the m john harrison blog

Category: science fiction

failures of determination

Massive amounts of what happens to you will happen via invisible and/or unparsable causal chains. Much of life, you will never know it happened at all, let alone to you. Much of what happens around you you will never even notice. The search for causality–though causality is everywhere utterly present and dependable–means to welter around looking for explanations you can’t have, using epistemologies and ontologies that are at best provisional. Why waste time, especially in fiction. Let’s have some representation in fiction for everyone who, without knowing it, puzzles through their lives in what used to be called “a dream”. Because that is all of us. Solepsism, narcissism, self-involvement are the wrong words for it. They come loaded with the meaningless judgements of a past that thought parsable causality was not just a thing, but a thing you had a responsibility to consciously engage with; they thus suffer catastrophic failure when required to describe the act of wandering through thick fog in a country you have already failed to recognise as foreign in a condition of mild irritation because you’re thinking about something else.


the build

The handrails of Stoneway Steps are somehow both rusty and polished by use. The stair descends a succession of slots between frost-peeled red brick walls built on to layered outcrops of eroded sandstone poisoned with oxides and thick with cobwebs. Look up and you see the backs of houses and shops in the High Town. Old disused doors open into the air. Windows dusty and broken, likewise. The steps, bound with iron, rims shining from use in the wet depths, fall away towards the 16th Century houses by the river. Bridgnorth–pronounced with heavy emphasis on the second syllable–has the only inland cliff railway in Britain; also a church built by Thomas Telford, from the grounds of which the tilted ruins of Robert Bellem’s castle (founded 1101, demolished 1647) look less like architecture than the bow of some curious unfinished ship, darkly grooved, pocked, implying further structure hidden behind the trees–part-riveted decks, perhaps, vast girders with the cladding yet to be applied. It’s as if Telford had built St Mary Magdalen’s not on top of a hill but at the edge of a dock: as if his genius had already seen into some future of immense sea-level rises. The castle gardens are, by way of a counter-statement, comfortably ordered, safely landlocked, full of bedding plants.

brexit to the stars

When I see the words, “Seven Earthlike Exoplanets Discovered,” I can’t help reading, “Seven planets so close to their sun that they’re tidally-locked, with years ranging from one & a half days to nearly a fortnight.” And I can’t help asking myself, just for a second or two before the Joy of Expensively Fictionalising Materials (artists’ impressions designed to look as much like real photographs of discoverable objects as possible; retro travel posters returning us to science fiction worlds of yore) hypnotises me: exactly what can be described as earthlike about that game of pool?

For that matter, what is sunlike about the barely warm grape they’re orbiting? And in a slightly different but associated question, why are we at all interested in this irritable little knot of physics tying and untying itself in the middle of a kind of gloomridden void, when, at any imaginably attainable speed, it would take an almost geological period of time to get there? What kind of possiblities exist in such discoveries, except for astronomers? What kind of wish-fulfilment is going on here for everyone else? What need is NASA supplying? Who are they patronising?

Obviously it’s important that a space agency has brought us the news, not a science fiction writer. It’s backed by years of authority, years in the business. Nobody seems to have got the message inherent in that, which is that by bringing us this pious gosh-wow the space agency has become just another source of fantasy. (& actually not a very inventive or interesting one.)

This is just another room in the Punch & Judy Show. It’s science’s own fake news. It’s the spectacle of science in the spectacle, helping to dig the grave of its own raison d’etre by giving the media what the media wants. What’s heartbreaking is how warmly people welcome these Brexit buses, one after the other, gliding down the spacelanes towards happy, shiny worlds of plenty & wonder. Toot toot, all aboard. We’re off to the Gravy Planets.

note from the ruins

Epistolatory fiction of the near future based around a cache of emails found in a long-abandoned server farm below the Arctic Circle:

… your last mail … suspected for about 5 years there’d been some really big change we weren’t seeing. Something our definitions & our picture of politics simply wasn’t taking into account. That turned out to be what’s happening now, of course! … also had this feeling there were two elephants in the room, not one. … certain now it was AGW … [large amount of text missing ] … Capital was already thinking forward … climate denial always a way of buying time. The New Elite wasn’t just a kleptocracy, it was the kleptocrats ensuring their own survival & the survival of the kleptostate through the transition period … bastards … let everything outside the borders go to hell & hope to come out of it with an Arctic resource fiefdom … can’t point to what convinced me in the end, probably his Rosneft pay-off. Anyway, great to hear that the kids are doing well & see you soo

Some corruption of data, obviously, as you would expect given the circumstances, not to say the times.


