the m john harrison blog

Category: empty space

in real life, postscript

If you’re interested in the epistemology, phenomenology, and existentialist issues of adventure, and you like science fiction too, you couldn’t do better than read a novel called Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It is a much less woolly and more concise analysis of ”exploratory values” than either Roadside Picnic or Stalker, and preceded both. Aesthetically, I prefer the latter two, obviously (and I am aware of Budrys’ problematics, so please don’t @ me). But he makes his points—about exploration and the learning curve–in a more clinical manner than the Strugatsky Brothers or Tarkovsky, while artfully using the metaphor they rediscovered to do double duty: his set-up also allows him to examine the repetition-compulsions on which risk sports are founded. (Also worth a look in that context is the movie Flatliners, in which, as in Rogue Moon, killing yourself repeatedly becomes both the exploratory method and the basis for a game.)

anna’s adventures in norbiton

Next morning she truanted on Dr Alpert, changed trains at London Victoria and made her way down through the postal codes until, the other side of Balham, she thought she recognised the way the streets curled and dovetailed across the swell of a hill. “Orchid Nails”, read the signs outside the station: “Minty Pearls Dental Clinic”. Anna descended from the train and wandered thoughtfully along staring into the windows of empty houses. She had no plan. She favoured quiet residential avenues and a particular kind of four-bedroom mock-Tudor, with laurels and a slip of driveway to one side of its front garden. The shabbier a place looked, the more likely it was to hold her attention. By mid afternoon she thought she might be in Sydenham Hill. She had covered miles under the enamel light, trespassed on the hard standings of a dozen middle class homes. She was exhausted. Her ankles hurt. She was lost. It wasn’t the first time she had done this.

Sydenham Hill turned out, in point of fact, to be Norbiton, a place named after the suburb in an Edwardian novel. Anna sat down with a cup of tea in the station cafe and emptied her bag on to the table. It was full of the usual silt–ends of make-up, a single glove, an address book bloated with the names of people she never saw anymore, her phone with its flat battery. There were receipts folded into very small squares, foriegn coins and coins no longer in circulation. There was an old outboard computer drive: this, she took up.

It was perhaps two inches by three, with curved, organic-looking edges, its smooth dull surface interrupted at one end by a line of firewire ports–one of those objects which, new and exciting in its day, now looked as dated as a cigarette case. Michael had left it with her, along with some instructions, putting his warm hand over Anna’s–they were in a railway cafe just like this one–and urging her:

“You will remember, won’t you ?”

All she could remember now was being afraid. When you’re afraid of everything, especially each other, you have to walk away; consign each other to the world.

Anna had arrived in Norbiton between trains. She drank a second cup of tea and stared out with vague good will at the empty platform, where everything had a thick fresh coat of paint. After about twenty minutes an old man was helped into the cafe by some railway staff. He had outlived himself. His bald brown head seemed too big for his neck; his underlip, the colour of uncooked liver, drooped in exhausted surprise at finding himself still there. They sat him at Anna’s table, where he banged her feet and legs about with his stick, shoved the contents of her bag carelessly across the table towards her, and, as soon as he was settled, began eating salmon sandwiches directly from a paper bag. His hands were ropy with veins, the skin over them shiny and slack. He ate greedily but at the same time with a curious lack of interest, as if his body remembered food but he didn’t. As he ate he whispered to himself. After some minutes he put the bag down, leaned across the table and tapped Anna’s hand sharply.

“Ow,” said Anna.

“Nothing is real,” he said.

“I’m sorry ?”

“Nothing is real. Do you understand ? There are only contexts. And what do they context ?” He gave Anna an intent look; breathed heavily a few times through his mouth. “More contexts, of course!” Anna, who had no idea how to respond, stared angrily out of the window. After a moment he said, as if he hadn’t already spoken to her, “I have to get on the next train. I wonder if you would be kind enough to help me ?”

“I wouldn’t, no,” Anna said, collecting up her things.

It was almost dark when she arrived home. Marnie had left irritable messages on the answerphone. “Pick up, Anna. I’m really very cross with you. It’s not the first time you’ve let the doctor down like this.” Anna made herself an omelette and ate it in the kitchen standing up, while she rehearsed what she would say to Marnie. The last of the daylight was fading out of the sky. James the cat jumped up on to the kitchen top and begged. Absent-minded with guilt, Anna gave him more of the omelette than she had intended to.

