the m john harrison blog

Category: predicting the present

page 117

I just played this divination meme: open the nearest book to you at p117, read the second sentence, & that will describe how 2017 happens to you. I opened Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. There aren’t any sentences on p117 in my copy: only the section title “1966”. 1966, my first short story was published. I wrote three or four more & towards the end of the year one of them was accepted by Ted Carnell at New Writings in SF. I lived in shared flats in Shepherds Bush & Holloway, & in a bedsitter in Tufnell Park. We played cards a lot. We scaled up a frame from a Marvel comic to the size of a door & put the words It’s All Stopped Happening–which I had stolen from a cartoon–in Private Eye?–into a superhero’s mouth, I forget who. There was a fire deep in the night in some lean-to shops opposite Holloway Road tube station, we went out to watch. You could feel the heat on your face from the other side of the road. Most mornings we spent in a cafe, playing Beck’s Bolero repeatedly on the jukebox. I did other things, but those are the memories that come to mind without thinking. What I remember most clearly is the constant grinding anxiety. I had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. I had no idea about anything & that was why I clung so hard to writing. It was going to be my only way out from too many situations. To be honest, I’ve grown used to not feeling that way & in 2017 I was hoping for a continuation of that.

death of a witness

Olivia Laing on John Berger:

Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, “survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible”. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be kin to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us.

The book of his I pick up more & more often as I get older is his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. I have a beaten-up old paperback–from the early 70s, I think–which doesn’t get any easier to read without it falling to bits; but it’s now available from Canongate with an introduction by Gavin Francis, who describes it in his first sentence as “a masterpiece of witness”. That was what Berger felt like back then, and what he made me want to become: a witness.

we’re all back from the dead

we’re all back from the dead now
even those of us who were alive to start with
so there’s no point you standing there on the one leg
flapping your arms that way
the building, the bars, the unfortunate street
this whole picture’s uncompromisingly cursed
and whatever you do you will not become a “story”

I thought I might just reblog this once a year at around the appropriate time

…then, after a wonderful morning at the cenotaph we decided to go for a walk in the woods, which was rather spoiled by their being so muddy underfoot & our meeting a man not wearing a poppy. After Father had pointed out to him the disrespect inherent in this gesture, what did he do but harangue us for half an hour about some complicated political grudge he held? In the end, Father, indicating each of us in turn, gently asked him if he thought it right to bully innocent women and children in this way, & that seemed to be enough to calm him down; though he remained rough & humourless. Little Jenny, only eight years old, cleverly got his address from him, as a result of which, later, we were able to report him to the police.

Originally blogged November 9th 2015, as “the next war”. Last year, this still seemed to have elements of humour, now [shrugs].

terranauts

Ecosphere 2, a sealed multi-biome habitat in the Arizona desert, is a dry-run for life off Earth; an experiment in closed systems living sunk by sex, hunger and competitive tensions; and a two-year reality show and visitor attraction set in a popular-science theme park, the gift shop of which offers soft-toy bush babies “at $14.95 a pop” “It wasn’t a stunt,” one of its occupants admits, “And it wasn’t theatre. But certainly those elements were present… Call it science-theatre.” Something we’ve seen plenty of this week, as “all eyes” were turned to Mars etc etc, and will see plenty of again as the publicity of science becomes more important than the science of science. My review of The Terranauts, TC Boyle’s blackly comic novel, not quite a new Tono Bungay but a savage enough pisstake of contemporary techno-boosterism, up at the Guardian.

may time

HE Bates is good at people dying puzzled after a life lived without interrogation or protest and an old age that has reduced them to the human equivalent of a salmon after breeding, coming to pieces in the upstream pool. The absolute triumph of modernism was to make it clear that, while you have to accept the reality of death, you don’t have to accept anyone’s description of the “realities” of the life that precedes it. We should cling to that understanding as Theresa May moves us gently but firmly back to small town English life in Bates’s 1920s.

A day suspended from interpretation to interpretation, hung between guesses. It’s late when you look up. Something in the street. Bassline oozes from a passing car. Rain between here & the night. You close the shutters, switch on the light, read, “Lost cities found.” Read, “This attempt to see a future that leaves us all exhausted.” Read, “A pure, gargled emotional demand.” The cat walks round the room. Purrs briefly by the door. Your phone is trying to remind you of a name you don’t know.

to mars & beyond

Science & science fiction need wrenching apart before the issue moves from being one of romantic ideology–that is, they are each other’s infantile bright-eyed religions–to being one of biology–that is, they’ve become seriously conjoined into some abject thing from The Thing. If we do it now there’ll be less blood on the furniture in a crummy hotel room in the future, & less chance of the Pohl & Kornbluth dystopia their naive sex-affair is presently ushering in.

sublet city

The setting of the new novel, a sort of futurised now, is predicated on economics like this. It’s kept, the way background should be, in the background; but it makes a visible contribution to the narrative. When I put out a few chapters for beta reading, the main criticism I got was that a set-up like this isn’t realistic–it’s retro. I didn’t quite know what to say. Welcome to the new world, same as the old world. I lived in London bedsitterland between 1966 & 1971. That makes it easier for me to spot & understand what’s happening here. But it doesn’t make me wrong.

won’t anyone think of our children

Saturday afternoon and a pair of magnificently helicoptering parents attempt to direct traffic on the southern approach to the level crossing on Vine Lane, Barnes. There’s nothing they can achieve by this. The crossing gates are closed. The normal protocols are in operation. The cars are already in an orderly line, exactly where the highway code requires them to be. The train passes. The gates open again. The cars move off. Everyone has plenty of space. Nobody has run over the children. The whole thing has been theatre.

Later, I wondered if they were Someone. Their casual clothing seemed expensive, accurate to a hair, formally worn. They had a clear sense of centrality in other people’s lives. But if they were Someone–if they were bankers, pols or luvvies–why were they walking their very special children down the side of Vine Road on a Saturday afternoon rather than enjoying some more gated, quietly chauffered form of activity? Something more tailored to their tastes and abilities, which would reduce their anxiety? Something involving an actual helicopter?

Who knows. But for a moment, as they mugged and grimaced at the cars and strove to make theatre of personal control out of a perfectly normal situation already managed by the rules of the road, they looked uncharacteristically vulnerable; and that turned out to be the most thought-provoking thing of all.