Empty Space: A Haunting by M John Harrison
Let’s start with a simple question. What do you understand by the idea of “unthought known”? Suppose you brush your teeth, do you think about the build-up of the froth of the toothpaste at the edges of your mouth? No. The process of teeth cleansing is performed at an automatic level within the mind and, unless you have a particular reason to look in the mirror, it would never occur to you that an outside observer might mistakenly diagnose a manic episode with you frothing saliva in a fit. The only reason we survive as individuals is that we retain our own point of view. It may shift like a butterfly or become immovably focused on a single detail until we’re suddenly distracted. But one thing is always certain. If we lose our point of view, the thought processes becomes chaotic. We lose our understanding of the world. Another way of seeing the outcome might be that we become untethered from our world and can fall into a different place or dimension. Or we can fall from power, or from grace, or head over heels. Falling is one of these indisciplined activities. It’s safer to be controlling where you fall. That way, when you arrive, you’re in one piece. Of course, if you could manipulate your DNA structure, you might grow wings while you fell, or your thoughts could take wing and steer you to a new place.
This might all sound a little confusing but, as a metaphor, how would you capture the idea of the mind controlling space flight? It would have to assimilate the maths, perform the calculations to navigate and then implement the solutions. That way, the pilot of the ship might fall to another planet in another star system. Once experience is acquired, the process becomes autonomic. The pilots might not even be aware of how they do it unless they specifically stop to think about it. This would be the ultimate unthought known. Before the technology enhances the mind and enables the controlled falling, how might someone achieve the right frame of mind? It would require the mind to engage in a routine task to the exclusion of everything else. This might be a thoughtless wandering from street to street or a swim in the river. It would be an untethering process where the essential self is left behind and a purely directional instinct is put in its place. You might not know or remember how you arrived at a particular place. All you could say is that when you stopped walking, you’d arrived, even though you might not know where you were. That could make the form of transport a matter of blind luck, a literal throw of the dice.
Empty Space: A Haunting by M John Harrison is the third in the Kefahuchi Tract series. It’s probably the last, the equivalent of someone throwing two threes on a roll of the dice and calling it a night (or day depending on the time the dice where thrown and the atmospheric pressure). Except, of course, the same person could return and pick up the dice again or another might stand in his or her place. The first book, Light, introduced us to Michael Kearney, a physicist who worked with Tate, his assistant, to formulate the maths that will eventually take humanity to the stars. Unfortunately, Michael steals a set of dice from the Shrander and the only way he can keep it away, is by becoming a murderer. This reflects the fact that basic cause and effect is distorted in the Tract itself. It’s a kind of unthinking shield. The second was Nova Swing, set almost exclusively in the future city of Saudade where everything is still as dirty and broken down as in our time, and the space fleet is piloted by less than human children who have no real idea how they get to where they arrive.
This book brings us back to a near-future London where sequential recessions have left the British impoverished. Michael is long missing, presumed dead, while his “widow” Anna struggles through therapy with Helen Alpert and her daughter worries she may have cancer. In Saudade, an unhappy trio of wheeler-dealers begins to collect artifacts called mortsafes. They are not convinced this will turn out well. Then there are a couple of murders where the corpses float into the air and start to fade away, and a voice that insists, “My name is Pearlant and I come from the future.” except, like everyone else in this book, Pearlant is having some difficulty in finding the way. Indeed both metaphorically and literally, almost all the characters are lost.
So where does this leave us? As a way of linking the two rather different books that went before, Empty Space: A Haunting is a brilliant piece of writing, elegantly crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s to reconcile the opposites and arrive where it’s supposed to. Indeed, in its own right, the prose is worth reading. It’s quintessentially British in spirit and execution, showing M John Harrison as a long-term craftsman at his best. That said, this is not a book to read as a standalone. If you have not at least read Light, I would seriously advise you not to start here. Of course, you could take this as an excuse to read all three of the Kefahuchi Tract so far — of course there may be more or not depending on the author’s atmospheric pressure — which, while something of a challenge, does repay the effort with real interest.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.