–Empty Space, 2012

at the see-not gate

Waking out of a foul dream to gently hectoring telephone calls from her daughter, Anna Waterman allowed herself to be persuaded into one last session with Helen Alpert.

The doctor had spent much of the morning arguing with a Citroen parts supplier in Richmond and was pleasantly surprised when her client arrived carrying take-out lattes and almond croissants for them both. Had Anna lost weight since her previous visit ? Perhaps not, Helen Alpert decided; perhaps it was in fact a postural change. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Anna,” she said, though she never drank coffee after eight in the morning.

On her part, Anna felt ashamed of herself. It was like being the one to break up a relationship. Prior to buying the coffee she had spent half an hour on Hammersmith Bridge, gazing down at the brown water at some people learning to scull, miserably trying to bring herself to face the doctor. After that, the consulting room, with its cut flowers and tranquil light, seemed such a zone of peace, and Helen Alpert so welcoming, that she didn’t know where to begin. For years, she explained, she had lived in a kind of suspended animation. That seemed to be over now. During the last few months, life had been waking her out of a sleep she didn’t want to relinquish, forcing her to take part again.

“That’s what I haven’t liked about it.”

“No one likes that,” the doctor agreed.

“No. But they want it anyway.”

“Anna, I’m interested in the way you put it, life ‘forcing’ you to take part again. What sort of thing do you mean ?”

“For example, Marnie’s not well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I found that I welcomed it. I know that sounds odd.” Having admitted Marnie to the negotiation, Anna became unsure how much space to allow her. “Anyway, it’s time someone looked after her for a change.”

“You feel she’s been the parent for too long ?”

“And something else has happened,” Anna said, “which I’d rather not talk about.”

The doctor smiled. “Your business is your business.”

Given their circumstances, Anna considered this the cheapest of jibes. “Actually I just want to live my life,” she heard herself say, with somewhat more emphasis than she had intended.

“Everyone wants that. What exactly is wrong with Marnie ?”

“She’s having tests.”

There followed a silence, during which Dr Alpert played with one of her gel pens and made it clear that she was expecting more. Anna considered describing the visit to St Narcissus–the women shackled to their symptoms by the hospital system and to their lives by mobile phone; the fatuous receptionist; the cancer-shaped stain on the ceiling–but preferring to avoid the interpretive bout that would inevitably follow, in which she would feel compelled to take part out of simple courtesy, said instead, “I never wanted to examine my life, I just wanted to be inside it.” This had the nature of a bid or gambit, she realised. “Not,” she qualified, before Helen Alpert could take it up, “that I never had a point of view on myself. Of course I did. Look,” she said. “The fact is, Helen–you’ll understand me, I know you will–I’ve met someone. A man.” She laughed. “Well, more of a boy, really. Is that awful ? Michael is dead, but I feel alive again, and that’s what I want to be. Alive.”

This much denial filled the doctor’s heart with rueful admiration. “I’m delighted,” she said, though it must have been clear that she was not. She wondered why she bothered. She reached across the desk and put her hands over Anna’s. “Tell me what you dreamed last night,” she said, “and I’ll tell you why you mustn’t stop coming here. Not yet.”

“Do you know, I didn’t dream at all last night,” Anna said. “Isn’t that odd ?”

–from Empty Space, final book of the K-Tract trilogy, 2012

blueprint grey on grey

Forty seconds later, the main hold filled with light.

Internal comms tanked. Up in the control room, error signals jammed the boards. “Accept!” Liv Hula told the pilot connexion. Nothing. She stuffed the wires into her mouth by hand. “Akphept!” Too late. They were half in, half out when the connect halted. She pushed until she bled, but the system wouldn’t receive. Instead, Liv was snatched out of herself and began some long, identityless transit.

When things returned, she was seeing them via an exterior camera-swarm. Autorepair media raced along the brass-coloured hull like dust down a hot street. The stern assembly pulsed in and out of view. Outriggers, fusion pods, the tubby avocado-shaped bulge housing the Dynaflow drive: you could see the stars through them. From a source down there, where the holds and motors had once been, intermittent, washy-looking streams of plasma curved out into the dark, already an AU long and curved like scimitars. Liv felt sick. With the connector a lump of gold wire half-fused into the tissue of her soft palate, she was reduced to flicking switches.

“Antoyne ? Hello ?”

No one responded. Inside the ship, engine rooms, holds, companionways, ventilator shafts, stairwells, winked out one by one. Go through the wrong door, who knew what you’d see ? Liv was aware but blind. If you could blueprint grey on grey, that’s what filled the control room screens–a kind of luminous darkness where her spaceship had been. There was nothing there, but it had a strong sense of order.

“Jesus, Antoyne,” she said. “What are you fucking around with now ?”

–from Empty Space, 2013

from empty space to stanage edge

I’ve got two slots at Edge Lit in July, it seems. For the GoH “speech” I’ll read a new story & maybe answer questions about the forthcoming short story collection & the novel in progress. For the other one, an item on writing landscape, I’ll probably do something like this–

Landscape in fiction is never just background, or you’re wasting your opportunities. Let the landscape do as much of the work of informing the reader of your intentions as possible. Entangle your ideas & meanings with the setting. Fold them into one another.

Empty Space: the Funene Golden Hour, a landscape derived from photography of the Namib coast. Ad-image pseudo-sublime. What is the difference between awe & oh wow? The reification of an aesthetic judgement, a play on the use of the term “landscape porn”. Woven into the trilogy’s general position on neoLiberal postindustrial spectacle–the transformation of real sites into sites of public art, ie leisure heritage.

Climbers: “The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.” But also, the gritsone edges as a kinaesthetic abacus on which you “tell” your life. To what degree–& in how many lives–has Stanage served that purpose–emotional touchstone or pivot, hermitage, site of psycho-addiction sought out at points in your life, abandoned at others–but also the sense that the gritstone landscape can in some unforgiving way abandon you & you may never be allowed to go back…

Come prepared to ask: What’s the difference, then, between a real landscape & a fictional one? & its various obvious corollaries.

teeming with duration

Dr Sarah Dillon’s upcoming seminar on “Alife & Maternity in Empty Space” made me think of Richard Doyle, obviously, so here’s Stephen Dougherty on Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living

For the self to dissolve (a fortuitous dissolution), for the novelty of the future to present itself, we must let the knots of the sovereign ego loose themselves and open up to the strange invasion of objects that are themselves dissolved into parts, or swarms. As Bergson taught, and as Deleuze clarified, such a hospitality to objects in their constitutive multiplicity requires the method of intuition rather than intelligence (the trick is not in thinking). Intuitive perception puts us into matter, as Bergson famously put it, and it allows us to use our own duration, the rhythm of our own lived experience, in order ‘to recognize the existence of other durations’ (1991: 33). By intuitively entering into matter, we recognize that things have their own durations–that they are, in a sense, teeming with duration. [My emphasis]

–from “The Future of Seduction”

the air had an edge: September

Half an hour later Helen Alpert accompanied her client to the door, where, both eager to admit how they would miss one another, they said goodbye. While Anna walked swiftly up Chiswick Mall towards Hammersmith without looking back, Helen crossed the road and leaned on the river wall. It was a sunny morning, but the air had an edge: September, accepting that the game was up. The Thames ran low, with a sullenness that suggested the tide was on the turn. Two or three mallards, who had looked as if they were going to make a morning of it, honking and squabbling in the mud, suddenly took off and swept west, gaining height until they vanished behind the trees on the far bank. Back inside, she put the Waterman file away; then changed her mind and, leafing through it angrily, began to make a fresh set of notes. The client, her personality frozen in adolescence, had disguised herself as an adult for the duration of her marriage to Tim Waterman. To what end ? She had effectively erased the abjection of her life with her first husband, yet remained bound to it, and through it to the unthought known. Why allow the disguise to fall away now ? As to the significance of the repeating dream: other dreams seemed as diagnostically valuable, and moreover came with all the neccessary tools for their own decoding.

From Empty Space, 2012.

singular

From “On Singularities, mathematical and metaphorical” at Soft Machines, the blog of Richard Jones, Professor of Physics and the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield:

The biggest singularity in physics of all is the singularity where we think it all began – the Big Bang, a singularity in time which it is unimaginable to see through, just as the end of the universe in a big crunch provides a singularity in time which we can’t conceive of seeing beyond. Now we enter the territory of thinking about the creation of the universe and the ultimate end of the world, which of course have long been rich themes for religious speculation. This connects us back to the conception of a technologically driven singularity in human history, as a discontinuity in the quality of human experience and the character of human nature. I’ve already argued at length that this conception of the technological singularity is a metaphor that owes a great deal to these religious forbears.

