the m john harrison blog

From the start, Jenni Fagan’s new novel gives the feel of a legend or fairy story. It’s 1910, on an unnamed island in the North Sea. Jessie Macrae and her father have had a falling out, and now he’s dead; or, given that he’s the Devil, he may still be alive. Jessie, who has been growing horns herself of late, launches into the surf in the coffin he forced her to sleep in – perhaps as a stark reminder of her mortality, perhaps as a harbinger of it – and begins to row. Three days later she lands on the Edinburgh shore, where she finds herself at 10, Luckenbooth Close, a tenement building on nine floors, “with catacombs below”. There she’ll meet Mr Udnam – gangster, property speculator and, surprisingly, minister of culture – and his wife; and become the surrogate mother of their child. She is pregnant within hours, or perhaps minutes, as you might be in a folk tale. The spiritual disaster thus ignited – the torn seam between the supernatural and capitalist reality – will haunt the tenement and its subsequent inhabitants for the rest of the century. Read the rest of my review in the Guardian here.

october 2014

Disused quarries filling with water as autumn sets in. Trees. Light rain. The power station siren. Various mud. Fallow deer in the wood, running down a narrow salient between two overgrown pits. I don’t know who was more startled, me or them. All I could do was watch. It’s one thing to see deer in parkland, another to have them flicker past you in and out of the trees on some business of their own. I come home and melt frozen soup for lunch. It slips out of the container with the polished surface of an object machined from rock. How do you continue to write about the world when it’s stopped being mysterious?

My working rule just now is, “Trust yourself.” That’s not entirely true. The other two rules are, “Always flatten it off;” and, “Don’t say too much.” With regard to the latter: a science fiction editor once told me, over lunch in a not very nice restaurant (predictably an act of language in itself), “There’s a perfectly good plot behind your novel, it’s just that the author has taken most of it out.” How perceptive, I thought, until I realised it wasn’t supposed to be a compliment. That was before I moved on to the stage of not putting most of it in.

year 75

Happy New Year, everyone. My 2021 resolution is to go through the doors that open & on the ones that don’t, daub a symbol.

always already

What Ballard nailed wasn’t the future but the impulse behind it, nakedly visible in the present. In this 1977 piece for Vogue, he demonstrated his method in a paragraph, beginning with the deep psychology of the class which would read the article, then taking a punt on what the nascent technology could do for their emergent major driver, self-centredness. This manouevre, which is essentially satirical, does not start with the technology, it starts with a bet on which trait-clusters already in the population will make the most of the technology as it develops. It depends on the character of human beings, and the selective, self-serving character of their uptake of the new. It shows the past deciding what the future will be, and demonstrates that all futures, even the ones that actually arrive, are in some Gibsonian sense essentially obsolete. What counts in his example is not the videotape; it is the narcissism. Satire is one of the central “extrapolative” techniques of science fiction, although it rarely satisfies the optimistic genre models of the relationship between technology and people, or people and futures. But by 1977 Ballard had been bored with the genre models for two decades. That he had his own concerns and wasn’t really interested in anybody else’s was part of his bet and part of his problematic charm.

you’ll love this one weird reason why reviewing is good

to do. The successful review is often a search you don’t remember pursuing. A week, a month, a year later, reading back, you suddenly understand that even when you didn’t recognise what you were looking for, your review did. A book is good if it draws such useful unconscious work from you, whatever you thought of it during the reading phase. A review, like every other kind of writing, is the search for what you’re speaking about. Also, & perhaps separately: unless you deal with them, consciously or unconsciously, review books will lodge a barb in you—some organic sharpened hook that will get inside you without your knowing, some quality that, like a repressed memory, will deal with you.

list of projects

Project Trap: Project Trap was never completed. Project Soul Gem was a project to collect “evidence-free innuendo”. Soul Gem was wound down in 1945 upon the birth of the resource (see notes). Several similar projects wound down naturally with the resource itself. Eat Cake, a hardened version of Soul Gem 2: the Eat Cake abstract promised abjection, violence, denial. Eat Cake was unlisted. Various other projects: Project 92 (see appended material). Mex Lite, Max Eight & Lite Core were clean product generated during varied initiatives and test runs. “Initiative B” ran successfully until 1978, when it was replaced under the Dark Stork programme. Project Veil Grain was an unsuccessful add-on to the Main Stem series. Vague Heart: Project Vague Heart remains partially operational but is identified under recent initiatives as “2020”. Resource appears to have retained motility & limited function.

