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Nova Swing

by M John Harrison

(Gollancz, £17.99, 247 pages, hardback, published 9 November 2006.)

Review by Jack Deighton

cover scanOn a planet (or city, it's never quite entirely clear) called Saudade a mysterious event a generation or so ago has brought part of the astronomical phenomenon known as the Kefahuchi Tract down to earth. The event site is the location for strange apparitions and peculiar artefacts some of which are smuggled into Saudade. There is also apparently endless business in guiding fascinated punters illegally into the site. A branch of the Saudade police is dedicated to combating such Site crime.

The book tracks various characters - the "travel agent" Vic Serotonin, his client Elizabeth Kielar, who wants Serotonin's help to enter the site, Fat Antoyne, Liv Hula, Emil and Edith Bonaventure, Paulie Deraad, the policeman Lens Aschemann whom we are told (somewhat relentlessly) resembles the older Albert Einstein, plus his new female assistant who has a datableed continually scrolling information down her arm -- through the various bars that are near to the event site. All of this action (or lack of it) takes place in the shadow of a spaceport where spaceships land and take off apparently at random.

It seems these names may carry some significance (serotonin is a neurotransmitter that apparently helps to keep you relaxed and happy, but the Bonaventures travel nowhere and are not saintly.) For the most part what their significance might be is not very obvious.

Oh, and someone is carrying out murders, leaving a peculiar trademark tattoo on the victims.

Though the book's focus is narrow the influences on the narrative are not. There is quite a strong larding of Ballard, perhaps a touch of Dick, but the overriding influence is from film noir. In fact the novel could almost be intended for filming -- the shoot would need only about ten sets.

Despite being typeset and printed in England a few Americanisms creep in (barkeep, different than, lighted, fit [as a past tense]) -- though, confusingly, the last is not adhered to consistently. There are also typos enough to ruin an attentive reader's concentration.

After a few false starts we eventually penetrate the event site and things there inevitably have something of a nebulous, Alice Through The Looking Glass, quality. But very little is resolved by it. Reflecting life? Perhaps. The Nova Swing of the title disappointingly turns out to be the name of the space ship on which three of the characters finally blast off into the less-than-wide blue quite-near. And (disastrously for a novel with this set-up?) though there is the merest hint who it might be, the tattoo murderer remains undiscovered.

Harrison has never been less than a stylist but, here, there is a tendency from the outset to tell rather than show which detracts from immediacy and prevents the characters from fully springing to life.

According to Wikipedia, "The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness." This passage just about sums up the novel - though to say it is indolent would be harsh.

The outpouring of gratitude (it was almost relief) that greeted Harrison's return to the genre with Light was always slightly overdone. In Nova Swing it is the SF trappings that seem out of place. But even if it had been a mainstream novel the noirish style and lack of engagement with the characters would render it substantially flawed. The part for Bogart is obvious, as is Sydney Greenstreet's. Which, though, of the rest would be played by Peter Lorre? And are any of the women worthy of Bacall? The answer is no.

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