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 a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser