the m john harrison blog

Month: August, 2012

some other kind of disaster

Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is a generous, interesting book but it makes me think there’s nothing left to scavenge from the traditional rhetoric of disaster, especially its oppositions. Images of both elite panic & ad hoc mutualism seem historical. They wore out in the 50s & 60s of the last century. I feel the same about The Road. Its issues don’t seem to me to be the issue. They seem to be easy things to think, a waste of the power of the big machine of disaster. I don’t know what the issue is. But I believe more & more that there’s some other kind of disaster ready to be written.


little shop of anxieties

Unlicensed operation on a narrow street. Inside, worn black & white linoleum floor tiles go back to a wooden counter. Furniture–mainly chromium diner stools–stacked in a corner. Some cabinets, you can’t make out what’s in those. Push your face up against the window on a dark night & a rain of silent fleamarket objects drifts down slowly through this space like the index of some unreliable past: ashtrays of all types & sizes; geranium in a terracotta pot; thousands of 45rpm records; stones off a beach; money & playing cards; the dustjackets of library novels 1956; black French knickers waist 24; cheap tickets all colours; suits, hats & shoes; bruised cricket ball, seams worn; a porcelain globe five inches diameter bearing a complex design of leaves & tendrils in delft blue; small chest of drawers, veneered; bicycle tire, gentleman’s silver cigarette case, national insurance card: all gravityless & wreathed in Christmas lights like strands of weed underwater. One night you hear Frank Sinatra behind a door to another room. Go the next night, nothing. You turn up your collar in the rain. The card in the window says open but the door is always closed. Ask around, no one remembers seeing the owner. No dust on anything. Open book, indelible pencil on a bit of string. “Sign in here.”

an autotelian journey

Goods wagons full of freight speed through the main station, which is underground. This has an eerie effect, as if you saw a trainload of wood, stone & new cars rush past a London tube platform; as if for some reason freight were being moved in secret down the tunnels. These Autotelian trains are wide, boxy & plain. Most seem to be painted maroon. They look shabby, but they are much cleaner, quieter and smoother to ride in than ours. They have one huge glaring headlamp on as they come out of the tunnel; they have a yellow stripe down the side. Back on the surface they rush between suburbs, past houses of a hundred shapes, sizes & colours. Wet tin roofs gleam in the morning light. The suburban stations are built from the neatest, most uniformly coloured, most sharp-edged bricks I have ever seen–architect’s bricks, not builders’ bricks. Designer bricks. Out in the country at last the train runs through steep cuttings under piled white cumulus clouds. The horse chestnut candles are going out, dim and pink and dignified. May blossom is showing in the hedges: after a while you begin to smell it–or imagine you can smell it–inside the carriage. Lilac bushes bulge over the garden fences, drenched suddenly by unpredictable showers. Fifty or sixty miles later, stands of sparse mixed woodland colonise the sandy soil; grow dense & full of unfamiliar blue flowers like smoke; then thin to heath, where the lanes are narrow, the bridges made of dark red stone, soft in texture. Eventually the woodland becomes continuous. It’s full of curiosities–a strange black urn on a plinth, rising above the trees with no clue as to what it might be, no sign of a park or a great house to which it might belong. Then a shallow pool with enchanted, intricate shorelines in complex intimate curves, out of which protrude hundreds of blanched dead trees. The forest ends suddenly. Long granite spines break up the landscape. The line starts its long shallow run down across the farmland to the coast. The train’s heading into cloud, full-bodied and firm, but for a moment the sun still blesses us: it spills & foams off a weir, turns the ploughland luminous against a darkening sky. We smile out into it, eyes half shut, expressions at once pained & cheerful, difficult to interpret.

the lives of the aunt

Visitors from the future or past, from somewhere that was never quite here. A street full of people staring into corners or up at high windows. Is there something special about the town, he asked one afternoon. Well I’ve always liked it, dear, she said. No he said, he meant was there something different about it to other towns. Of course there’s nothing different, dear. The job. The maps. The seance: his notes, a warning. Old postcards & local histories. Some kind of light gentle rain on things. A pier, sand, the smell of the wind. Faded shops and offices. Don’t plan for this. Fluid but plain transitions. Fluid but plain writing. No “truth” except in rendering scenes. No commentary in the voice. I’m telling you a story about aunts here. Aunts & motorcycles, the tall boy I wanted to be. But it never gets told. It’s the least-told story I have but I keep telling it day after day.

sock puppet & shiny thing

ock puppet sock puppet sock puppet SHINY THING sock puppet sock puppet sock puppet SHINY THING sock puppet sock puppet I want it sock puppet I want it YOU WANT THE SHINY THING sock (fuck it) sock (fuck it) fuck puppet oh shut it IF YOU UNDERSTOOD WHAT YOU WERE SAYING sock puppet sock puppet IF YOU ONLY KNEW WHAT YOU WERE SAYING sock puppet oh fuckit I want the shiny, I want the thing (you’re blocked mate you fucked it) sock pupped it sock puppet sock puppet SHINY THING sock puppet sock puppet sock puppe

light dripped off her fingers

The door had dropped on its hinges a decade before. Anna dragged it open. Two or three houses’ worth of garden furniture and tools met her gaze. Tim had liked to garden. From an early age, Marnie had liked to help. They had liked to be in the garden together, around the flowerbeds or the kidney-shaped pond, while Anna watched with a drink. Deckchairs, sunshades, long-handled pruners. Marnie’s quite expensive ping-pong table. Then, in the shadows, shelves full of half-used garden chemicals. The chemical smells of dusts and powders, spilled across the floor or gone solid in their tins and packets. Then the smell of cardboard boxes, lax with damp, bulging with everything from photograph albums to ornaments. Something was spilling off the shelves, in a shower of fantastic sparks! They were just like the sparks from a firework! They paled slowly but didn’t fade. Anna approached. She let them fall through her upturned hands. She sat on the floor and sifted through them like a child. Light dripped off her fingers, soft-feeling embers, objects like cool sachets of gel, the neon colours of the organs the cat brought in. After a time these colours leached away, just exactly like heat from embers, to leave a drift of small objects she could barely make out in the dark. Anna sorted through them. She turned them over uncomprehendingly. She found a shoebox, green, a trusted brand, and shovelled them into it. Opening the summerhouse door she had thought she heard sounds: laughter, music, the smells of fried food, alcohol and human excitement in a seaside at night. She rubbed the palm of her left hand with the thumb of her right. Presently, she went outside and looked across the river pasture, where her own running footprints made an erratic track through the thick dew. [Empty Space, pp29/30.]

a boat & c

a story

X worked as a trainee teacher at a local school. His bicycle was stolen from the school racks. At lunchtime he went to the nearby police station to report the theft. The detective behind the desk listened sympathetically, took notes, then smiled & said, “Wait here just a moment.” X waited. Four or five minutes later the detective came back with another man, to whom he said, while pointing at X, “This is what’s teaching your little girl.” Telling the story many years later, X still seems ruefully amused. “I promise you,” he assures me, “my hair was at least an inch above my collar. I was wearing a tweed jacket. I was young for nineteen. I had no idea then what he saw when he looked at me & I’m not even sure now. But that detective was a better futurologist than me. He understood that for the next few years a major element of policing would be social policing. & that was the way it turned out.” I say, “But within ten years they lost that struggle & we had the beginnings of the world we have now.” X smiles. “Yes, the one in which we police ourselves.”

temporary conditions

After they had eaten, they finished the bottle of wine. Marnie switched on the TV and surfed desultorily, sampling a reality show in which people were invited to queue for items they couldn’t afford to buy; then Ice Melt!, now in its fifteenth season; before fixing with an impatient sigh on the second half of a documentary which traced the slow demise of the great Chinese manufacturing cities of the 2010s. Anna was reminded of the images of Detroit and Pripiat popular in the early days of the century, when decline and reversal–quick or slow, economic or catastrophic–had seemed like temporary conditions, anomalous and even a little exciting. Long bars of light falling obliquely into the vast rubble-filled interiors of factories already stripped of everything from doors to heating ducts; smoky pastel dawns in abandoned flagship housing projects where drug addicts queued patiently for an early fix; vegetation pushing up through orbital roads closed to traffic less than ten years before; faded, uninterpretable graffiti: lulled by these dreamy images of dereliction, she felt herself falling asleep. [Empty Space, pp58/59.]

mapping the nightmare

Success at predicting the future has been slight. Until recently, SF could claim a separate function: that it catered the science & technology theme park on behalf of science itself. But increased media presence shows science taking charge of the scientific sublime; while gadgetopia can handle its own marketing–indeed, is its own marketing. What else is there to offer? A great deal. Science fiction opens itself unconsciously to its own fears. Judging by its typical subject matter, it has plenty. It is visibly in fear of death. It has a terror of not being special in the universe. It has a terror of being both vulnerable & out of control. It fears injury. It fears disease. It fears disorientation. It is frame dependent in the perceptual rather than the physics sense & will almost despairingly construct contexts & continuities to appear seamless. It fears the puzzled messiness of being human & is always seeking a fix or a cure or a techno-betterment. It is in denial of its understanding that “organisation” means something different to the universe than it does to human beings. It is afraid of entropy. It is afraid of the irreversibility of action & the rigid nature of objects. Its obsession with unlimited access to vast spaces indicates a deep undermining recognition of its own limits. It fears both that the universe is infinite & that it isn’t infinite enough. But sf’s greatest fear, other than that of generally being alive, is the fear of appearing to be wrong–that is, without argumentative defences: effectively a version of that nightmarish condition in which the individual is self-discovered naked in a public situation. Sf has always worked with these fears & others, offering them to the individual reader neither as a tour of the science theme park nor of the “future” but as a map of the human in its continuous & mostly-unacknowledged present.