Project 121 is the shadow of something much larger.

originally published January 2014

3 steps to heaven

From the absorbing and enjoyable Cyclogeography, by John Day, of a London cab driver who retired to become the dispatcher at a bike-courier operation–

“But after a few years on the road [Frank] realised that he preferred his mental map of the city to the real thing, and so he retreated to the office to live in it at one remove, traversing London vicariously in his imagination.”

In this narrative, Frank spends his wild years stealing cars and mopeds and racing around the city, learning “the knowledge” by accident as a way of avoiding arrest. Then he makes a socially acceptable, civilian use of what he’s learned, by becoming a cab driver. Finally, in later life, he places himself at the heart of the embodied space, as a kind of human map. He has become not the city but an expression of the city, not a user of the knowledge so much as the knowledge itself. The austere beauty of this developmental arc is that it can exist only to the extent that you have followed it: you can’t achieve state three without having first been through states one and two. This was very much the point of the relationship between the narrator and his mentor Sankey in Climbers; or the relationship between the middle class students of metaphysics and Yaxley the magician in The Course of the Heart.

published as “wild epistemologies” in 2018

an escape

It looks like a Bruegel but features only burning bridges & it’s empty of people except here & there in the distance, doing panic repairs to a fence. There used to be a pub in the bottom left hand corner but its windows are boarded up & muddy now as if from decades of passing traffic; & the sign, when you finally decipher it, says: Never Where You Thought It Was. It’s coming on dark & you’re going to wake up in the morning to find the gate’s open again & that damn goat is on the hill. It’s all yours, the goat, the pub, the sound of hammers. The picture frame is yours. The man leaning in through the frame says he always knew the bridges were down, he could smell the smoke before he arrived. “Ten mile back,” he says he could smell the smoke: “Ten mile back,” & you ask him how did he get here then if the bridges were down, because you have a real interest in that.

Meanwhile, Quentin Lewis goes to the heart of You Should Come With Me Now –that is, the actual subject matter of its stories–with the kind of clear, thoughtful, non-parochial assessment you hope to get from inside the genre but so rarely do.

premium mundane

Wherever she went after that someone could always be seen exercising their small dog in the middle distance. Later she discovered Ossie’s Toyota abandoned in a lay-by off Pale Meadows Lane.

It was no longer recognisable as a taxi. There was an air of senselessness about it. One tire had deflated. Dried mud a thin grey colour painted the bodywork as if someone had spun the front wheels trying to drive it up through the coppice behind the layby. Even the windows were spattered. The old man’s Castrol jacket, colours wrenched in the curiously distributed interior light, hung over the back of the driving seat; on the rear ledge he had abandoned a yellow site helmet and a hi-viz tabard showcasing the logo of some local builder; old fashioned porno on thickly glossy paper. “You want to be careful down Pale Meadows at night,” she remembered him warning her. Perhaps he had ignored his own advice.

Originating as a small limestone quarry tucked into the side of the hill, the lay-by was used less for parking than as a turning place: puddles of dirty water lay across a surface deeply grooved and broken up by mid-weight commercial transport. Clumps of fern grew out of the cracks and niches in the quarry wall. The meadows themselves had been spruced up into sports fields a generation ago. It didn’t appear that they had ever been pale. Believing she heard voices, she looked up and down the lane. The air was dark and rain-stained–it was easy to feel as if someone was coming when no one was. She banged loudly on the roof of the Toyota, in case Wee Ossie was sleeping inside. Nothing happened except that she imagined him curled up with the appalling economy of a small mammal in some corner she couldn’t see. In the end, she walked briskly away across the playing fields and found her way home through the Low Town.

— from The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again