"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past"
As a teenager in the 1960s, I read science fiction avidly; the usual suspects - Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Aldiss, Ballard - all the postwar writers I could find, really.
But by the time the "New Worlds" school of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll sf came along, I had largely moved on to more mainstream fiction. In the forty-plus years since then, I have occasionally dipped a toe back into the genre, without ever really finding anything to get me really excited. Then I (re)discovered M. John Harrison. A chance find of "Light" (the first part of this trilogy) in a charity shop had me intrigued, not least by the heavyweight recommendations in the review blurbs. My initial attempt to read it was a false start - the first chapter introduced us to a rather unlikable theoretical physicist with a penchant for randomly murdering yuppies. Was this going to be some sort of British rehash of "American Psycho"? I put it down and read something else. But some months later I gave it another shot. And, as the action shifted to a bizarre (yet strangely familiar) 25th century culture far out in a region of the galaxy where conventional physics breaks down in unpredictable ways - The Kefahuchi Tract - I was hooked.
The apparently unrelated threads of the story, were ultimately reconciled - sort of. It left me slightly confused, but entertained, intrigued, and wanting more. So I got a copy of the sequel "Nova Swing". Still set in the futuristic cultural mash-up of the region around the Tract, this was a wonderful detective noir pastiche, chock full of sly in-jokes and pop culture references, like some sort of deranged collision between Philip K. Dick, Douglas Adams and William Burroughs.
While waiting for this book (the conclusion of the trilogy - or is it?), I took time out to read Harrison's earlier fantasy-but-not-as-we-know-it sequence "Viriconium". This is not the place to talk about that, but suffice to say it's a masterpiece (Tolkien and Vance morphing into Durrell, Eliot, Baudelaire and er... Alan Bennett. Just read it).
Which brings us on to "Empty Space". Given the differences in style between the first two books, I wasn't sure what to expect - probably an almost unrelated story, simply set "in the same universe" as they say. But no. Characters from both "Light" and "Nova Swing" reappear, and take the story further into the realms of the seriously weird.
It's quite difficult to know what to compare this to. There are plenty of name-drops in here if you want to play detective (entirely appropriate, given the nature of some of the sub-plots). Fans of Iain M. Banks will smile knowingly at some of the spaceship names ("Daily Deals & Huge Savings", anyone?), and the intermingling of the (almost) mundane world of the (almost) here-and-now of Home Counties England with epic space opera reminded me somewhat of the early works of Ken Macleod. But although there is everywhere a knowing awareness of traditional sf tropes, Harrison constantly subverts them, and is ultimately very much his own man - and a masterful writer. At times the mood of the book shifts from the laugh-out-loud funny to the very dark indeed, from one page - or paragraph - to the next.
As all good sf should, it evokes some memorable visual images; in fact the best comparisons may be cinematic rather than literary: think Cronenberg, Lynch, and - especially - Tarkovsky, in its approach to non-sequential storytelling and the breakdown of temporality. The subtitle ("A Haunting") is appropriate - the atmosphere of the book still infests my head and has provoked some slightly disturbing dreams. But I'm not complaining.
There is so much going on in here, it's difficult to sum it up. But if have an open mind, and you want see what "literary" (ugh) sf can do in the hands of a great writer, pour yourself a shot of Black Heart Rum, put on some saltwater dub, and read this trilogy. And smile.