is an exercise in death denial. This is the message of Stephen Cave’s thoughtful and beautifully clear Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation (2012). A more vividly personal but no less compelling study of our denial of death is presented in Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium (2015), in which the author uses her experience of working at a Californian funeral parlour to show how contemporary mortuary practice – removing the corpse as quickly as possible, then prettifying it so that it almost seems alive – serves to expel the fact of death from our lives.

Both books cite the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death (1973) Becker, whose work is now undergoing something of a revival, suggested that flight from death is the driving force of civilisation. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements, as well as its worst crimes, can be understood as attempts to ward off mortality.

Becker’s work is the avowed inspiration of the latest book in this growing canon, The Worm at the Core, co-authored by three American social psychologists. They begin with a story:

On a rainy, grey day in December 1973, philosopher Sam Keen, writing for Psychology Today, trundled down the halls of a hospital in Burnaby, British

Columbia, to interview a terminally ill cancer patient who doctors said had just days to live. When Keen entered the room, the dying man told him, with a touch of mortal irony: “You are catching me in extremis. This is a test of everything I’ve written about death. And I’ve got a chance to show how one dies . . .”

The dying man was Ernest Becker. Talking to Keen, he summarised the theory that others are now taking up and developing: “We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death.”

Becker’s career had not been easy. Born in 1924, he joined the army at the age of 18 and served in an infantry battalion that liberated a Nazi death camp. After a period working at the American embassy in Paris he decided to become an anthropologist and entered academic life. Drifting from one university to another, he was popular with students (who at one point offered to pay his salary when his contract was terminated) but failed to make much of an impression on his colleagues. In another irony, his book The Denial of Death was awarded the Pulitzer Prize two months after he died in 1974.

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski chanced upon Becker’s writings in the early 1980s. “Like the Rosetta Stone, they were to us a revelation . . . Becker explained how the fear of death guided human behaviour.” Filled with enthusiasm, the three young psychologists tried to share his ideas at the 1984 meeting of the Society for Experimental Psychology. But the audience started drifting away when they mentioned that their work was influenced by psychoanalysis and existential philosophy; when they went on to cite the ideas of Marx, Kierkegaard and Freud, “renowned psychologists were storming the conference room exits”. The authors then submitted a paper to a flagship academic journal. Some months later, they received a one-line review: “I have no doubt that this paper would be of no interest to any psychologist, living or dead.” ­Somehow, one suspects that Becker would not have been surprised by this response.

Undaunted, the authors then did 25 years of research to test their ideas. Melding existential thinking with the findings of empirical social science, they argue that terror of death infuses a wide range of human behaviours – from obsessive-compulsive disorders and the anxious pursuit of sex through to the search for self-esteem and the use of violence to harm those who challenge our beliefs. The Worm at the Core is the most comprehensive and well-evidenced account to date of the idea that fending off the awareness of death is the prime mover of the human condition. It’s a considerable achievement, showing up the bigotry and timidity of the initial academic reaction to the authors’ ideas.

At the same time, like other such accounts – including Becker’s – The Worm at the Core suffers from neglecting the conflicting impulses that have shaped the human response to death. They are right to suggest that it is awareness of death, more than anything else, which differentiates human beings from other animals. They are also right to argue that denial of death is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Where they go astray is in passing over how, on the contrary, many human beings have welcomed their mortality.

To start with, religions aren’t always immortality cults. A preoccupation with death may be universally human, and attempts to escape from it are found in many cultures and traditions – including, as the authors show, Chinese alchemy. But a longing for everlasting life has been at its strongest in societies and individuals whose values are shaped by monotheism, more particularly by Christianity. (Belief in an afterlife hasn’t been central in most currents of Judaism.) In ancient Greek polytheism, it was believed that the gods envied people their mortality; everlasting life might be a curse – an eternity of boredom. In many of their forms, Hinduism and Buddhism express a search for mortality, the project of releasing human beings from the unending life that comes with the cycle of transmigration and rebirth.

