the m john harrison blog

Month: January, 2020

new gibson

“Along with trust, a sense of individual agency – heroic centrality in your own story, the ability to make and carry out choices of your own, the “capacity to act” – is the central offer of most Hollywood dreams, and the product sold to us by the majority of corporate ads; but it’s the least likely attribute most of us will ever possess. Like it or not – know it or not – we tend to do what nudge and soft power would prefer. From his beginnings in 1984’s Neuromancer, Gibson has offered the struggle for agency as an unacknowledged, quietly devastating war – fought by hackers, gig economy workers, off-gridders and their networks – against the algorithm, against the manipulation of our needs, our personal information and our appetites, by big data and gangster capital. If he was “prescient” back then, he’s right on the ball now, when it’s so much harder to believe in those loose human associations he imagined in the 1990s, whose combination of technical nous and cultural know-how enabled them to quickly distinguish the real from the sucker fantasy.” –Read the rest of my review of Agency, William Gibson’s sequel to The Peripheral, in the Guardian.


hermits of the shropshire hills (432)

photo: Ruth Jarvis

advice to self, 1980s

Start with images, not ideas. Themes, not concepts. Having an idea isn’t having something to write about: having something to write about is having something to write about. People & settings aren’t something to flesh out a story; a story is something you use to flesh out people & settings. Never favour plot. Story & narrative can be ok, but plot is like chemical farming. Closure is wrong. It is toxic. Work into a genre if you like, but from as far outside it as possible. Read as much about Hollywood formalism as you can bear, so you know what not to do. Break the structures–don’t look for new & sly twists on them. Never do clever tricks with reader expectation. Instead be honest, open and direct in your intention not to deliver the things they expect. You won’t always be successful in that, because it’s harder than it looks—after all, you used to be a reader too. Oh, & that’s the last thing. You aren’t a reader any more. You’re a writer, so don’t try to get reader kicks from the act of writing. Never tell yourself a story. That romantic relationship is over for you. From now on the satisfactions will be elsewhere.

how late is yr train

London by train: that metaphysical condition or stupid limbo which sucks in your life and jellies it and doesn’t get you anywhere, even if you fetch up somewhere in the end–late, full of rage, depressed, encircled by people whose casual shoes cost more than your car. Then the same meeting as you’ve been having the last forty or fifty years, at which you learn that nothing is possible. You’ll wish you never came. Still, you made your choices long ago. You rediscover that by the end of day. You come out the other side. You decide to cope. You even see the advantages–which means you can begin to maximise them, or so you hope. At Euston station you look up at the How Late Is Your Train indicator. The thing is, you tell yourself, not to wait too long. Wait too long and eventually, if you aren’t careful, you’re going to end up looking really quite threadbare.

Originally blogged late 2015.

hide & go seek

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.

Originally blogged as paragraph from a manuscript found in room 121, the Ambiente Hotel, 2012


For a moment, in Blanes, on the Costa Brava, Rob Doyle entertains the idea that the mysterious writer who set out on the Roberto Bolano Literary Trail before him might actually be himself, “a double, flickering in some eerie glitch in the space-time continuum”; or perhaps “an emissary from the future, seeking to warn me of danger”. But then he decides it’s perhaps only John Banville, Anne Enright or Roddy Doyle, “fleeing whatever demons tormented them”. In the end, in fact, it turns out to be someone with the fantastical name of “Turtle Bunbury”. Between outings like this one, he considers suicide. But the only painless method, he concludes, would be to shoot himself in the head, and the only place he could easily come by a gun would be America, a country he will never, ever live in again. “I would rather kill myself.” Prime stand-up from Doyle’s new book.
DSC00381 My review of Threshold in the Guardian.


Always look for a way to express a thing, not sum it up glibly in a couple of words and then smile and mic drop as if labelling it that way has dealt with it. My whole life, genre seems to have been committed to the latter, especially in the conversation about itself, especially in its encounters with human behaviour and perception, and especially if it can imply that to express a thing is merely to repeat a trope, “reinvent the wheel”. In fact the struggle to say is always the struggle to reinvent the wheel–to distinguish the description of an experience from all the other descriptions that might, to the reader, or to another writer, seem similar–not to encapsulate neatly, and thereby categorise & dismiss, before swiftly moving along.