He goes on to talk about the singularity central to the KT trilogy–also the book’s centralising of human rather than post- or transhuman problems.

ruby dip on kitsch & trash

Ruby’s unreasonable anger at Renoko, it turned out, stemmed from an argument she had with him one lunchtime in the Faint Dime diner. It concerned the nature of kitsch. Renoko felt that kitsch was a product of an event he named “the postmodern ironisation”, prior to which it could not exist: before that, the objects you could now describe as kitsch were actually trash objects. “Without the operation of irony on trash,” he maintained, “there would be no kitsch.” To him, the postmodern ironisation was like the Death of History or the coming Singularity. “Everything was changed by it. Nothing could be the same again. It had the irreversibly transformational qualities of a Rapture.”

He believed it had those qualities even now.

Ruby’s committment to body-art and collectible tambourines couldn’t let this go unchallenged. Prior to the age of irony, she thought, kitsch was already established. “It was low art’s idea of high art,” she said–the aesthetic of people with no taste. Its keynote was sentimentality, not simply in conception but in use. Trash, for her, was another thing altogether, and it was with trash she found herself at home. A true low art, trash was the aesthetic of people who had no aesthetic, and in use it could almost be described as utilitarian. “In all its forms,” she insisted to MP Renoko, “and across every media platform, trash is the art of demonstrating, celebrating–and above all getting–sex. It is a Saturday night art.”

Fat Antoyne scratched his head.

“What happened when you told him that ?”

”What happened then was that a fist fight followed, which it soon drew in the entire lunchtime clientele of the Faint Dime diner, becoming a legend in its own time.”

“It doesn’t seem enough,” he said.

“That, Fat Antoyne, is the big difference between us.”

Because of the weird grimness of the work they do, Ruby believed, quarantine dogs live their opinions hard and proud: so it was predictable Antoyne wouldn’t see such things as intensely as she did. Perhaps because of that it was good that their liaison retained its temporary nature.

–Empty Space, 2012

a million-year-old starship from another galaxy

He was thinking about these things when the shadow of his friend fell across him. One monitor wasn’t enough to display her; she hung there in high aspect ratio across three of them, allowing the K-tract to paint her tip feathers mint blue and rose-pink.

“Hey,” Imps breathed.

“What do you want,” she said.

“You look beautiful today.”

“You broadcast every frequency. You call me up. You stare into the dark until you find me there. What do you want from me?”

Imps thought.

He felt he should tell her, “My day is crap when we don’t talk,” or, “I think you’re lonely too,” but both of those were too close to the truth. So he decided to say the next thing that came into his head.

Sometimes he made lists of the places he might have come from. For instance he liked the sound of Acrux, Adara, Rigil Kentaurus and, particularly, Mogliche Walder. But Motel VI was his favourite. Motel life, as he understood it, wasn’t too demanding. It was a lot closer-in than empty space, but still comfortably on the edge of things. It sounded like a good compromise between what he experienced now and some sort of full humanity. He wanted to ease himself into that. He had downloaded a brochure entitled Mobile Homes of the Galaxy, which also featured dwellings based on the classic Moderne hamburger joint–all pastel neon, pressed and ribbed aluminium–set against sunsets and mountain dawns. He showed her some of these.

“I want you to help me go back,” he said.

“You came here of your own accord.”

“Did I?”

She considered this. “Now you want to go back where you came?”

“I came too far,” he said.

“You thought this was what you wanted.”

“Peer pressure brought me here. It would be too much to suffer the disapprobation of my friends.”

Rig and Emil and Fedy von Gang, hacking busily away at the mysteries in Radio Bay; Ed Chianese who, it was rumoured, had himself plugged into a K-ship, as dumb a thing as anyone had ever done. The entradistas, the sky-pilots like Billy Anker and Liv Hula. People who called their ship Blind by Light, or Hidden Light, or 500% Light, or anything with Light in it. People who left a note by the bed, a message in the parking orbit: Torched Out. Who were wired up wrong from the first. Whose engines cooked with hard X-rays. Who went out unassuagable and came back rich or mad, towing a million-year-old starship from another galaxy. Rocket jockeys the Halo knew by their first names. Imps shrugged. He excused himself and got a beer. When he came back to his seat she was still there, and he said: “Out here thirty years, and I find I was never like them. Whoa! What’s this? Imps, you want to go back, find your home? Stop loooking in the dark for stuff no one’s ever going to understand?”

“You came too far,” she mused.

van Sant didn’t know if she was agreeing with him, or what. When he looked up at the monitor again, she had vanished.

Empty Space, 2012