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Nova Swing (GollanczF.) Hardcover – November 9, 2006

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Editorial Reviews Review

Years after Ed Chianese's fateful trip into the Kefahuchi Tract, the tract has begun to expand and change in ways we never could have predicted--and, even more terrifying, parts of it have actually begun to fall to Earth, transforming the landscapes they encounter.

Not far from Moneytown, in a neighborhood of underground clubs, body-modification chop shops, adolescent contract killers, and sexy streetwalking Monas, you'll find the Saudade Event Site: a zone of strange geography, twisted physics, and frightening psychic onslaughts--not to mention the black and white cats that come pouring out at irregular intervals.

Vic Serotonin is a "travel agent" into and out of Saudade. His latest client is a woman who's nearly as unpredictable as the site itself--and maybe just as dangerous. She wants a tour just as a troubling new class of biological artifacts are leaving the site--living algorithms that are transforming the world outside in inexplicable and unsettling ways. Shadowed by a metaphysically inclined detective determined to shut his illegal operation down, Vic must make sense of a universe rapidly veering toward a virulent and viral form of chaos ... and a humanity almost lost.

Questions for M. John Harrison You've returned to the same setting as Light with Nova Swing, but Nova Swing isn't really a sequel, right?

Harrison: It's a kind of companion piece. It's less sprawling than Light. It could be read independently but there's some interplay, which you would miss if you hadn't read the other book. I wanted to revisit the genetically-modified servants and entertainers--the prostitutes, gladiators, rickshaw girls, and gun-kiddies--and show them as more human than some of the human beings. A key element I wanted to extend from the first book was the idea of human behaviour as code, further undermining conventional ideas we have of personality, character, and consciousness. I liked the idea of a kind of life based on complex algorithms which can run themselves on any platform. The Kefahuchi Code is imagined as preceding physics in some way. Reality is just another substrate it can run on. If a reader came up to you and asked you what Nova Swing was about, what would you say?

Harrison: It's about being a meme and not knowing it. The set-up is this: we are on one of the Beach planets. A generation--perhaps two--after Ed Chianese took his ship The Black Cat off the Beach and into the Kefahuchi Tract, part of the Tract has fallen to earth in a city called Saudade. It's a zone of the unreliable. It's infected with K-code: or maybe it is K-code, the wrong physics loose in the universe. Everyone is drawn to the "event site" like moths to a flame, from failed entradista Vic Serotonin to middle class tourist Elizabeth Keilar; from Vic's friend Pauli DeRaad, ex vacuum commando and all-round Earth Military Contracts factotum, to Lens Aschemann the dissociated police detective. They're all looking for something their lives don't show them. But for everyone who goes in, something new and weird is coming out... You've written novels with contemporary settings, novels that mix the contemporary and SF, like Light, and then something like Nova Swing, which is all set in the future. What is it that attracts you to the SF element?

Harrison: SF is an opportunity to have an intense relationship with your own imagination. It's a kind of drive-by poetry, trashy and addictive; it's fun. After that, for me, it's an opportunity to explore that kind of imaginative artifact from inside, and use a little camped-up contemporary science as a way of generating new metaphors around my typical obsessions. While I agree with almost everything that Geoff Ryman and the Mundanes say about SF, I can't join them because I find it impossible to assign different levels of plausibility to acts of the imagination. If you limit yourself on the grounds that faster-than-light travel isn't "realistic," you might as well go whole hog and write only fiction set on the street where you live; if you limit yourself to that, you might as well go whole hog and write nothing but nonfiction; if you limit yourself to that, you might as well go whole hog, admit that writing is not the real world--and can't even successfully represent the real world--and give it up altogether. I'd be happy to do that, and indeed I've already done all of those things more than once in the last 40 years. But if you're going to write SF in the first place, why not lie back, admit it's a farrago, and enjoy it? I think there's a great deal to be gained from revaluing and enjoying the distinction between the invented and the real. As long as you maintain that, SF's a great genre. When you start a new novel, is it easier every time because you've got more experience each time?

Harrison: If you were trying to solve the same problems every time, I think it would get easier. But if you can maintain a complex relationship with who you are, and always let form show you what you could say (rather than going the rationalist route of selecting a form that fits the things you already expect to be saying), the next book will always be a challenge. Whatever you do, it's hard to escape your typical subject matter and obsessions. The main thing is to look for situations in which you can make bad decisions, otherwise you're writing from a template. You read and review a lot of novels for English media. What's most disappointed you and/or most surprised you in a good way recently?

Harrison: I didn't enjoy House of Meetings. I thought Amis's need to add literary value obscured the human facts of the Gulag. By the opposite token, Dave Eggers's What Is the What is one of the most powerful and affecting books I've read, precisely because he doesn't let his own needs and abilities overshadow the work the book is doing. Though I was a bit sniffy with it in the Times Literary Supplement, I really rather enjoyed my encounter with The Dictator and the Hammock, by Daniel Pennac. Pennac is as intrusive an author as Amis, but that's part of the contract: you don't read him, you have a lively argument with him then lose your temper because he was gaming you all along. Someone else who is gaming you, in a different way, is Chuck Palahniuk. I adored Rant, though I found its voice a bit overpowering by the end. Apart from the Eggers, the books I've liked most recently haven't been books I've reviewed: Ali Smith, The Accidental; Houellebecq's Atomised [The Elementary Particles in the US]; The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Homes. What projects are you working on now?