For the poets and philosophers of pre-Christian Europe, death was by no means always an evil. The Roman Stoic Seneca had no compunction in writing to a young disciple that he should not be afraid to consider suicide if he had already tasted most of life’s pleasures. Even more boldly, the Greek poet Theognis, writing some time in the 6th century BC, declared: “Best for all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all” – a line that Nietzsche used in his analysis of ancient Greek culture. In his poem “Tess’s Lament”, Thomas Hardy has the heroine of Tess of the D’Urbervilles give voice to a similar sentiment: “I cannot bear my life as writ,/I’d have my life unbe;/Would turn my memory to a blot/. . . And gone all trace of me!” What Tess wants is not just to cease to exist, but to “unbe” – never to have been born. Hardy’s character illustrates the power of Freud’s insight that human beings can be moved as much by a longing for complete extinction as by the urge to live.

In The Black Mirror Raymond Tallis, trained as a doctor and for much of his life an expert in geriatric medicine, writes as a philosopher. He writes in his overture to this strange, bold, and courageous book, “If to be a philosopher is to be an onlooker, the vantage point of death is the ultra ne plus of the philosophical viewpoint: you look upon your life from the virtual position of one who has outlived it.” As he observes, his book is an implicit rejoinder to Spinoza’s injunction that a free human being should think only of life: “The free man (and woman) who is preparing for life may think more deeply and, indeed, more freely by thinking about death. In order to live like a philosopher, it is necessary to die like one – that is, to die in thought and in imagination before you die in body.”

It’s an observation that encapsulates the central paradox of the book. It may be necessary, if you want to live as a philosopher, to think of yourself as already dead, but it is also impossible given that, as Tallis admits, what comes when life ends is inconceivable to us. How can we envision non-existence? If we are tormented by the thought of death, one reason is that we can’t imagine what it means to be dead. It is hard to see how philosophy can help us here.

In The Black Mirror, Tallis explores the life that will be lost when he is gone. Although he discusses bereavement – for many people, a loss worse than the prospect of their own death – it is not a large part of the book. It is his own loss that chiefly concerns him. He refers to himself throughout in the third person:

 

Visitors paying their last respects will direct them to the capital of RT’s body, to the head with which they had been tête-à-tête for so long. It was here, more than any other part of his frame, that revealed his changing take on a changing world. Little of its meaning-packed anterior surface had been excused the duty to communicate: mouth, eyes, nose, forehead, cheeks, all had their say.

 

This third-person perspective is more than a stylistic device. It’s an attempt to achieve a point of view on one’s life that is outside oneself and yet not that of another living being. But unless you believe in some kind of divine mind, there is no such point of view. Tallis is a convinced atheist – not the all-too-familiar kind, typified by Dawkins, which rants on incessantly about the evils of religion, but the rarer, more intelligent variety that finds the very idea of God empty and incoherent. If the idea of God is devoid of meaning, however, so, too, is the idea that the world can be seen from the standpoint of someone who has died. After all, who – or what – is looking?

Tallis tries to adopt this standpoint because he wants to “live philosophically”. Having been imaginatively dead, he hopes to come back with his love of life re-energised. The Black Mirror, he tells us, “is, ultimately, a work of praise and gratitude”. It is true that the book contains many invocations of beauty and joy: “ploughlands bordered with bare hawthorn hedges scribbled on low dark and grey skies rifted with brilliance”; the simple pleasure in existing on a dull Wednesday afternoon. Overall, though, the mood is melancholy, heavy with regret for how much of the life that is gone was left unlived. Pursuing “some dream of changing the world (and of course his prospects in it) for the better”, the author “allowed himself to be indifferent to an April evening, glistening with dew and birdsong, that could have become itself in his consciousness”. Now it is getting late: “With age he had lost some of his singularity and become ‘Old Man’ or ‘Elderly Gentleman’ in the eyes of strangers – a sign of the de-differentiations to come.” Seeing life from the standpoint of death – “the philosophical viewpoint” – does not seem to have produced the hoped-for reinvigoration. By playing the corpse, dying “in thought and in imagination”, you may end up a fretful ghost.

If this remarkable book fails to deliver the uplift it aims to provide, the fault lies with the hopes the author has invested in philosophy. Like rationalists the world over, Tallis wants to believe that discordant impulses can be reconciled through a process of reflection. But the human response to mortality is intrinsically contradictory. We fear the  prospect of death and build up elaborate defences against it, yet at the same time yearn for the inconceivable transformation that death will bring.

It is unreasonable to look to philosophy for remedies for this quintessentially human self-division. Better take up a religion, or else accept and enjoy the short, uncertain life we are given. In the end, feeling stiff the next day is no big deal.

The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski is published by Allen Lane
The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life by Raymond Tallis is published by Atlantic Books

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

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 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism