the m john harrison blog

Month: September, 2012

what to remember when you’re dead

photo: Cath Phillips

disasters (1)

The world has been transformed into millions of acres of what looks like ash. Yet it is not ash. Look closer. It is used cat litter. It is caked & often appears dry, but beneath the surface it is thoroughly soaked in all the unevaporated cat urine the world has ever known. Every so often the weight of this substance overcomes its viscosity & a whole range of hills slides into the sea. The smell is tremendous. The air is corrosive. Valleys abound, between great sloping shoulders of wet cat litter, all without vegetation or human habitat. No one knows what happened. Many of the nice things, & all the practical ones, just seemed to vanish overnight & no one could get them back & this is what was left. Across the immeasurably bleak landscape strides a young woman dressed in a tight one-piece garment of her own design. She is making her way to what used to be south east England, where the parents of some really good friends have lent her a studio in a house they own? Which used to belong to a famous Edwardian writer? There she’s going to make the internet album which will banish the shadows in her soul. At her heels trots a little tragic poppet of a whippet.

paragraph from a manuscript found in room 121, the Ambiente Hotel

Learn to exactly mimic having written a story, an ageing science fiction hack once advised me: then learn to write a story in a way that exactly mimics having written a different one. Write each separate sentence, paragraph & chapter of every book as if they’re mimicking some other sentence, paragraph or chapter. Soon there’s this odd, constant sense of implication in the text. It seems loaded. It seems like the alienated echo of something else. That something else is your gift to the reader. Your gift to the reader isn’t a lot of words. It’s to have a grasp of syntax & inflexion that lets you load more into the text than it seems to be able to accomodate. He’s dead now of course, his books passed over as ragtime & illiterate, but I’ve taken up where he left off.

we should dump it in the nearest sun

The K-tank had been through some recent high-temperature event, after which it pitched into empty space a light minute off the Nova Swing’s bow, where it hung in a dissipating froth of zero-point energy & junk matter until Fat Antoyne fetched it on board. It was scarred & scraped, losing colour rapidly through a palette of christmas reds via light plum to the matt grey you would associate with a military asset. Much of the exterior work had vaporised; the remaining fitments made no sense unless it had been an internal component of some other structure. Once it was cool enough to touch, Antoyne unbolted the porthole cover. “Shine the light,” he said. Liv Hula shone the light & they looked at what was inside. Liv turned away in disgust. They were thirty lights from anywhere, in the voids by the Tract itself. The big argument they had, which went back and forth while Antoyne screwed the porthole cover back on, was if they had come upon the tank by accident, or whether it was another item on MP Renoko’s cargo manifest. It was a measure of how weird their sense of reality had got, Liv Hula insisted, that they couldn’t decide. They stood there for a time, arguing back & forth, then left the hold. As soon as the bulkhead door closed behind them, bursts of high-speed code issued from the K-tank–chirps and stutters, odd runs of simple calculus, fragments of ordinary language mysterious yet emphatic–as if the occupant was trying to make contact but couldn’t remember how. The other items in the hold were inappropriately excited by this, flashing & winking in return, humming with subsonics, emitting brief flashes of ionising radiation. After perhaps an hour–its baroque ribs and lumps of melted inlet pipe making it look like a child’s coffin decorated with mouldings of elves, unicorns & dragons–the newcomer seemed to calm down. “We should dump it in the nearest sun,” said Liv. [From Empty Space.]

the uncanny

L reports, “As a child I often found a piece of fiction deeply odd, an iceberg the visible ten percent of which indicated a hidden ninety, only to discover a few years later that I simply hadn’t understood its social or emotional subject matter.” That’s the effect she looks for in her own fiction under the designation uncanny. “It’s always produced by some relational shift of the elements & you have to withold the later moment of understanding.” I say that I think we’re describing the same thing & that I find it easiest to do in a near-to-mainstream short story; though most of the time it’s a quarry pursued & not quite caught. L isn’t beyond abusing what she calls “uncanniness theory”, but says she’s neither content with anyone else’s definitions nor interested in whether the product meets theoretical conditions. “A story tries to open an angle of vision that shouldn’t be there. Look along it. That’s the best I can offer.” In case that fails, she makes sure there’s always plenty of other stuff–horror, the bizarre, people & actions seen from wrenched perspectives, jokes, allusions & narratives that work themselves & the reader into unpleasant corners. “All the gubbins,” she writes to me, “provided traditionally by that kind of fiction.” I write back that the word gubbins dates us both; while she decides that, as a child, she was “a precocious reader but a backward human being.”

post industrial zones

Dubious & formalised, as in Bilbao’s ex-docks or Sheffield reinvented as an apres-steel boutique: from industry to heritage industry. Wreckage needs to be real. It needs to be free. The central, inevitable & useful thing about a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond is that it’s a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond. Anything else is so pathetic: cleaned up, saved from itself (separated from the entropic processes it was always part of) & fit for a place on the mantelpiece in a nice front room. That teaches us something about the sublime in general: ie, really, it’s the Black Spot, the beginning of the end. So try & avoid capturing, recapturing or–especially– “celebrating” it. The urge to convey the authentic glee & terror of the post industrial wasteland is the beginning of the processes of romanticisation, postmodernisation & domestication. From the raw horror of a working blast furnace, through the uncanny of that much rust, to the kitsch. We need to live in the ruins; forget them; then live through them all over again, as whatever the landscape makes of them. Anything else is the media souvenir.