the m john harrison blog

Category: predicting the present

how we can know it

All journeys are enchanted.

It isn’t so much that the landscape distracts you, as that something about the motion of the train — something about the very idea of constant, rushing, forward movement — makes you restless and slow to settle to anything. You read a few pages of a book and look out at some swans on a canal. A newspaper opened suddenly just down the carriage sounds like rain spattering on the window. Another chapter and you make your way down to the buffet or the lavatory. Between each event a rev- erie pours itself, as seamless as golden syrup, as smooth as the motion of the train. You wonder what the weather will be like in Leeds or Newcastle, turn to the Independent to find out, read: “The world economy is likely to remain subdued.”

Looking up from these words to a landscape of hedges and ponds, copses and little embankments, the Ephebe sees with amazement a strange vehicle bounding along beside the railway line.

In a long, complex frame of metal tubing, suspended on four tractor wheels, are cradled: an engine wrapped round with copper pipes and sheaves of old electrical wiring; clusters of what seem to be household butane gas bottles; and, well to the rear, the padded seat of some old-fashioned military jet, into which is strapped a man. Gouts of earth and water spray up from its enormous wheels. From time to time this whole machine seems to be consumed by a kind of radiant discharge, through which its driver or pilot can be seen helplessly or furiously waving his arms.

Is he a prisoner of his vehicle? Or does he prefer to drive on the edge of disaster like this? He is a wasted old man. When it can be seen, his face runs the gamut of expression, wild with fear one moment, laughing with excitement the next. His long gray hair blows back in the slipstream. His lips contort. He has fastened himself into a tight brown leather suit along the arms and legs of which run clusters of Neoprene tubing. Out of these at intervals erupt thick colored fluids, which splatter over his chest or into his eyes. Though he blinks furiously, he suffers the indignity without harm: but wherever the machine is touched it blackens and smokes briefly, and lightning writhes along its chassis members.

One huge wheel flies off suddenly into the air. The old man claps his hands to his face. At that moment the train enters a tunnel, and the Ephebe can see only himself, reflected in the window.

If the appearance of the machine has filled him with astonishment, its disappearance leaves him with a curious mixture of elation and anger he can neither understand nor resolve. By the time he is able to unclench his hands and wipe his forehead, the train has left the tunnel for open plowland across which spills a tranquil evening light. Wrestling desper- ately with one another, the old man and his machine have passed back into the dimension from which they came, where they leap and bucket and belly their way forever through rural England, scattering clods of earth, steam, small bushes and dead animals. But in the palm of the Ephebe’s hand remains a small, intricately machined metal item, melted at one end to slag.

This he brings home with him. For months it remains warm to the touch, as if it had only lately been thrown out of the hearth of the heart.

–from “The Horse of Iron & How We Can Know It & Be Changed By It Forever”, 1988.

alchemical

Blake, Peckham and “the tree of angels”. The sheer willpower needed to envisage something. Even a memory has to be forced back into existence, and for all your effort what do you get? An artefact if you’re lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye. The exhausting effort to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to see. The exhausting effort to keep focus. The mad daily struggle against all the side issues that offer themselves. The struggle to keep the symbology intact/exact. I don’t care about anything else in writing now, as long as I get that part right. Everything else can follow along, rag tag and bobtail. Everything else is better that way any way.

niche operations

A paragraph of the new novel:

The only time Helen had spoken to him was when she caught him looking at the shrinkwrapped books in the chiller cabinet: “We’re a wholesaler, really. We sell on in bulk.” The self-deception of this was his introduction to the business; or to that side of it. From then on he would make two or three trips a week to similarly shabby premises–crystal shops, candle parlours, short-let niche operations selling a mix of cultural memorabilia and pop merchandise from two or three generations ago–which had flourished along the abandoned high streets of the post-2007 austerity. They were run by a network of shabby voters dressed in cheap business clothes, hoping to take advantage of tumbling high street rents–though their real obsession was with commerce as a kind of politics, a fundamental theology. They had bought the rhetoric without having the talent or the backing. The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers haunting decayed hotel corridors, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it were still 1957–denizens of futures that never coalesced, whole worlds that never got past the natal crisis. Men and women washed up on rail platforms and pedestrianised streets, weak-eyed with the brief energy of the defeated, exchanging obsolete tradecraft like Thatcherite spies.

a difficult time for everyone

If you’re in London on the evening of the 5th March & you’d like to hear me reading “The Crisis”, leave an email address here, or DM me at @mjohnharrison on Twitter–

Adolescence. West London. You always believed a hidden war was being fought, a war nobody would ever admit to. Lay awake at night, listening to bursts of corporate fireworks that seemed too aggressive to be anything other than a small arms exchange; while by day, ground-attack helicopters clattered suddenly and purposively along the curve of the Thames towards Heathrow. You held your breath in moments of prolonged suspense, imagining the smoke trails of rockets launched from the bed of a builder’s pickup in Richmond or Kingston. These fantasy-engagements, asymmetric and furtive, a kind of secret, personalised Middle East, left you as exhausted as masturbation. There was something narcissistic about them. A decade later, everyone was able to feel a similar confused excitement. With the coming of the iGhetti, everyone had a story to tell but no one could be sure what it was. Information was so hard to come by. Between anecdotal evidence and the spectacular misdirections of the news cycle lay gulfs of supposition, fear, and denial. People didn’t know how to act. One minute they heard the guns, the next they were assured that nothing was happening. One day they were panicking and leaving the city in numbers, the next they were returning but rumour had convinced them to throw their tablet computers in the river. The thing they feared most was contagion. They locked their doors. They severed their broadband connections and tanked their cellars. They avoided a growing list of foods. They clustered round a smartphone every summer evening after dark, eavesdropping on the comings and goings of the local militas as they scoured the railway banks and canalsides for telltale astral jelly. Were the iGhetti here or not? It was a difficult time for everyone.

the tale I tell myself

A sort of romance between vague people. Disconnected, surreal. End product of the liquid moderne not as it idealises itself but as it plays out on the ground. Two “lives”, interleaved transparent sets of events, never quite in themselves stories. First one floating on top then the other, so that as you see through one to the other they seem to be linked & completing (to the degree that completion has any meaning in the context). Underneath that the implication of some complex archaic interaction or myth, a default condition or haunting of the past & present which can only point to the future. Glimpses of a past & a future, also mysteriously imbricated, but even more see-through.

living in the future

There are futures everywhere. They’re at street corners. They’re waiting between the buildings of an old-fashioned industrial estate, the architecture of which hasn’t changed since the 50s. Or they’re waiting for a train in the middle of the day, in the empty middle of an afternoon, for something important to them but invisible to you. They’re in the provinces. They have a provincial nature, which is also invisible to you. They’re ordinary and self-similar. They’re not transparent. They have clothes, children, a job, or no job. They have ambitions. They’re a gesture, a posture, an item of baggage.

into the valley

Everything is uncanny valley at the moment. I have no real idea of the political shape. Things are about to reveal themselves as having gone badly wrong. I’m only certain that while we think we understand what’s happening, we don’t. The descriptive systems we’re used to are about to stop working–they may already have stopped working. I feel the way I did in the mid-to-late ’70s–that the ideas I get for weird fiction understand the political situation better than I do. They have a connection to some great sore lump of political material we’re too rational to see. It’s implied by events, but at the moment we are only looking at the events. Given what happened in the mid-to-late ’70s, I’m not comfortable with this feeling.

alternate world

Long horizons, rising downs. West Sussex pub, full of the ghouls of money. 1947 Concours d’Elegance Bentley in the car park. Light aircraft float to & fro across the ghouls’ own sky won in single combat from the Nazis all those years ago. The weather is fine, blowy mid-May, but when we say we’ll sit outside, the barman responds with a kind of knowing servility, “You’re going to brave it, then?” Yes, we’re going to brave it. We’re going to meet today’s minor but satisfying challenge, we’re going to brave the May weather & have our lunch outside, the way the ghouls braved the Nazis in the blue enduring sky to protect their power & money all those years ago. You can’t be the rulers if you have no country to rule.

a smeared present

Includes some events from the immediate past. As you grow older the effect increases. When you were a child your smeared present was only a few minutes long; by the time you reach sixty it’s two or three years. A very smeared present can include anticipated events from the near future as if they have already happened.

street view

Sudden smell of scorched hair & fats. A man in a white shirt stops walking past & looks up into the sunlight. He’s dressed for crown green bowling. He thinks: the wires, always tangled up. Who knows what he saw. At the window you only know what you could smell. The man, dressed in his white shirt & white hat for crown green bowling, will say later that he doesn’t remember anything. He has always felt a deep nostalgia but it is not based on memory. As a result he is forced to look forward like someone with a cricked neck. He is forced to find his memories in front of him–scorched hair, tangled wire, warm sunshine & another man looking down from a window on the shady side of the street. It’s almost seven in the evening, those lazy days of summer.

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