the m john harrison blog

Month: September, 2009

military science fiction

Away from the central action this is not an impressive war, the interception of incoming rockets–silvery elliptical explosions seen through the clouds–reminding the viewer, at best, of the closing sequences of This Island Earth: special effects put together long ago by a team not of the first rank. Missiles that get through make a hole no bigger than a V-weapon made in the East End of London in WW2; far fewer of them have fallen. Meanwhile the corporate-class civilians video themselves in gas masks in their sealed sub-basement, footage they will later edit & label: “How we spent the war. The little boy was so frightened.” Of what ? The awful events they had explained to him ? Their panic at the things that might almost be happening ? He could have had very little direct evidence. It’s all a bit histrionic, a bit unstoic, after such an inaccurate bombardment, so few deaths. On the other side, meanwhile, we see the civilians walking about almost cockily while the smart weapons, each one guided by a small part of the cloned neural tissue of a pigeon, moan & fizz down the line of the main street above them, en route to their very exact targets.



September, the month of re-reading.

What can be recovered of “Ursula” from T Behrens’ oddly unsatisfying memoir of her ? He erases her identity so carefully that she has no substance except as his brother’s lover, anima & nemesis–existing, in fact, only as an exotic accessory to, or ravager of, the Behrens family life. He claims, in part, to be giving us her journals, but edits them down to nothing much. When he finally allows her to speak, she defines “depaysment” as:

belonging yet not belonging. Some of the happiest moments of my life have been spent in situations of limbo. The odd feeling that one has found the original of the sensation one has always looked for, after a long series of approximations.

Also: Hilary Mantel’s horror story Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. Its quiet paranoia and bizarre sense of oppression counterweight a classic travel writer’s rendering of landscape and manners. Resolution flickers into focus then dissipates, leaving a hundred questions. Almost the perfect novel.

But those who think I never read anything new are very wrong.

note made in a hotel bar, 1991

However dark it gets outside, the window is an imperfect mirror. Through it you can just see the billowing exhaust smoke of cars stopped at the junction, pedestrians in winter coats.

I’m waiting for someone. I’m reading the Gunn & Guyomard introduction to A Young Girl’s Diary— “Why from the moment one feels desire is there a mystery, an unsayable, a residue, an obscurity–call it what one will–that only vanishes when one’s desire subsides back into indifference? Or, finally: why is one only ever knowledgeable about things one no longer cares to know ?” Across the bar someone says, “I tried to be a beatnik when I was a kid but I got a rash from my pullover.”

If I look sideways I can see reflected in the window an old woman, sitting alone at a table behind me. The table is littered with half-empty glasses, full ashtrays, beer mats, crisp bags. The old woman is dipping her index finger first into a pint glass of Guinness, then into a gin & tonic, licking the alcohol off her finger each time with a satisfied, popping, sucking noise. She’s so absorbed in this game with someone else’s drinks. She’s chuckling and and whining to herself, making the little soft sounds of a baby or a lunatic. I turn round and look directly at her & find a little girl waiting for her mother & father. Perhaps eight years old, she has long red hair, a pleasant freckled face and pale lips.

When I turn back to the window I can’t see the old woman for a moment. Then I can. Waiting for my date to arrive, I practise toggling between the old woman & the little girl; while in my notebook I write, “The last two pages of this introduction are absolutely brilliant–complex, challenging, creative analysis of the diarist’s duality & double “loss of self”, the ambivalence of the text, the reader’s gain written into the writer’s loss.”

erl-king, sussex

Clive built a horse-drawn caravan by scaling up the plans for a model. He travelled round Britain in the caravan for a decade, with his dog, doing agricultural work.


When the dog died he buried it in the wood, & made it a monument like a low curved wall out of Horsham stone, where it lay for twelve months before badgers & foxes dug it up & ate it.


Clive haunts the wood. He shifts easily between its layers of time. He knows where everything is. He knows what you can eat. There are endless ways you can make a fire.


He won’t get another dog.

ghost of a ghost

It’s rare that being an HE Bates obsessive born in Warwickshire is of any use in the wider world: but it enabled me to add my tuppenceworth, some months late & somewhat oblique to the point, to this excellent discussion of Sarah Waters’ Booker-shortlisted “ghost story” The Little Stranger.

an imaginary review (6)

A clear & useful bridge between science and the public is constructed in this empathic literary novel of a boy & how he comes to terms with his world. Explanations of everything from black holes to epigenesis demonstrate the author’s engagement with the scientific worldview, & act as the pivots of metaphors for a full range of human emotions & concerns. The total effect is one of numbing boredom, & of a mind which has carefully removed everything of excitement from its encounters with physics, cosmology & molecular biology. A Hay Festival version of the Popular Mechanics-style science fiction of the 1920s, this novel has a similar mission to educate its demographic–primarily 40/50-year-old reading-group members with a humanities degree. As a result, the very last thing its author has managed is to be, as his dustjacket claims, “boldly imaginative”. The most interesting thing about the book is its title, the literary referentiality & linguistic quirkiness of which promise more than they can ever deliver.

sf retrospective

Stan Robinson’s spectacular at New Scientist is a mini-magazine of the 1980s, including a polemic by Stan himself, reviews & futurological speculations by everyone from Ian Watson to Gwyneth Jones, & flash fiction by many of the core authors of Brit SF. There’s even a review of Margaret Atwood. Very satisfying, although I could have done without the illustrations.

Meanwhile, these relics of the Space Age, removed from their reliquaries, perhaps, to effect miraculous cures of the brand new psychic disturbances afflicting celebrities & shadowy oligarchs etc etc. So Ballardian.

Oh, & speaking of the Space Age: get yourself a satnav now. You know it makes sense.

transvestite SAS 1, ranulph fiennes 0

What can you say ? God knows what state Eddie Izzard‘s feet are in. Next: trimming the gangrenous bits off with a hacksaw. Then it’s off to do Everest a couple of times, inappropriately dressed. Respect.

running down

September. The season can’t make up its mind. Will it clutch at summer or declare the death of history & move on ? I remembered that running always gets harder for me in September. Even at 30-odd, with the whole Peak District outside my front door (to be strict, my only door at that time), there was a kind of reluctance. There was a new voice outside. I was listening to it, but I wasn’t ready to rush out & embrace whatever was going on. Autumn was going on. On Barnes Common, autumn going on means more dog walkers. It means oak mast crunchy underfoot. It means dry leaves filling the woodland singletrack to give you a feeling from a Hugh Lofting frontispiece. Today it means in addition horse chestnuts exactly as bright & polished as chestnut horses. I think about scooping some up to take home, but can’t work out a way of doing it on the move without falling over. So I just try to avoid treading on them instead. Falling over in front of the dog walkers would induce a near-fatal loss of dignity. Descending what I think of as the back side of Ingleborough Hill in the late 70s, I lost both shoes to a stretch of bog, in front of three shepherds, several of their clever dogs & about a million sheep. It takes time to recover from a defeat that extensive. One minute you’re belting along, windmilling your arms, leaping down the soil-creep terraces, with a fairly good opinion of yourself; the next you’re slinking back up hill to pull your box-fresh New Balances out of the peat.

I like it now, this period of indeterminacy; but I want October. We’ve all made up our minds by then. October is ok. Hormonally, it’s get things done. It’s last chance for fuel. It’s hi to winter.

strange bedfellows episode 6: n to p

Further scandals, intellectual, linguistic & sexual, from my stripped-down shelves. Not long to go now, then we can all forget what turned out to be, like the best efforts of sf writers from time immemorial, more notion than content: the idea that should have stayed an idea.

Eric Newby
Anais Nin
Cees Nooteboom
Sean O’Brien
Heinz R Pagels
Elaine Pagels
Chuck Pahlaniuk
Kenneth Patchen
Jim Perrin
Jean Piaget
Sylvia Plath
Daniel Pennac
VS Pritchett
Annie Proulx
Kate Pullinger
Thomas Pynchon

I pity poor Elaine Pagels, author of sincere Gnostic histories, especially given Rant. But I would like to hear how Annie Proulx scolded VS Pritchett that night under Wyoming stars