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.

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.


The discovery of a defunct galactic culture the final activity of which seems to have been to construct a maze around a previous maze… The subsequent discovery of successions of maze-building cultures, whose energies have been directed into solving and then hiding or elaborately embedding the mazes of its precursors… Such embeddings aren’t neccessarily architecturally or even topologically congruent with the precursor maze–a maze can also penetrate or permeate the precursor. A maze like that is diffult to identify, let alone solve… Decoy mazes, often more complex than real ones, continue to be found. They contain no precursor maze, but have been built to soak up the efforts of later cultures, rendering them exhausted and passive, their energy directed away from the precursor’s artefact… The inability to solve a maze may actually be the inability to detect and solve a later maze… You may engage with a maze for a lifetime without recognising that your inability to solve it stems from the inability to solve a non-architectural maze which penetrates or permeates it… In the end, is it possible that all mazes might be hidden this way, by a single non-architectural interpenetrating over-maze applied from far in the future of all known mazes?

the space travel

Somebody once arrived here by typing into a search engine, “What colour is the space travel?” It’s a query , I think, which should concern us all. For me–& I hasten to add that this is only an opinion, which I am not in any way trying to foist on anyone else–it’s the colour of Ruth Wilson’s lipstick in the 2007 BBC/HBO co-production of Steven Poliakoff’s Capturing Mary. The space travel will be just as fascinating as that colour. Or maybe it will be the colour of a gas ring in the pitch dark when you come down at four o’ clock in the morning for a drink of water & discover you forgot to switch it off six hours earlier, & it will have all of that sense of shock & simultaneous relief to it, but also a similar sense of wonder. Or maybe, if it’s neither of those, it isn’t a particular colour at all but is many colours having in common a sort of neon quality, so that the space travel is a bit like travel in a large previously-unvisited city at night, & you go to your companion, “Oh, wow, fuck, are you looking at this?” Here at the Ambiente Hotel we not only welcome other opinions about the space travel colour, we invite them.

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”

neither here nor there

That night he dreamed he was back in the cloister. This dream was to recur for the rest of his life, presenting as many outcomes as iterations; from it, he would always wake to an emotion he couldn’t account: not quite anxiety, not quite despair. He dreamed the white blur of Julia Vicente’s face watching from the shadows, immobile and fascinated until the procession of search-and-rescue teams found her and bore her triumphantly home on a stretcher in the bald light and shimmering air of the plateau. The fountain seemed to roar silently. The cloister cobbles softened and parted in the heat, encouraging Cave to slip easily between them into the vast system of varnished-looking natural tubes and slots which, he now saw, underlay everything. It was cold down there; damp, but not fully dark. He could not describe himself as lost, because he had never known where he was. He heard water gushing over faults and lips in tunnels a hundred miles away. Full of terror, he began counting his arms and legs; before he could finish, woke alone. A feeling of bleakness and approaching disaster came out of the dream with him. His room was full of cold grey light. 5am, and traffic was already grinding along Caledonian Road into Kings Cross. He made some coffee, took it back to bed, opened his laptop. Although he knew it would mean nothing, he emailed her:

“What can any of us do but move on? How?” And then: “Did I ever have the slightest idea of your motives?”, to which she could only reply puzzledly:

“Of course you did. Of course you did.”

Cave & Julia still pursue their strange driven relationship on Kindle, here; or as an Audible audiobook, here. Meanwhile, here, a man called Shaw blunders about in what might well be the inside of his own skull, failing to understand what he needs.