the m john harrison blog

Category: light


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”

KT cruel

The White Cat reappeared 200 kilometers above Redline. Ordnance burst around her. Someone had predicted she would come out there and then. “Oh yes,” said Seria Mau, “very clever. Fuck you too.” Tit for tat, she cooked off a high-end mine she had slipped into the path of the incoming pod. “Here’s one I prepared earlier,” she said. The pod broke up, temporarily blinded, and toppled away in several directions. “They won’t forgive us for that,” she told her mathematics. “They’re arrogant bastards, that team.” The mathematics, which was using the respite to normalise her relationship with the White Cat, had no comment to make. The ship’s sensorium collapsed around her. Everything slowed down. “In and out now,” she ordered. “Quick as we can.” The White Cat pitched over into entry attitude. Retrofire pulsed and flared. Outside, the colours of space gave way to weird smeary reds and greens. Seria Mau airbraked relentlessly in the thickening atmosphere, letting speed scrub off as heat and noise until her ship was a roaring yellow fireball across the night sky. It was a rough ride. The shadow operators streamed about, their lacy wings rippling out behind them, their long hands covering their faces. Mona the clone, who had looked out of a porthole as the ship stood on its nose, was throwing up energetically in the human quarters.

They breached the cloudbase at fifteen hundred feet, to find the Karaoke Sword immediately below them. “I don’t believe this,” said Seria Mau. The old ship had lifted itself a foot or two out of the mud and was turning hesitantly this way and that, shaking like a cheap compass needle. A fusion torch fired up at the rear, setting nearby vegetation alight and generating gouts of radioactive steam. After twenty seconds, its bows dropped suddenly and the whole thing slumped back to earth with a groan, breaking in two about a hundred yards forward of the engine. “Jesus Christ,” Seria Mau whispered. “Put us down.”

The mathematics said it was unwilling to commit.

“Put us down. I’m not leaving him here.”

“You aren’t leaving him here, are you ?” Mona the clone called up anxiously from the human quarters.

“Are you deaf ?” said Seria Mau.

“I wouldn’t put it past you, that’s all.”

“Shut up.”

The Krishna Moire pod, realising what had happened, swept in, fanned out into the parking orbit with a kind of idle bravado, the way shadow boys in one-shot cultivars occupy a doorway so they can spit, gamble and clean their nails with replicas of priceless antique flick-knives. They could afford to wait:. Meanwhile, to move things along, Krishna Moire himself opened a line to the White Cat. He had signed on younger than Seria Mau, and his fetch, though it was six feet tall and presented itself in full Earth Military Contracts chic, including black boots, high-waist riding breeches and a dove grey double-breasted tuxedo with epaulettes, had the demanding mouth of a boy.

“We want Billy Anker ,” he said.

“Go through me,” Seria Mau invited.

Moire looked less certain. “This is a wrong thing you are doing, resisting us,” he informed her. “To add to all those other wrongdoings you done. But, hey, we didn’t come for you, not this time.”

“I done ?” said Seria Mau. “Wrongdoings I done ?”

Outside, explosions marched steadily across the mud, flinging up rocks and vegetation. Elements of the pod, becoming impatient with the half-minute wait, had entered the atmosphere and begun to shell the surface at random. Seria Mau sighed.

“Fuck off, Moire, and take speaking lessons,” she said.

“You’re only alive because EMC don’t care about you one way or another,” he warned her as he faded to brown smoke. “They could change their minds. This operation is double red.” His fetch flickered, vanished, reformed suddenly in a kind of postscript. “Hey, Seria, I got my own pod now!” it said.

“I knew that. So ?”

“So next time I see you,” the fetch promised. “I’ll let the machine speak.”

“Jerk,” said Seria Mau.

By this time she had the cargo bay open. Billy Anker, dressed in a vintage EV suit, was shuffling head down towards it with all the grim patience of the physically unfit. He fell. He picked himself up. He fell again. He wiped his faceplate. Up in the stratosphere, the Krishna Moire pod shifted and turned in hungry disarray; while high above it in the parking lot, the hybrid ship awaited what would happen, its ambivalent signature flickering like a description of the events unfolding below. Who was up there, Seria Mau wondered, along with the commander of Touching the Void ? Who was presiding over this fumbled op ? Down in the cargo bay, Mona the clone called Billy’s name. She leaned out, caught his hand, pulled him inside. The cargo ramp slammed shut. As if this was a signal, long vapour trails emerged from the cloudbase at steep angles. Billy Anker’s ship burst open. Its engines went up in a sigh of gamma and visible light.

“Go,” Seria Mau told the mathematics. The White Cat torched out in a low fast arc over the south pole, transmitting ghost signatures, firing off decoys and particle-dogs.

“Look!” cried Billy Anker. “Look down!”

The South Polar Artifact flashed beneath them. Seria Mau caught a fleeting glimpse of it–a featureless gunmetal ziggurat a million years old and five miles on a side at the base–before it vanished astern. “It’s opening!” cried Billy Anker. Then, in an awed whisper: “I can see. I can see inside–” The sky lit up white behind them, and his voice turned to a despairing wail. The pod, growing frustrated, had hit the ziggurat with something from the bottom shelf of its arsenal, something big. Something EMC.

“What did you see ?” Seria Mau asked three minutes later, as they skulked at Redline L2 while the White Cat’s mathematics tried to guess them a way out under the noses of their pursuers.

Billy Anker wouldn’t say.

“How could they do that ?” he railed. “That was a unique historical item, and a working one. It was still receiving data from somewhere in the Tract. We could have learned something from that thing.”


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.

some basically insoluble mystery

Sand came up like a fog from the beach and when I next looked he was gone.

I studied his business card. “Gift Company,” I read.

What had he offered us? I only knew it was unsuitable and wrong. But sometimes, now, when I look through the notebook in which I wrote all this down, and the dust in its creases — just blown from mainland Africa to make a beach in the Atlantic Ocean — I wish we had accepted.

Again, perhaps we did accept. This is how he made you feel. As if there was some residue, some basically insoluble mystery behind or beneath or in some way prior to the rubbishy white hotels, beach bars and endless Cambios. As if even Playa los Americas, one of the trashiest places on earth, had some secret nothing to do with cheap stereos, expensive leather goods and English beer. Something you can sense where a brand new road runs out suddenly in builders’ waste and prickly pear; or at the top of a low hill, in some unfinished concrete building that looks like a multistory car park; or in the amused eyes of the stray dogs of the seafront.

“Gift Company,” we read. Perhaps we did accept.

from “GifCo”, 1997.


every week another town

Ed liked to walk around in the cold bright morning through the circus itself, moving from the salt smell of the dunes to the smell of warm dusty concrete that filled the air around the tents and pavilions. He wondered why Sandra Shen had chosen this site. If you landed here it was because you had no corporate credentials. If you left from here, no one wished you good luck. It was a transit camp, where EMC processed refugee labour before moving it on to the mines. Paperwork could maroon you at the noncorporate port for a year, during which your own bad choices would take the opportunity to stretch it to ten. Your ship rusted, your life rusted. But you could always go to the circus. This in itself worried Ed. What did it mean for Madam Shen? Was she trapped here too? “This outfit ever move on?” he asked her. “I mean, that’s what a circus does, right? Every week another town?” Sandra Shen gave him a speculative look, her face shifting from old to young then back again around its own eyes, as if they were the only fixed point in her personality (if personality is a word with any meaning when you are talking about an algorithm). They were like eyes looking out from cobwebs. She had a fresh drink beside her. Her little body was leaning back, elbows on the bar, one red high-heel hooked in the brass bar rail. Smoke from her cigarette rose in an exact thin stream, broke up suddenly into eddies and whorls. She laughed and shook her head. “Bored already, Ed?” she said. —Light, 2002.

news, various

Gollancz have produced some exciting packages for their three remaining reprints from my backlist, The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen: these covers acknowledge & echo the textuality of the texts, and remind me very much of the fatal book in “The Gift”. I went to see them on a dark wet December afternoon in London: they lit it up. More on that soon.

Meanwhile, the new short story collection has emerged relatively unscathed from its beta read (thanks to Sara Sarre, Julian Richards, Mic Cheetham and Nina Allan). I’ll be tinkering with it for a while yet–and titling has become the usual nightmare. I see no rush. Soon I’ll blog a full contents list, including the flash fiction, most of which appeared here. (Thanks for everyone’s help on that.) Previously unpublished stories include “The Crisis” which you may have heard me read at Warwick U or at Totleigh Barton; “The Old Fox”, so technical & emotionally citrus it gives me toothache to read it now; the final Viriconium story, “Crome”; and others. Previously published stories that may have been off your radar include: “Entertaining Angels Unawares” and “Cicisbeo”. A story that won’t be reprinted in this collection, or anywhere else, is “The 4th Domain”, which will only ever be available in that form as a Kindle Single: so buy one now (etc etc).

Speaking of Viriconium, it’s nice to have Eric Germani’s exhaustive study, “The Killing Bottle”, here (useful for anyone taking Warwick U’s F/SF course); I’m very much looking forward to his forthcoming analysis of Light. I suspect my tribute to Forced Entertainment is now up among all the other 365s, at the FE site; I was late, mea culpa. The Poor Souls’ Light anthology of original Christmas ghost stories is mailing as I speak, but I think there may be some copies left if you haven’t yet ordered; I’ll be at Birmingham College of Art next Friday (12th), reading from my contribution, “Animals”, alongside Alison Moore and Jenn Ashworth. There is other news, but I am deliberately keeping it from you–partly in case nothing comes of it & partly because I am such a tart.

in the simulator

This amazing browser fluid simulation made me think of the Light trilogy’s conscious dialogue with both Tarkovsky and the Strugatsky Bros about what individuals can “know” in their context. I think that stumbling about in what is essentially your own head, with indifferent epistemological tools at your disposal, is less of a big deal than it seemed to be to them. (It’s like life. It’s a world, you make no sense of it, then you die. Any sense has been made prior to conscious perception by all the non-conscious systems that run you, in conjunction with an environment. A broth of algorithms gets stirred up. You try to see that as a meaningful structure. Sometimes it can seem satisfying–even sublime–but most of it is just dull and unfulfilling.) The only way to keep the encounter with the Zone fulfilling is as an adrenalin sport. Imagine the Nova Swing event site two hundred years in Vic Serotonin’s future. It’s been fully colonised as an adventure playground. (See the little sun-diver theme that links Liv Hula and Ed Chianese; also the idea of “maze running” which refers neither to the Strugatskys nor Tarkovksy, but to Algis Budrys’ 1960 existentialist novel Rogue Moon, in which one explorer’s repeated death in an alien maze stands in for the human process of learning an envirnoment.) In two hundred years, all the hard problems have been solved. The death rate has dropped right off. Everything that seemed so doomy and weird to Vic is now packaged and sold on as an “experience” of danger. Vic should be seen as the beginning of that, an early crude attempt at replacing the exploratory value with a tourist value–thus Emil Bonaventure’s contempt for him. If you want to know about the inevitable end-state of all zones & event sites (including that of the Kefahuchi Tract itself), you only need look at the development of the Alps (& now the Himalaya). What was a nightmare is controlled by learned skillsets into a form of play. What used to kill you is now so well understood that you can enjoy it. Or, to put it another way: what used to kill explorers first begins to kill only experts who push their skillset too hard, then winds up only killing the tourist the experts usher up the mountain for money–and even then only often enough to keep up the activity’s reputation as an experience. What began as a challenge ends as a “challenge”.

Anyway, run the Fluid Experiment for a moment or two, then select “reset particles” while it’s still going and just watch for a few minutes: that will fully explain to you the plot of the Light trilogy (along with a plot of its overarching implied context). Or you could read the books & have a laugh about how Ed’s body ends up.