Tuesday, 23 July 2013

M. John Harrison - The Kefahuchi Tract Book One: Light (2002)

   "The Kefahuchi Tract.
   A singularity without an event horizon. A place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out, like cheap conjuror's stuff, magic that might work or it might not, undependable stuff in a retro shop window. You couldn't make anything of an idea like that, but you couldn't stop trying. You couldn't stop trying to engage it."

   Back in 1974, M. John Harrison wrote the incredibly disgruntled deconstruction of the space-opera 'The Centauri Device'. The book is overwhelmingly cynical, and its focus on a desperate down-and-out antihero was refreshing. Instead of SF's standard focus on the heroic square-jawed pioneer, 'The Centauri Device' is explicitly about the disenfranchised, smugglers eking out a marginal living on the fringes of society. Reaching the stars hasn't changed fundamental human nature, with greed and paranoia motivating most of the characters. However, by the end the book collapses in on its own pissiness, with the author killing all his characters and destroying this quarter of the galaxy. After moving on to fantasy and literary fiction, Harrison returned to space opera with 'Light' in 2002. It builds on all the strengths of 'The Centauri Device', but with a more mature perspective. 'Light' is still a book deeply aware of the fundamental flaws in ourselves and under no illusions about our likelihood of overcoming them, but it is more generous in spirit than its predecessor. While it still manages to subvert a good many space opera tropes, at the end instead of ending the game by kicking over the board, Harrison grants his characters some reprieve and his readers some genuine, good old fashioned SF sense of wonder.
   'Light' has a complex structure, following three separate narrative strands, one in the present day, two in the 2400s. In the present day strand, physicist Michael Kearney, who will invent the system of physics used to power spaceships in the future, tries to escape the attention of the mysterious and frightening Shrander - the shape of a horse's skull, but with ribbons streaming off of it - by murdering innocent women. One of the 2400 strands follows Seria Mau Genlicher, a girl surgically altered to merge with alien and human technology so she can pilot a K-ship, as she tries to unravel the mystery behind a strange package. The third is about Ed Chianese, a once infamous smuggler turned virtual reality addict on the run from his creditors. All three strands are linked by the Kefahuchi Tract, an impenetrable and uknowable ribbon of space weirdness that deposits untold alien wonders on its shores. At the end of the book, all of these narrative strands come elegantly together, as it is revealed that all three characters are being manipulated by the Shrander, which is the last survivor of an alien race that seeded humanity as a last-ditch attempt to create a race that might be able to investigate and understand the riddles of the universe that they were unable to.

Like this, but with more ribbons.
   The three main characters of 'Light' are all damaged, at least as much as John Trunk, the protagonist of 'The Centauri Device'. Harrison succeeds in creating three very memorable, complex and well-rounded protagonists, who, while they aren't always likable, are always compelling. Michael Kearney is a brilliant physicist full of potential, and his ability to see links between the randomness of determined patterns and the determined patterns in seeming randomness provides humanity with the conceptual breakthrough that allows them to travel between the stars. However he is completely swallowed up and destroyed by his fear, eventually teeming up with a lunatic to go on a killing spree across Europe. Seria Mau Genlicher decided to abandon her physical body and become part of a K-ship when she was thirteen, following the death of her mother and her abuse at the hands of her father. Although she is now part of a powerful machine capable of operating across 14 dimensions, she is still at heart a lost and frightened girl, liable to lash out, which winds up having lethal consequences for her human crew. It is strongly implied that Ed Chianese is Seria Mau's long lost brother, carrying the same psychological scars, which has driven him to live a reckless life on the edge as a smuggler and eventually leading to his virtual reality addiction.

Dr. Haends to surgery!

   The Shrander says of Kearney, "Now there was someone who fell back from himself... he was just too frightened of the things he knew." To some extent this describes all the characters, but whereas Kearney is beyond redemption, Seria Mau and Ed Chianese are, at the end, able to escape from their past to some extent. While there is no doubt the Shrander is manipulative, it also seems to deeply care about its human pawns. The events of the story are one long plot to get Ed Chianese in the correct place and frame of mind where he is ready to go and explore the Kefahuchi Tract, something no one has returned alive from. However the Shrander allows Seria Mau to escape from her ship and gain a new corporeal body, and gives Kearney a true moment of peace before his death. The Shrander says to each of them, "You can forgive yourself now," the first step towards acceptance and moving on from the past.  

   Acceptance is a major theme of 'Light'. As the Shrander says, "There will always be more in the universe. There will always be more after that." Even if humanity are able to understand more about the Kefahuchi Tract than the Shrander's people did, there will always be more things out there beyond human understanding, more than can ever be explored. 'Light' takes issue with the whole idea that the universe can actually ever be understood - it is too large, too varied and weird for that. Early on, Harrison explains what happened during humanity's first encounters with alien civilizations. Apparently every different alien species uses a different kind of faster-than-light drive, built on different and contradictory physical assumptions. While their attempts at understanding the universe have bought them no closer to the truth, the important thing is that they tried - they had that initial interest in their surroundings and the hunger for knowledge that drove them to attempt space travel in the first place. Seria Mau observes, 

"Generally, it was impossible to understand the motives of aliens. 'Motives,' she thought, staring at the collection of legs and eyes in front of her, 'are a sensorum thing. They are an Umwelt thing. The cat has a hard job to imagine the motives of the housefly in its mouth.' She thought about this. 'The housefly has a harder job,' she decided."

But 'Light' is fundamentally about our desire to understand our place in the universe, and the universe around us, something shared by all the aliens and humans in the book. Even as they grossly misunderstand each other, use each other or kill each other, they are all held together by this saving grace. As Ed Chianese gears up to delve into the Tract, war is breaking out all around. But he is able to share a moment of empathy with the Shrander because of this universal desire towards greater understanding. 


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Christopher Priest - A Dream Of Wessex (1977)

"The tide was going out, and for a moment Harkman had an hallucinatory image of some bottomless drain far out at sea, into which the water was emptying, drawing back from the shore and leaving the bay sodden and bare, the muddy remains of the twentieth century scattered like shipwrecks across the land."

   In 'A Dream Of Wessex', a group of thirty-nine academics experience a collective dream of an optimistic future, by way of the Ridpath projector. The hope is that by submerging themselves in an utterly realistic and convincing version of a better future they can discover beneficial paths to take in the present. However, in the projection their conscious will becomes subsumed to an alter ego who lives in that time, and David Harkman, one of the academics, has gone missing within the projection for two years and refuses to come out. Meanwhile the board of trustees have decided the project isn't delivering results, and hires Paul Mason to redirect the projection. Unfortunately for all of the academics, and especially Julia Stretton, who used to be in a relationship with Paul, Paul is a selfish, manipulative and abusive sociopath with delusions of grandeur whose warped perspective threatens to swallow up the entire projection.
   'A Dream Of Wessex' comes at a point in Priest's career when he was moving away from works like 'Inverted World' and 'Fugue For A Darkening Island' which play games with the boundaries of genre and their protagonists' perception but can still be comfortably classified as SF, towards his later works, such as 'The Affirmation' or 'The Glamour', which have a more ambiguous relationship towards their SFnal elements.   'Wessex' still has a central SF element in its dream machine, especially in the very Philip K. Dick-esque climax, which echoes the stripping away of subsequent layers of reality and illusion that runs through all his work. Towards the end the academics in the future dreamworld have reactivated the Ridpath projector within the dream world, and the spiraling of layers of reality rivals that in UBIK or 'Inception'.
   However the narrative focus remains almost entirely on the characters, specifically the destructive relationship between Paul and Julia, which Priest explores with almost surgical precision. The dream Wessex of the future  has provided Julia with a realised escapist fantasy that she can retreat to following her disastrous relationship with Paul, one that his presence in her new life threatens. Roger Zelazny used the metaphor of a dream machine to explore the effects of an obsessive and deranged personality on another person's mind in 'The Dream Master', but that was just between two people. Paul's obsessive drive to possess Julia is so powerful it disrupts a consensus reality shaped by thirty-eight other people. Priest derives some dark humour from just how twisted and egotistical Paul is. When he enters the projection, despite being the newest member his subconscious makes him the leader of the whole project, and his projected self is sickeningly handsome, charming and loved by everyone. When Julia regains her memories in the projection, she realises that this is genuinely how Paul sees himself. Paul is also unable to share the same optimistic future that the other members of the projection enjoy. While all the academics have created the future Wessex as an island paradise, an idyllic tourist resort that is still self-maintained and governed, Paul believes this to be an unrealistic and childish fantasy, so when he joins the projection Wessex becomes a polluted oil field, bickered over by large companies. His ultimate plan is to send off all the other academics into the future a second time, using the projector in the real world, leaving Julia trapped forever with him in the projection. He is a truly loathsome character, and his ultimate fate, trapped alone in the nightmare of his own consciousness, is well deserved.
   While Julia is a more sympathetic character, she shares with all the characters in this book a tendancy towards escapism and solipsism. In the end, she escapes Paul's malign influence, but decides to stay in the dreamworld with David Harkman, who has figured out the nature of the reality they live in but has become immune to the conditioning that the scientists use to wake them and has decided to stay in the dream world. By this stage in the book, everyone has passed through at least two dream projectors, and there is no guarantee that any of the surviving characters are sharing the same reality anymore. The David Harkman that Julia rides off into the sunset with could just be a figment of Julia's imagination, or he could be the real one and she could be a figment of his. David and Julia's love for each other has led them to reject reality and their original philanthropic mission and possibly even their own real company. Inadvertently, they may both be sharing Paul's fate.
   It is entirely appropriate that 'A Dream Of Wessex' was written at the turning point in Christopher Priest's writing career, as in many ways it is a metaphor for the artistic process of writing, and specifically writing SF. Like the academics in the projection, the SF writer imagines a future different from our own to tell us an important message about the present day. The fictional worlds created by writing provide us with a refuge from the harsh realities of real life, but can also give us succour and strength. However, perhaps in the ambiguity of the ending it is possible to detect Priest's frustrations with the constricting boundaries of genre fiction, the escapism and solipsism of a clique of fans and writers who have gotten lost in their own fantasies and forgotten what they came here for in the first place.