November 16, 2019

Yarn heard from a burntlander in Panama

«Back when the Fall was fallin’, humans f’got the makin’ o’ fire.  O, diresome bad things was gettin’, yay.  Come night, folks cudn’t see nothin’, come winter they cudn’t warm nothin’, come mornin’ they cudn’t roast nothin’.  So the tribe went to Wise Man an’ asked, Wise Man, help us, see we f’got the makin’ o’ fire, an’, O, woe is us an’ all.

«So Wise Man summ’ned Crow an’ say-soed him these words: Fly across the crazed’n’jiffyin’ ocean to the Mighty Volcano, an’ on its foresty slopes, find a long stick. Pick up that stick in your beak an’ fly into that Mighty Volcano’s mouth an’ dip it in the lake o’ flames what bubble’n’spit in that fiery place. Then bring the burnin’ stick back here to Panama so humans’ll mem’ry fire once more an’ mem’ry back its makin’.

«Crow obeyed the Wise Man’s say-so, an’ flew over this crazed’n’jiffyin’ ocean until he saw the Mighty Volcano smokin’ in the near-far.  He spiralled down on to its foresty slopes, nibbed some gooseb’ries, gulped of a chilly spring, rested his tired winds a beat, then sivvied ’round for a long stick o’pine.  A one, a two, a three an’ up Crow flew, stick in his beak, an’ plop down the sulf’ry mouth o’ the Mighty Volcano that gutsy bird dropped, yay, swoopin’ out of his dive at the last beat, draggin’ that stick o’ pine thru’ the melty fire, whooo-ooo-ooosh, it flamed!  Up’n’out o’ that Crow flew from the scorchin’ mouth, now flew with that burnin’ stick in his mouth, yay, toward home he headed, wings poundin’, stick burnin’, days passin’, hail slingin’, clouds black’nin’, O, fire lickin’ up that stick, eyes smokin’, feathers crispin’, beak burnin’ . . .  It hurts!  Crow crawed.  It hurts!  Now, did he drop that stick or din’t he? Do we mem’ry the makin’ o’ fire or don’t we?

«See now, said Meronym, riding backwards on that lead-ass, it ain’t ’bout Crows or fire, it’s ’bout how we humans got our spirit.»

—Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, 2004

November 1, 2019

The Kefahuchi Tract: three novels by M. John Harrison


This (Light, by M. John Harrison) is an amazing book. The writing is electric, with an authority and mastery I haven't seen since first reading Thomas Pynchon. Harrison is often quite lyrical as well as hep. The book is ultimately ecstatic and poignant both.

There are 3 threads increasing related, one in 1999, 2 in 2400. The latter world is a weird one indeed. The whole book is of a piece, like it all happens at once, all of it happening in every part, similarly but with different players or masks.

Moving on now to the next book in the series: Nova Swing. (main character Vic Serotonin, from Scienza Nuova)

«You sign up for the K-ships in sterile white rooms at even temperatures: nevertheless, whatever you do you can’t get warm. You mustn’t have eaten. They give you the emetics anyway. They give you the injection. They give you the tests, but to be honest that is only to pass the two or three days it takes the injection to work. By then your bloodstream is teaming with selected pathogens, artificial parasites and tailored enzymes. You present with the symptoms of MS, lupus and schizophrenia. They strap you down and give you a rubber gag to bite on. The way is cleared for the shadow operators, running on a nanomech substrate at the submicrometre level, which soon begin to take your sympathetic nervous system to pieces. They flush the rubbish out continually through the colon. They pump you sith a white paste of ten-micrometre-range factories which will farm exotic proteins and monitor your internal indicators. They core you at four points down the spine. You are conscious all the way through this process, except for the brief moment when they introduce you to the K-code itself. Many recruits, even now, don’t make it past that point. If you do, they seal you in the tank. By then they have broken most of your bones, and taken some of your organs out: you are blind and deaf, and all you are aware of is a kind of nauseous surf rolling through you forever. They have cut into your neocortex so that it will accept the software bridge known ironically as the ‘the Einstein Cross’ from the shape you see the first time you use it. You are no longer alone. You will soon be able to consciously process billions of billions of bits per second; but you will never walk again. You will never laugh or touch someone or be touched, fuck or be fucked. You will never do anything for yourself again. You will never even shit for yourself again. You have signed up. It comes to you for an instant that you were able to choose this but that you will never, ever, ever be able to unchoose it.» —Light, M. John Harrison, 2002

