Note: The beginning to this review was inspired by reading a review of this book by John Clute. Although my take is a bit different than his in places, I felt that I needed to acknowledge this influence on the opening part of my review.
Solitude - the word, like others derived from the Latin solitatem, evokes quite a few emotions when examined from various angles. Gabriel García Márquez in his seminal work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, illustrates all the forms that solitude can take.
In M. John Harrison's Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel, Nova Swing, solitude is a physical place called Saudade (taking its name from the Portuguese word for solitude). Although set in the world of his 2002 novel, Light, and although the mysterious Kefahuchi Tract appears here as well, Nova Swing has only the most tenuous of connections with that earlier novel. Instead of exploring the heart of the Tract, the characters here in Nova Swing remind me more of Humphrey Bogart and crew in the classic movie Casablanca. Rick's Café Américain has instead become a city within a stretch affected by a recent falling of the Kefahuchi Tract's odd physics onto parts of the Earth itself. The geography is strange, with everything seemingly skewed and even "reality" itself not being what it seems. And then there are those mysterious black and white cats that come and go with the dusk and the dawn.
Such a strange, weird place. The reader never will be able to feel "accustomed" to the place; it is simply too twisted and dreamlike, which is exactly the mood that Harrison aimed to achieve. The story itself is relatively simple, that of the aptly named "travel agent" named Vic Serotonin who often enters Saudade for clients. His latest client is a mysterious and unpredictable woman whose desire for a tour drives the action of this story. Shadowed by a detective intent on shutting down his technically illegal operation, Serotonin finds himself going ever deeper into a world in which the strange and warped become as "alive" as the characters themselves.
That is the bare-bones, mostly spoiler-free summation of the plot setup. Harrison is doing much more than just telling a simple story. With his use of words and the images evoked, Harrison addresses issues of imagination and perception in a way that allows for the reader to fill in the blanks eagerly rather than being forced down a single perceptual path by the author. Characters shift, their minds as much as their bodies are altered, and what happens is something that is more easily visualized than something put into mere verbal speech.
Nova Swing is perhaps the most difficult novel I have read this year in regards to summing up the plot. Harrison strives to create a setting in which the unfamiliar and the near non-describable become important parts of the action, with the intent to cause the reader to change perceptions and to consider even "everyday" matters from other angles. In a shade over 250 pages, Harrison realizes most of his ambitions and the end result, for me at least, was an almost literal mindfuck of a tale, with solitude having yet another dimension added to our concepts of it. One of the best and most challenging reads of this year.
Publication Date: November 9, 2006 (UK), Hardcover. September 25, 2007 (US), tradeback.
Publisher: Gollancz (UK), Bantam Spectra (US).