Empty Space by M. John Harrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book focuses equally hard on both the inner space of the mind trapped in the quantum foam of the universe where neither time nor cats can be extricated, and upon the vastness of space that is slowly, inextricably showing us all that we don't quite fit in it and it wants to tell you, slowly, exactly why... by transforming us all.
Of course, we really oughtn't take it personally. After all, every other alien race had to discover it for themselves and probably went mad in the attempt to make sense of it, just like we are.
Space and time are unimaginably big and empty. Shouldn't that give us a clue?
This is space opera to a much larger degree than the second book and arguably more than the first, although the first book in the trilogy had the joys of extremely interesting scenes being seen for the first time, while the third kinda felt like a travelogue of odd transformations taking the form of quantum viruses and macro horrors, and all the while, it always seems to boil down to sex in one fashion or another.
I can't even begin to describe to you how many times the characters enter a scene needing to pull up their underwear or pull it down or otherwise be the act of disrobing or finding others doing so. It's almost always sexual, and the way the author pulls it off is not unconsciously and it actually serves a huge purpose. We've been seeing it occur all the time throughout all three novels and it always has some sort of element that is either ordinary or transformative, and usually always becomes a scene of ultimate joy or transcendent experience. The same is true for when the explorer enters the anomaly or how he never wanted to leave again or even when Anna finds herself locked in the quantum foam for 10,000 years.
The mirroring between the first and the last book in the trilogy is rather fantastic, but only in retrospect.
In actual fact, this book is almost the equivalent of James Joyce's Ulysses. Her long final scene is reminiscent of a daydream that eventually always returns to sex, but in this case, things are very, very weird and dare I say it: More Complex. This book deserves quite a bit of close and careful reading and no one will deny the excellent passages studded throughout it.
I read somewhere that the book lends itself to an interpretation that it was all a dream, but I have to disagree. It is our reality that most resembles the dream. Quantum physics, itself, is not reconcilable with the macro universe we perceive, and yet it is much more valid than our solid reality. We might be able to make certain assumptions and wild conjectures about consensual realities and observation, but Harrison never gives us a clear and pat answer, only the brokenness of the inner (the quantum) and the outer (the perceivable reality).
I might even posit that the fact that all these alien species managed to specialize their own brands of physics so far and the fact that each brand is exclusive to all the others is a glaring clue as to the theme of the books. All these different physics invalidated each other. And yet, as long as the aliens believed their higher maths, their brands of FTL always worked.
In our breakneck desires to unlock the anomaly, we did so because we believed we could, that it would bring us happiness. The more people that got caught up in the dream, the larger the dream and the more area it transformed, and it was whole areas of the Earth. In the third book, the base desire, almost as powerful as sex, itself, is transforming other colonies, too. And in the heart of it, the one person that is still outside of the actual breech, we have the half-woman half-cat surfer of many-dimensions and the surfer of her own mind, perhaps for eternity. Half in the quantum and half in the perceivable reality.
I mention all of this because the book got under my skin and it does NOT make any of this plain to us. Instead, it goes along being clever and idea-rich and surprising and dreamlike and super post-cyberpunk and super high-physics spaceships with adventure. And it happens to make many subtle points, besides.
To say that I'm impressed is kinda an understatement. This is a serious work. All three of these novels are serious works.
Never let anyone tell you that Science Fiction can't be literary and deep while at the same time being flashy, exploratory, and crude, because it can, and it can do it with SCIENCE. :)
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