«Drawn by the radio and TV ads of the twentieth century, which had reached them as faltering wisps and cobwebs of communication (yet still full of a mysterious, alien vitality), the New Men had invaded Earth in the middle 2100s. They were bipedal, humanoid – if you stretched a point – and uniformly tall and white-skinned, each with a shock of flaming red hair. They were indistinguishable from some kinds of Irish junkies. It was difficult to tell the sexes apart. They had a kind of pliable, etiolated feel about their limbs. To start with, they had great optimism and energy. Everything about Earth amazed them. They took over and, in an amiable, paternalistic way, misunderstood and mismanaged everything. It appeared to be an attempt to understand the human race in terms of a 1982 Coke ad. They produced food no one could eat, outlawed politics in favour of the kind of bureaucracy you find in the subsidised arts, and buried enormous machinery in the subcrust which eventually killed millions. After that, they seemed to fade away in embarrassment, taking to drugs, pop music and the twink-tank which was then an exciting if less that reliable new entertainment technology.

«Thereafter, they spread with mankind, like a kind of wrenched commentary on all that expansion and free trade. You often found them at the lower levels of organised crime. Their project was to fit in, but they were fatally retrospective. They were always saying:

«‘I really like this cornflakes thing you have, man. You know?’»

Light, M. John Harrison, 2002

«Adstreams floated everywhere, their unbearable lightness of being – their simple promise – catching you up: until the crown of butterflies round your head morphed into a crown of thorns and you found you had surrendered your intimate data to some twink-farmer forty blocks away on Pierpoint Street.» —Nova Swing, M. John Harrison, 2006

«She found herself descending steep chalky ground into sweeps of water meadow and low-lying pasture dotted here and there with thistles, dog rose and spreading bramble, where willows lined a small river winding through. This composition was spoiled only by the house that stood to one side of the pasture.

«A four-bedroom new build in the 1990s, assembled from unremitting pale brick and still looking like an architectural drawing, it hadn’t weathered. Its profile was low, yet it was clearly not a bungalow. There was a patio like a hard standing for machinery. The white lattices of security grilles, which from a distance looked as if they had been taped on, divided every window. Sunshine glittered off the clutter of photovoltaic and hot water panels set into the shallowly-sloping roof. The only character it possessed lay at the end of its long asymmetric garden: a few trees inherited from some previous, more authentic dwelling on the site. Something resembling life would be lent it each spring by the energetic scraping conversations of the starlings that nested in its gutters. Otherwise, it reminded Anna of a cheap toy abandoned on a carpet; something unable to age because of the sheer purposive artificiality of the materials used to construct it. If it was familiar, she realised, that was because it was her own house.»

Empty Space: A Haunting, M. John Harrison, 2012

Whereas “Light” was about lost memories, the 2nd book in M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract series, “Nova Swing”, was about the burden of memories, about trying to liberate oneself from their burden – not to forget, but to be free from serving them.

It’s not as mind-blowing as the 1st book, but great story-telling nonetheless, and it sets up the 3rd book, “Empty Space: A Haunting”, which is again (like the 1st book) set in both the early 21st and the late 25th centuries.

The passages in “Nova Swing” set in the “event zone” (overt nod to the Strugatsky brothers’ “Roadside Picnic” (on which Tarkhovsky’s “Stalker” was based)) are quite moving; the whole book before them seems all to have been for those passages.

«For the boys from Earth their arrival on the Beach was a game-changer. Anything could now happen. In the tidewrack of alien refuse, new universes awaited, furled up like tiny dimensions inside each abandoned technology. Back-engineering became the order of the day. Everyone could find something to work with, from a superconductor experiment the size of a planet to a gravity wave detector assembled from an entire solar system. Everything you found, you could find something bigger. At the other end of the scale: synthesised viruses, new proteins, nanoproducts all the way down to stable neutron-rich isotopes with non-spherical nuclei.

