Review: “Nova Swing” By M. John Harrison (Novel)

Well, I thought that it was time to take a look at a noir sci-fi/cyberpunk novel I’ve been meaning to read for the past couple of weeks. I am, of course, talking about M. John Harrison’s 2006 novel “Nova Swing”.

This is a novel that I found by accident whilst sorting out several of the older book piles in my room. At a guess, I first found “Nova Swing” in a discount bookshop (“66 Books” according to the sticker on the back) sometime during the late ’00s and probably bought it purely on the basis of the intriguing title and cover art. Although the blurb states that the novel is a sequel to another novel, it pretty much works as a stand-alone novel.

So, let’s take a look at “Nova Swing”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “Nova Swing” that I read.

The novel is set on another planet, in a city called Saudade. After some kind of cataclysmic event decades or centuries ago, something called “The Event” sits next to the city. It is the edge of another universe or dimension, which seems to follow different logic and laws of physics to our reality.

Vic Serotonin is a tour guide who works out of Liv Hula’s bar with his sidekick Antoyne. Although taking people on tours through “The Event” is technically illegal, the cops only really bother investigating if people start stealing or selling artefacts from the other side. Vic, of course, has a little bit of a sideline in this too. But, when the story starts, he is approached by a mysterious woman who wants a tour. The tour doesn’t go well and they both end up fleeing “The Event”. However, the woman soon starts looking for Vic again….

Meanwhile, an ageing tour guide called Emil Bonadventure lies on his deathbed, tended to by his daughter Edith. An Albert Einstein-like detective called Aschermann pulls himself away from the serial killing case he’s been working on for years after he notices mysterious people emerging from part of “The Event” in a bar called Cafe Surf. He suspects local gangster, Paulie DeRaad, of being involved in it somehow…..

In another part of the city, Paulie has recently bought a rather strange artefact that Vic picked up during one of his trips into “The Event”. However, it is having some rather bizarre side-effects on him…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is brilliant – but it is also something of an acquired taste. It is beautifully-written and positively dripping with atmosphere but, if you go into this story expecting a logical and straightforward plot, then you may be disappointed. Still, if you can handle a story that almost borders on incomprehensible at times, then you are in for a real treat 🙂

This novel is what would happen if William S. Burroughs, Neal Stephenson, Jack O’Connell, Raymond Chandler, David Lynch and Satoshi Kon sat down together and tried to come up with something vaguely similar to “Blade Runner” 🙂

In other words, this novel is joyously surreal and filled with all manner of complex sub-plots, futuristic jargon and slightly random character moments. It is a bizarre book where the best way to read it is just to let the beautiful prose wash over you and hope that you’ll make sense of it eventually. And you probably will, if you put in the effort (and take a few notes along the way).

I’m not going to sugar-coat this, it took me several attempts at reading this novel before I really got into it. But, I’m so glad that I put in the effort 🙂 Although this book may seem utterly confusing and frustratingly slow-paced at first, it will not only start to make more sense after you’ve spent a while reading it but, at the end, you’ll actually find that you miss reading it.

The best part of the novel is probably the atmosphere. This is a noir sci-fi novel that is filled with faded 1950s glamour, neon signs, pouring rain, sleazy nightclubs, derelict industrial buildings, worn out spaceships, realms beyond space and time etc… and all of this atmosphere is created through some wonderfully weird and descriptive third-person narration. Yes, all of this description can really slow the story down and some of the ultra-long sentences can border on being confusing, but it has a wonderful hardboiled poetry to it 🙂

Thematically, the novel is really complex too. In addition to the usual dystopian cyberpunk stuff (eg: underfunded police, delinquent youths, virtual reality, body modification etc..), one of the main themes in this novel is saudade. This is a Portuguese word that translates to “sorrowful nostalgia” or something like that, and this novel is absolutely saturated with it. All of this really helps to add to the “film noir”-like atmosphere of the novel, in addition to allowing for a lot of extra character depth and emotional depth too.

The novel also covers a lot of other topics too, such as introspection, dreams, the way the past lingers in the present, bereavement, mortality, mystery, fantasies etc.. but one interesting thematic part of the novel is probably Emil’s attempts at mapping the un-mappable world of “The Event”, a bizarre shifting dreamscape that can have strange effects on all those who interact with it.

In terms of the characters, they are all pretty interesting. In true hardboiled fashion, the characters are an odd assortment of misfits, has-beens, cops and crooks. Although all of the characters initially seem to have very little depth, you’ll find that you end up caring more about them as the story progresses. Likewise, the characters you’ll find yourself caring about the most will often be very different to what you might expect. This is one of those novels where a few background characters eventually end up being the main characters in later parts of the story, which lends the story a “life goes on” kind of quality.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. Although it looks like an efficiently short 246-page novel, “Nova Swing” is more like a 500 page novel in disguise. In other words, it is a rather slow-paced story which doesn’t so much have a plot, but is more of a “slice of life” that contains several sub-plots and characters. So, even though this is a short book, don’t expect it to be a quick read. But, when you get used to the writing style, the story does go a little bit faster. Although, by the time this happens, you’ll probably wish that the novel was longer.

All in all, this novel is absolutely brilliant – but it is an acquired taste! It is beautifully weird, brilliantly atmospheric and totally unique, but it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Still, if you don’t mind putting some effort into making sense of the story and spending a lot longer than you would expect reading what looks like a short book, then you will be richly rewarded for your time 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five. But, again, this novel is an acquired taste!

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