the m john harrison blog

Month: March, 2020

a letter from an uncle

Interesting that the special effects environment we live in leaves me no problem at all in accepting this image as a floating bin.

On looking at it, I feel no frisson. No excitement. No real interest. It no longer works for me even as the illustration of an illusion or of a failure of interpretation. It may be of interest to a specialist in perception, but I receive it the way I would receive any other trailer for a movie or TV advert for a product.

When I say this, of course, it’s because I’m interested in how popular fantasy propels or catalyses our increasingly saturated intimacy with the absurd and illusory. While I have no difficulty reading out “floating bin” from the picture, and indeed have lost all surprise at the absurdity of images like this, it remains a picture and I have no interest whatsoever in the “possibility” of a floating bin. I thought perhaps I should make that clear, in case anyone mistook the content of the particular photograph for the subject matter here.

I’d also like to say that my father’s brother was called Don.

Don wrote to me once when I was quite young, a nice letter full of news. I looked at the signature and was filled with delight. I couldn’t quite understand why Dan Dare would write to me, or why my hero, a fictional space pilot, would send me news from a town just up the A5 in a tone of such familiarity. “Your Uncle Dan”! The facts percolated through to me across that morning at school, reluctantly you would say, but as if I’d known them all along. Until I could no longer avoid acknowledging them, it was the most exciting day of my life.


Writing fiction is such a rest from reality, not because you “get lost in a secondary world” or any of that bullshit, but because of this: you can begin a book by saying, “Wednesday evening at a quarter to six, and the traffic was a little lighter than usual.” Whereas if you said that aloud in the real world, someone would immediately be telling you that, if anything, the traffic was slightly worse today than yesterday. Writing is the pure relief of not having to discuss everything that happens in an attempt to agree the world into being; it is, for instance, the reverse of Twitter. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s anything else to it. In fact, don’t tell anyone you read this & don’t discuss it with anyone.

settling the world

That collection in more detail. It’s a selected short stories, covering the period 1969-2019. Due to my deep disconnection from the concept of keeping stuff, we had some trouble finding digital copies to work with. The team at Comma simply rolled up their sleeves and scanned from paper. Work is what they like & they always have a cup of tea for an old person. There will be an introduction from the remarkable Jennifer Hodgson.

Some of my choices had to be rejected even as they were made, because they would compete with Comma’s 2017 collection You Should Come With Me Now. I see the justice in that, and it prevented me from weighting towards the last couple of decades. Recent work is still vibrating with its own processes, with radioactive fairground lights flashing around the edges of 2d-rendered clowns & mermaids etc etc, and therefore seems livelier.

Also, of course, it could very well feel livelier because it’s better-written, more mature in its reflections & conclusions, and sits more trimly on the page than earlier stuff. Many writers work with a kind of rolling cut-off point–as in, “Oh god, everything I did before 1995 was such rubbish” –which they drag behind them at a set distance. Anyway, a selection is a selection, not a “Best of”. Nor could it be a serious retrospective. I selected for what I prefer. It would be stupid to deny that this is a value judgement on what I’ve done over the last fifty years. I organised the contents–to the degree I could remember–in chronological order of writing, spread roughly over the catchment area of each original volume:

The Causeway
The Machine in Shaft Ten
The Orgasm Band
Settling the World
Running Down

The Incalling
The Ice Monkey
Old Women
The Quarry

A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium

The Gift
I Did It
The East
Black Houses
Science & the Arts

The Crisis
Colonising the Future
“Doe Lea”

There are jokes, obviously, such as: “The East” was the deliberate obverse of “A Young Man’s Journey”. I would have added “Jack o’ Mercy’s” to complete the trilogy of final Viriconium stories, but see limitations on selection, above. I was also tempted to add a section of blog-length fictions: total word-count being restricted, that would have elbowed out some of the earlier stuff. (Later I might do a whole volume of those, for readers who aren’t afraid of a more compact item.) Anyway, there you go. When they set out at eighteen years old, every writer looks forward to doing a selected. Now I’m looking back, I’m not sure how it feels–less intense than it would have at 40, perhaps. Comments are as open as ever & I foresee constructive disagreement. Coronavirus has shifted publication date from May to July. Obviously circumstances might alter that further. Hard details, of cover image, pricing & so forth will come in as & when. You can stay up to date here; or on Twitter– @mjohnharrison and #SettlingTheWorld. Or by going to the Comma Press site. My new novel #TheSunkenLandBeginsToRiseAgain, will be out at around the same time, from Gollanz. Please help out with both these books by pre-ordering: I’m old & I have friends from the sea, but I still need to eat.

Photo: Cath Phillips, 2019

you aren’t being offered anything

I was thinking again about how it might be possible to become another kind of writer without becoming the someone else you would need to be to do that. The transitions I’ve made before have always been unenforced, a luxury of choice. They’ve been the result of seeing not how a personal change could be made to catch up and integrate with a social one, but how the one had always been inside the other without me knowing.

This way of describing things, I now see, came out of a pure 1960s terror of scuttling to keep up, rather than having an eye open for what you already know. I saw a lot of the former. That’s the difference between “having an idea for a story” and really, just finding the episteme that was already speaking to you.

In transitional days, when you know you’re not who you used to be, what’s needed is a chrysalis. I’ve made them out of anything, like a caddis larva at the bottom of a pond: physics, politics, philosophy, chaos theory, literary theory, shoe size, rock type, images of the purity of recursion and feedback, the relationship between crossword puzzles and bouldering on gritstone crystal, bits of this, bits of that. It doesn’t matter, as long as you believe you’ve been struck by lightning and are now building something, which is what I imagine the caddis larva to think. Busy, busy, busy.

What goes on inside a chrysalis is liquid. The important thing to remember is that the new contents will be emergent in some sense of unknown chemistry long before they become emergent in that more obvious, less interesting sense in which something expressed as rigid and limiting splits to allow something expressed as just a bit more flexible out into the world. More to the point, by the time you’re looking for a way to breach, it has always already happened. All you need to do is the more delicious, exciting work of describing it by what is now, mysteriously, pure hindsight. Now you can decide who you’re meant to be. Apply a little guidance. Look for the new problems you’re sure you can solve.

This isn’t like that. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel as if anything is being offered. I feel not as if I’m changing (meaning: not as if I am discovering that I have already changed) but as if I’m required to consciously develop a fresh episteme out of a failing one. I don’t like that. I was never built for that. I was built to meet myself coming the other way and tremblingly decide whether to shake hands or not. I was built with a supply of dopplegangers. Maybe noticing this is in itself the beginning of something new? Or maybe I shot my bolt with the last couple of novels, in which, at last, unacknowledged epistemic collapse became the sole subject matter. Maybe there’s no new writer in here this time, fresh-faced, eager and ready to be peeled, finding in its turn an amazing world it seems to have been built with precisely the right organs to navigate.