NOVA SWING by M. John Harrison
(Gollancz 234 pp. £16.99)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
When M. John Harrison takes us to far galaxies, and to port cities that serve as the jumping off point between worlds as we know them and some place else, he does so in the same spirit that he has taken us to artists' colonies in cities that used to be full of gods and monsters, or the cult- haunted backstreets of Northern industrial towns. It is to tell us that, yes, there are secrets to be found, round this corner, or behind that barbed wire fence, but that they are not so much secrets we are not meant to know as secrets not worth the knowing. He is a poet of decay and of torn stained newspaper blowing in a pollution-laden wind and of the sparse plants of waste ground and the whining of half-born dogs.
Nova Swing is unusual in his work in that we spend some of the time with ordinary people who are content with small pleasures and with each other. Fat Antoyne and his pushy whore Irene, the pilot turned bar owner Liv and Edith who cares for her dying father, but dreams of going back to the act in which she played tangos on the accordion - in the end, these are wiser in their generation than the book's major characters. If their pleasures - watching large-phallused clones batter each other in the arena, say - are tawdry, that is the best you can expect when high ideals lead you to death in the dirt.
And to worse - the tour guide Vic and the police investigator Aschemann and the gangster Paulie never find what they are looking for in the borderland between realities. Instead, they half-grasp the ineffable, and sacrifice others - the child-thug Alice for example - to get there, and change into what they are seeking, and not in a good way. Harrison is the guilty conscience of sf and fantasy - the man who warns us that great adventures and Borgesian murder mysteries and hanging out in bars called things like Surf Noir all come down to degradation and disappointment in the end. You get what you want and you pay for it and it is a wager lost by winning.
For the reader, though, Harrison's gloomy seedy world is a constant delight of visually precise images, of sounds half-heard on the wind that delight more even than they nauseate and disturb. His doomed heroes and villains have charm and sexual charisma; Vic's relationships with women, perhaps most of all Elizabeth, the woman he lost in the borderlands and who seemed to find her own way out, and is desperate to return, is one of half-clothed graling in derelict rooms but we believe in every pant, groan and droplet of sweat. Harrison writes with tremendous panache of vast machines and bizarre cosmetic therapies and the reaches between stars, but his real love is for doomed second-rate humanity, and its ideals and its agues and its wonderful banality.
I went to see Running with Scissors which I am reviewing and about which I confess to being profoundly conflicted. It is clear that the memoir on which Ryan Murphy's film is based is by a man who feels, probably with justification, that he has real grounds for anger against his mother and the shrink to whom she farmed him out. And that anger makes for wonderful grotesques given vivid life by the likes of Annette Bening and Brian Cox. The film is so generally and amusingly misanthropic that the specific tendency to misogyny is only a bat squeak amid the general and enjoyable din. And is no more than we have seen before in Murphy's work, which I mostly love. I mean, Popular and Nip-Tuck and what he does here is no more misogynist than say, Nicole, Mary Cherry, Kimber and Erica, but also no less. Not really an issue, but just expressing a vague area of unease which I shall have to deal with in the book...
On the bus home, a really minor issue between someone who had tried to buy a ticket from a machine that was broken, and was slightly drunk, and a driver who was a bit tired, nearly turned into a major confrontation that would have held the bus up forever, and probably got both of them into trouble. For once, I intervened - the guy needed to go to check the number of the machine and would not believe the driver's promise to wait for him, probably sensibly. Words were being had, and the level of impoliteness was escalating.
So I walked up to the front and said I would hold the door, so everyone could trust each other, and that sort of broke the log jam. They went on swearing at each other and doing a whole 'come outside and say that' but at least the bus was moving and neither of them was actually going to do anything.
I get so tired of this sort of thing - boys will be horrid to each other in my dreams for weeks.
And the best boy in the world is Peter Parker, the Amazing Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man. Without saying anything too spoilerish, he has done the absolutely right thing in respect of the Superhero Registration Act in the most stylish and honourable way possible. I have entirely rediscovered my love for the boy...