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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories