the m john harrison blog

Month: September, 2018

imaginary review, 2009

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.

More imaginary reviews here, or at your usual outlets.

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failures of determination

Massive amounts of what happens to you will happen via invisible and/or unparsable causal chains. Much of life, you will never know it happened at all, let alone to you. Much of what happens around you you will never even notice. The search for causality–though causality is everywhere utterly present and dependable–means to welter around looking for explanations you can’t have, using epistemologies and ontologies that are at best provisional. Why waste time, especially in fiction. Let’s have some representation in fiction for everyone who, without knowing it, puzzles through their lives in what used to be called “a dream”. Because that is all of us. Solepsism, narcissism, self-involvement are the wrong words for it. They come loaded with the meaningless judgements of a past that thought parsable causality was not just a thing, but a thing you had a responsibility to consciously engage with; they thus suffer catastrophic failure when required to describe the act of wandering through thick fog in a country you have already failed to recognise as foreign in a condition of mild irritation because you’re thinking about something else.

every haunt

Every shop on a stock brick corner seen from a bus in south London. You think: I’ve been here, haven’t I? At some time in the past, you think, you’ve been there. Well maybe you have, maybe you haven’t, because all those stock brick corners look the same. Every train running across the grain of shallow wooded valleys, trailing its brand new landscape through the old cuttings. Grass like astroturf, stiff model trees in a fringe where the view opens on to a motorway but you never seem to see a house. The land drops away on the left. That narrow ride cuts off at an angle through the woods; at night the distances are always hung with lights. Every quarry, every cliff. Every forestry track in deep Snowdonia exhaling mist, every junction between the seafront and a steep little lapboard terrace in every seaside town: every green lane anywhere in the rain. Maybe you’ve been there, maybe you haven’t.

Maybe you were here. Maybe you weren’t.

experts hate the Flat Earth Society for revealing this writing secret

Advice for aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers (others can look away). The Flat Earth Society recently tweeted, or is said to have tweeted, “The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe.” This sentence is as fabulously funny as you would expect; but it is also a fabulously good writing tip, because it levers open the relationship between prose and substance. In Certain Quarters you will hear the traditional dismissal of “style” as no more than the application of a light cosmetic coating to some pre-existing item of meaning. But do not fall for this quasi-platonic bollocks. All you have is language, and everything you succeed in conveying will have been conveyed by it. The pro tip the Flat Earth Society has been so kind as to give you for free is this: style is being careful what you say, because what you say is what you say.

plug & play

The more all of this goes on, the more you recognise a vocabulary of reusable rhetorical structures, some new, some achingly traditional. Following the latest skirmish becomes like consuming TV bolted together from tropes: by the end of ep one you’re following the structures but ignoring their apparent “content” (as you would with, say, Keeping Faith, The OA, or Cardinal); by ep two, of course, you’ve started watching something else. One of the recent additions to the rhetorical vocabulary is, “No, I must do [insert clearly immoral act] because it is in fact right & I would be irresponsible NOT to.” This to be delivered, obviously, in conjunction with either a po-faced passive aggressive expression indicating middle class woundedness; or with the appended Putinesque metatext for “Fuck lads, look, they can’t even stop me saying this crap”. But its USP is its utility: like the best of these proven tropes it’s fully pret a porter, quick to deploy in symmetrical or asymmetrical arenas & can be used by anyone in defence of either side of any argument, especially in conjunction with popular “pushing the boundaries of The New in tech, politics or media” formulations. A good solid buy for your culture war. The only risk in use is that your audience will become exhausted, complain puzzledly, “Haven’t I heard all this before,” and change channels. But we can sell you one of several specialised plug-&-plays to control that response.

wild epistemologies

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.

the deep road

This post, from 2008, seems to have growing relevance for me–

You have to look at the major transitions of your life with a metaphor that makes aesthetic and emotional sense. That metaphor has to be waiting there in your unconscious to become available to you. You might be offered any number of public metaphors, but only the private one is of use. What parts of the transition are you prepared to label?

what we talk about when we talk about Viriconium

The houses up here, warm and cheerful as they are in summer, become in the first week of September cold and damp. Ordinary vigorous houseflies, which have crawled all August over the unripe lupine pods beneath the window, pour in and cluster on any warm surface, but especially on the floor near the electric fire, and the dusty grid at the back of the fridge; they cling to the side of the kettle as it cools. That year you couldn’t leave food out for a moment. When I sat down to read in the morning, flies ran over my outstretched legs.

“I suppose you’ve got the same problem,” I said to Mr Ambrayses. “I poison them,” I said, “but they don’t seem to take much notice.” I held up the Vapona, with its picture of a huge fly. “Might as well try again.”

Mr Ambrayses nodded. “Two explanations are commonly offered for this,” he said:

“In the first we are asked to imagine certain sites in the world–a crack in the concrete in Chicago or New Delhi, a twist in the air in an empty suburb of Prague, a clotted milk bottle on a Bradford tip–from which all flies issue in a constant stream, a smoke exhaled from some fundamental level of things. This is what people are asking–though they do not usually know it–when they say exasperatedly, “Where are all these flies coming from ?” Such locations are like the holes in the side of a new house where insulation has been pumped in: something left over from the constructional phase of the world.

“This is an adequate, even an appealing model of the process. But it is not modern; and I prefer the alternative, in which it is assumed that as Viriconium grinds past us, dragging its enormous bulk against the bulk of the world, the energy generated is expressed in the form of these insects, which are like the sparks shooting from between two flywheels that have momentarily brushed each other.” —-A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium.