Belarius's Reviews > Nova Swing

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison
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's review
Oct 03, 09

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction-finished, speculative-fiction, reviewed
Read in October, 2009

Nova Swing is a semi-sequel to Light, set in the same universe. It is, succinctly, also a much better book than its predecessor.

Like Light, the story takes place in a bitterly dark far future, full of ambiguous realities, systemic criminality, and fleshly urges. As an aside, Nova Swing will be much more difficult to understand without having read Light first. Also like the previous volume, Nova Swing is an ensemble piece: It knits together well over a dozen characters, many of whom have surprising depth, and relies on their shaky interrelations to provide the scaffolding for an even more uncertain world.

Briefly, Nova Swing is about those living on the periphery of the "Saudade Site," a pocket of alternate reality into which thrill-seekers venture (with black-market "travel agents" as their guides) and out of which other, stranger beings and artifacts emerge. The cast is a cross-section of every part of this strange ecosystem, and the novel is a success in large part because it conveys the entire setting so richly as its own "metacharacter."

This isn't to say that Nova Swing doesn't have its shortcomings. As in Light, author M. John Harrison has saturated his prose with sexuality that is generally uncanny and disturbing. This trend is justified to an extent by the setting, but Harrison employs it to excess, such that he overshadows many of the more important (and more interesting) kinds of relationships that the novel explores.

This is, in fact, part of a greater tension that Harrison seems unable to escape. He at once tries to pull the reader in by writing frankly (or, depending on your tastes, crudely) about the human condition, but at the same time pushes the reader away through his emphasis of the freakish otherness of his set dressings. In the end, Harrison wants us to feel empathy in spite of ourselves, but also wants to show off how refined as sense of Otherness he can portray.

Fortunately, in Nova Swing, Harrison opts for the former at the expense of the latter. That is to say, he ultimately explores humanity rather than exploiting dehumanization, a pleasant reversal of his priorities in Light. As such, while it has its lumps (as well as more mundane pacing difficulties stemming from keeping to many characters active in the story), Nova Swing is a worthy accomplishment.

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