«Ten per cent of it was still functioning. Ten per cent of that, you could make a wild guess what it did. Why was it there? All of this effort suggested a five-million-year anxiety spree centred on the enigma of the Tract. Every form of intelligent life that came here had taken one look and lost its nerve. The boys from Earth didn’t care about that, not at the outset: to them, the Beach was an interregnum, a holiday from common sense, an exuberant celebration of the very large and the very small, of the very old and the very new, of the vast, extraordinary, panoramic instant they congratulated themselves on living in: the instant in which everything that went before somehow met and became confected with everything yet to be. It was the point where the known met the unknowable, the mirror of desire.

«It was, in short, a chance to make some money.»

Empty Space: A Haunting, M. John Harrison, 2012

«Projected into the carefully deodorised air of Uptown Six’s human quarters, feeds from fifteen planets showed, in quick succession, all the signs of modern conflict: street demonstrations, agitated financial markets, rows of top-shelf EMC hardware hulking around in parking orbits up and down the Beach. Within an hour all sides were broadcasting atrocity-footage as fast as it could be manufactured. Psychodrama raged. Everyone claimed the minority position. Everyone described their grievances as longer-standing and more asymmetric than the enemy’s. Iconic buildings fell in towers of smoke. Sleeping genes, inserted into entire populations three or four generations in advance, expressed themselves as plagues of ideological change. Up and down the Beach, innocent CEOs, brand managers and celebrities found themselves kidnapped then subjected to sexual assault, at the hands of provocateurs who had no idea why they had begun to act to so illiberally. By noon, exhausted attack ads fluttered up and down the streets of every Halo capital. Gaines studies these indicators with a kind of appalled impatience. Away from the media war not a shot had been fired.» —Empty Space: A Haunting, M. John Harrison, 2012

«All across the Halo, alliances collapsed. Mounting crises in the Pentre De, Uswank and Fran-Portie systems broke into open conflict. Then war was everywhere and it was your war, to be accessed however it fitted best into your busy schedule. Seven second segments to three minute documentaries. Focused debate, embedded media. Twenty-four-hour live mano a mano between mixed assets in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, or a catch-up of the entire campaign – including interactive mapping of EMC’s feint towards Beta Carinae – from day one. In-depth views included: ‘How They Took the Pulsed-Gamma War to Cassiotone 9’; ‘The Ever-Present Threat of Gravity Wave Lasing’; and ‘We Ask You How You Would Have Done It Differently!’ People loved it. The simulacrum of war forced them fully into the present, where they could hone their life-anxieties and interpret them as excitement. Meanwhile, under cover of the coverage, the real war …» —Empty Space: A Haunting, M. John Harrison, 2012

«‘They’d be one thing when you lost them, another when you found them again. In circumstances like that, you have to understand that your perception is what’s fragmentary, not the space itself. At some level an organising principle exists, but you will never have any confirmation of it. It will always be unavailable to you. Then, just as everyone’s stopped trusting themselves, someone finds their way through a trap, the expedition gets a little further in.’» —Empty Space: A Haunting, M. John Harrison, 2012

«He stopped in front of what appeared to be a section of bas reliefs, which showed three modified diapsids wearing complex ritual clothing. One of them was strangling a fourth, who lay passively on what looked like a stone bier.

«‘These people were a million years ahead of us, but they were still trying to work out how to be rational. I don’t think they ever quite made it. …’


«Upper management loved itself at war. In the corporate enclaves – which constructed themselves as little market towns called Saulsignon, Burnham Overy or Brandett Hersham, featuring stone churches and water meadows under blue rainwashed skies, perfect windy weather and ponies on the green – war felt real and grown up, a contingency for which your values and education had prepared you. Although obviously some sacrifices would have to be made.»

Empty Space: A Haunting, M. John Harrison, 2012

« What was the Beach, after all, but a repository of fading memories? »

I finished Empty Space: A Haunting last night – what an experience! It’s a complex novel that draws on the 2 previous novels in the series. Mind-bending, to say the least. A poetic epic exploration of the flux of self-creation and -destruction. The physics-confounding Kefahuchi Tract (around which the Beach systems float) is the mad force driving it all, drawing it all.