Harrison: I'm writing a collection of short stories. I'm foraging about in the set-up for the next novel, trying to set enough limits for it to be writeable. I've been blogging at Uncle Zip's Window. (That turned out to be a project in itself.) I recently wrote some stories for Barbara Campbell's web-based durational performance 1001 Nights Cast; and, along with Tim Etchells, Deborah Levi, Jo Randerson, and Richard Maxwell, generated text for a performance by Kate McIntosh (Loose Promise), which premieres in Berlin later this year. The 1001 Nights rules encourage you to write quickly, relinquish control of the product, give up the obsessive write/rewrite cycle. Challenging for someone like me.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this dense quasi-noir tale set in the universe of Light (2004), Harrison introduces Vic Serotonin, a ne'er-do-well who makes his living running illegal tours of the Saudade event site, where hallucinatory and impossible experiences are the norm. When rich tourist Elizabeth Kielar hires him as a guide and then disappears in the area around the site, things get even stranger than usual. Police detective Lens Aschemann, who usually turns a blind eye to the tourism business, threatens dire consequences for Vic's sideline of event site artifact smuggling, while shady club owner Paulie DeRaad buys an artifact that begins to change him in bizarre ways. Harrison privileges atmosphere over plot, using grotesquely beautiful narration and elliptical dialogue to convey the beautifully delineated angst of Saudade's extraordinary inhabitants. Although not for everyone, Harrison's trippy style will appeal to sophisticated readers who treasure the work of China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: GollanczF.
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Gollancz (November 9, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0575070277
  • ISBN-13: 978-0575070271
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,329,746 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3.3 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Glen Dodge on February 28, 2008
Format: Paperback
I think it's obvious that Harrison knows how to write. He's been at it a long time in both literary and journalistic concentrations. I think it's obvious that he's not interested in writing a "standard" novel. He will willingly weaken his work's plotline and continuum to let his art shine through.

That's where the reader has to decide what they're up for.

You want space opera? This isn't it. You want an alien Phillip Marlowe? Not really. Can you deal with ambiguity and page-long descriptions of odd events. This is for you!

Set in the same timeline as Harrison's earlier work, Light, Nova Swing follows an assortment of characters who are displaced. They live in a time where they can hop in a tank and be whoever or wherever they want to be, or go to a gene tailor and really become someone new. But the characters in Nova Swing aren't interested in that. They're interested in making a real connection to the people and places around them. Their quest is made more problematic by the Event Site, a place where part of the Kefahuchi Tract fell to ground and warped the way time and space behave. Several of the characters are drawn to it, some are ambivalent, but the Event Site rules what goes on is this novel. Will the characters go in? Will they ever come out? And what's the deal with the armpit-tattooing serial killer?

There are lots of beautiful passages in this book. There are parts and characters that I found pretty dull. Ultimately I don't want to look back at a novel and have to try and decode what it was I read. Not the meaning, but just the chain of events. And I don't mind working while I'm reading. I like a challenging read. This one just has too many threads that don't get resolved.

Short review: lots of literary sizzle, not enough plot-based steak.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By ScrawnyPunk on January 24, 2010
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Whereas Light was involved and uplifting, Nova Swing is muddled and depressing. The story takes place in the same universe as Light, about a generation later. An anomaly of space-time has expanded and its edge has `fallen to earth' in the middle of Suadade city. The intersection of city and spatial anomaly has created the Suadade Event site, a zone of `impossible physics,' which attracts adventurous tourists, `artifact' smugglers, and a local police force watching them both. Of the eight main characters in the novel, three are destined to lose themselves in the Event, three are destined to move as far away from it as possible, and two learn to accept it as part of their lives.

As with Light and the Viriconium stories, Harrison's narrative style is extraordinarily immersive. He drops you into the action with the assumption you are familiar with the story's setting, history, culture, and linguistic vagaries. This makes for a bumpy start, but the approach is so thorough and unrelenting that you eventually develop a familiarity with the material. This style is particularly rewarding since he treats you like an insider instead of a child in need of narrative-halting explanation. As always, his writing is elaborately descriptive, densely layered, and technically impressive.

Unfortunately, the story itself does match the power of the prose. The mood moves back and forth from criminal noir to cyberpunk to hallucinatory travelogue to melancholy memoir and back again. Character motives and qualities seem to change rather suddenly midway through the novel. The story's climax occurs about 2/3 of the way in and subsequently yields to what appears to be a metaphysical climax followed by a lengthy coda to tie up loose ends.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By James C. Dascoli on January 28, 2010
Format: Mass Market Paperback
It took me a while to find the best way to sum up this book and I think the analogy to "No Country For Old Men" is apt, in that most people either "got it" and appreciated the movie making capability of Coen Brothers, or walked away hating it and wondering what the heck the point of the movie was. This book evokes the same emotions. Sadly, in my opinion, it is the latter impression I was left with for Nova Swing. (Unlike No Country, which despite the ending I still enjoyed). Not only was there really no point to the whole exercise of reading the book, but the plot just dissolves like some bad discarded "code" of dead "Shadow Operators." If you read the book you will understand.

While there is no doubting the literary capabilities of M. John Harrison, it is not enough to sustain a relatively short novel, in comparison to some sci-fi space operas, that fails to resolve any plot lines and creates un-engaging characters with no real discernible motives and incoherent personalities. Without giving away any major plot lines for those willing to venture into this algorithmic mess, if you do end up investing any emotional concern for characters, their fates are rather unfulfillable.

One can enjoy fluent and stylistic writing without a need for a straight forward plot, or even a satisfying resolution. To reference a different genre, some of John LeCarre's novels fall in that category, where the reward of phenomenal writing style makes up for an occasional wandering plot. Unfortunately, Harrison, is not in that category, but more in the category of knowing all too well his literary skills to the detriment of all else. At least in this novel there isn't the prurient and quite frankly boring obsession with clinical sex as there was in "Light".
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