the m john harrison blog

Previous post: I forgot to add that a new short story, “English Heritage”, will be published soon as one of Nick Royle’s beautifully produced Nightjar Press editions. It’s 4,000 words and very much in the tradition of the modernist ghost story, having the vibe of the second & third volumes of Cynthia Asquith’s Ghost Book, some of my favourite reading when I was twelve. Usual rules will apply: limited edition, signed & numbered, and when it’s gone, it’s gone: so get in early if you want one. I’ll give plenty of warning here & on Twitter.

the sunken land continues to rise

TSL is already my most successful novel. Nothing prepared me for the Goldsmiths prize; or for Russell T Davies’s recent fantastic & heartwarming review over on Instagram. It’s out in paperback in the UK now, & also available for preorder in the US and Canada.

In other news, the next book, tentatively entitled Fall Lines, or perhaps Fault Lines, or perhaps something else altogether, is finished and taking its first charming baby steps into what it sees as a shiny new world of possibility. It’s a compiled anti-memoir; a heavily fragmented nonfiction doped with fictional elements; a kind of How-to-Write; and a meditation on the impossibility of a coherent self (let alone the self’s looking back). An early responder called it “a book that invents a form and teaches you how to read it as you go along”. We shall have to hope that’s a good practical assessment.

It has an accompanying secret project, very exciting, more of which when everything’s sorted out.

Meanwhile, a new novel potters along, trying to understand the difference between disaster as its own retrospective & disaster as a series of moments in what used to be called “current affairs”. Clearly, one of the things both the classic 1950s disaster novel and the contemporary disaster novel got wrong was to regard the catastrophe as a complete object–an historical event with identifiable timelines and identifiable causalities, explorable as if by hindsight–rather than the patchy, emergent & incoherently combinative process it appears to be to its subjects as it unscrolls.

The big question today is: in a slow disaster like ours, when do you give up and admit that something has gone wrong? How does the prevailing culture persuade the frogs to stay in the pot? That is, to what extent will people learn to take it all for granted? And how grotesque might that look, late-ish on in the process? (Actually, it isn’t about any of that.)

glue

“How it is” explanations. “What can’t be done” explanations. “Sorry, it’s never done that way” explanations. “If you have this thing you can’t have that other thing” (& the closely-related “If you’re this thing you can’t be that thing”) explanations. “Why you shouldn’t want what you want given the present state of play” explanations. All patiently-reasoned & reasonable explanations.

secrets of the gardens

This garden is paved and narrow but crowded with shrubs, mainly box, yew and privet, many of which have been carefully sculpted into cones, spheres, cylinders. None of them are much taller than a person. Distributed among them are some benches; a replica Edwardian streetlight; two small circular netted ponds with raised stone sides, containing fish; and an accurately coloured plastic rendering of a heron. The topiary forms are not Platonic, or even properly geometrical. They have a raggedness of outline. Their shapes are not quite right. The cylinders are tubby and their walls inconsistently vertical. A cone resembles an upended turnip. To the eye it will always have an organic nature but not its own nature. It will always be a reference to, a picture of, some other form. Yet sometimes, on a dull day, when a shaft of light strikes between the still shapes and picks out the plastic heron, the bird can seem almost real; observed like this, from the window of a neighbouring second-floor window, the whole becomes less like an illustration in an early 1950s children’s fantasy than something presiding and real.

ghosts

They always look the same, tired round the eyes, too old for their age, strange haircuts. They’re dressed in clothes that would have carried information forty years ago but don’t say anything now. They look like the victims of some political process to which, if you aren’t careful, you’ll be introduced whether you like it or not. When ghosts slip away from the crowd at the base of the statue, they first make a little eye-contact. They slip away visibly. They want you to know that they know that you spotted them. Before they go they want you to know that we’re all in this together.

Notebooking for Climbers in a moorland car park, July 1983: “…another man, bare-chested and raw-shouldered from the sun, was trying to fill a plastic container from the little dried-up stream, while his wife knelt on the gravel looking in through the driver’s door of their hand-painted maroon and yellow car. Meanwhile in the field above I could see a farmer going round with a spade, banging the grass at carefully chosen places none of which looked different from any other. Some pages from a sex magazine blew about in the sun. I got out my pink blanket and my volume of John Middleton Murry’s letters, took off my t shirt, and joined them.”

The refusal to site fiction within the epistemological and ontological biases of Hollywood-derived narratology & MBA structural definitions–

Avoid formalist demonstrations of non-formalist propositions.

Obstruct Pavlovian reading: if you give one reward for Pavlovian reading, deny the others. Reject editorially driven overcueing/explication: however it looks at the outset, to enter the story should require a one-shot paradigm or episteme to be constructed by the reader.

What you see is what you get: what the character does is the character of the character, character is not a blueprint out of which the characters’ acts inevitably arise. The story is nothing more than what happens in front of the reader: the story is not a blueprint of motives & causalities out of which its events arise with a satisfying inevitability.

Never use the word “trope”, even pejoratively. In anti-formalist fiction there is no such thing as a trope & everything happens as if it has never happened before.

Favour: one-sided analogies, incomplete & false correlatives, oblique & false or undecodable epihanies. Symbols should represent emotional states only partially disclosed. Favour intense “worldbuilding” in incomplete, mismatched or out-of-focus contexts. Incomplete or broken structures & forms offer the story as a failed or abandoned archeological excavation of itself. Apply tonal variation at will; shift between registers at will. Irony saturated to the degree that it becomes difficult to tell if irony is present. Miss all beats.

No “subversion”, only vandalism.

the heritage

Kitchenly Mill is the idyllic East Sussex retreat of Marko Morrell, guitar god with 70s rock band Fear Taker. It is a seriously moated Jacobethan mansion, with Arts and Crafts restorations and contemporary architectural additions – “air bridges” that connect the main house to its outliers. It’s a work of love, and clearly an object of love for Morrell’s pre-fame sidekick, Crofton Clark, who narrates. Alan Warner’s ninth novel, like his earlier work in Morvern Callar or The Sopranos, layers together music, culture and individual psychology so they seem to become a single, composite material; and it does so under a biblical epigraph – Luke 16.2: “Give an account of thy stewardship.” If Clark loves Kitchenly, he worships Morrell, whose Fender makes the “mighty noise of consequence and of economic empowerment”. He’s been around Fear Taker in one capacity or another since the beginning, latterly deriving his entire identity from the association. The changing world at Kitchenly, and Crofton’s place in it, is the central concern of a novel that begins in the English uncanny valley, moves through an unforgiving comedy of errors, and culminates in fierce acts of realism. My review of Kitchenly 434 in the paper Guardian today, or here.

the uninevitability of the rhetorically inevitable

Nothing is inevitable. This amazing thing you’re trying to sell—this idea, this concept, this techno item, this utopia trip to another planet–this bill of goods whatever it is—doesn’t have to be the case, except for those who are already obsessed by it & are making rhetoric to show why you can’t walk away, so that they can make money, change your world & walk away. I’ve seen this happen in cycles all my life. It’s never had a good outcome. The inevitable new was always crap. The inevitable new has always been Tono Bungay*. We could have turned our backs on it any time, just by walking through the initially fragile discourse fences that now surround it & harden & become so resistant that we are going to have to put in a lot more effort to escape.

*Such a good book & very funny

stochastic resonance & electric fish

Metaphysics: a brand that has sheltered a billion crazed subjectivities & subjective epistemes, emerging from scarified metaphors, mad culty insights, wonky observations, unbalanced personal alchemies & dogmatically institutionalised intuitions about the shapes of things & how they bolt one to another in the service of human “existence”. I love it all & I especially love the imagery that spills from it in torrents. It’s a whole Woolworths of pick n mix. I love it for all the reasons I love physics, but I don’t mistake the one for the other as a description of how things work; nor am I really interested in a particular metaphysics, or the history of metaphysics as a singular discipline or single object of study. I’m just on the lookout for a glittery concept, a slippery notion, or a deeply debatable cognitive structure I can make fiction with. What I want is to stumble over ideas that have sudden hi-res qualities and instant impact. An idea that has that kind of force, & that immediately charms me by entangling itself with metaphors I’ve already made, will find itself in a month or so part of the individual pathology of a short story about something else entirely. I’m a user of metaphysics, not even an amateur. I’m a user of physics too. I’ve not been the same person, let alone the same writer, since I discovered that a percentage of white noise injected into the input can, counterintuitively, amplify frequencies previously too faint to hear. Culturally, writers & readers operate in the same kind of noise-rich environment as electric fish. They live in a similar neurobiological arms race. Since Alastair Reynolds explained neurobiological stochastic resonance to me 20 years ago, my definition of a science fiction writer has been: someone who’s acutely aware of a concept like that even as they write something that never even mentions it.

August 2020