the m john harrison blog

Category: things to avoid in popular fiction

in the phatic zone

Recognition-signalling is the weirdest product of web culture. It is downright creepy, but also ensures that a trope can never be used except as a celebration of itself. A trope appropriated, loaded and directed at a target, is instantly stripped of its new framing, divested of any additional rhetorical mechanisms (as in, say, sarcasm) and redirected towards a lively recognition of its recognisability. This is achieved either by outright repetition; or by a further but not complex re-coding of the reference–a weak extension of the joke the only purpose of which is to reveal that you know the trope. Echo, reaffirmation & celebration deny repurposing: they trap the user of the trope in the trope, possibly so that it can always be comfortingly reaffirmed that we are trapped by tropes and have thus never been able to say anything new in the history of language or maybe even the species, etc etc.

in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.

a little of what you fancy

A couple of paragraphs from the construction site, just because I like you–

Victoria emailed Short.

“It’s very English Heritage up here. I expect I’ve told you that before.” As soon as you entered the woods, a dozen footpaths, signposted at the will of competing conservation bodies, went off busily in all directions, running precipitately into one another, stumbling over brand new stiles, toppling into an overgrown quarry and out the other side. “They’re offering access. They’re offering so much access you don’t know where to go for the best.”

In fact, she often ended up beside the pool where she had watched Pearl bathe, and stood there wondering how she could make herself go in. She took off her sandals. She took off some of her clothes then, believing she had heard someone call their dog in the next field along, quickly put them back on again. She was puzzled by herself. On the surface, something seemed to splash and turn lazily; below it, the yellow flowers still lay preserved. They maintained their leaves, and a brittle look, and except for their curious habitat they were quite ordinary. On the way back she heard church bells. The day already had a waxy look, as if some very modern coating had been applied to it at half past seven that morning.

At home she sorted her mother’s things: small framed prints slotted as tightly as old vinyl into cardboard boxes, top edges furred with dust; an ashtray with horses on it; seashells in a jar. This to go, that to stay. Nothing she could place securely in her childhood, or in some later house.

Among the prints she discovered a Felix Kelly capriccio, about eighteen inches on a side. It was already framed. Victorian chimneys confronted self-satisfied Jacobean architecture across a placid lake; trees leaned out from wanly-lit surrounding heights. In the background, Wales had somehow been brought too close to Shropshire. She wiped the glass, knocked a nail into new plaster; stood back to look and saw, predictably, her own reflection. “Why does that always happen?” she wrote to Short. And: “I don’t expect you to have time to answer, between the demands of the gig economy and the heady bustle of metropolitan life. Well, here it’s been raining since 1301.”

Storms had in fact swept up from Powys for a week: after each one, rain slopped off the front gutters of the closing shops, while refreshed jackdaws conducted their meetings in the invisible boardroom between the roofs. It was still summer but it didn’t quite feel like it.

“I don’t know what to think about Pearl,” she admitted suddenly, as if Short was in the room and was someone she could talk to.

the real dream

I dreamed of being in love with an airline pilot. I was younger than I am now. She was tall and full of life. Her father, a short man who had flown jet fighters in the Falklands, came out against the affair. He hated me because I was only a passenger and I had been late on to the plane. My papers weren’t fully in order, which caused one hold up; after which there was something to do with pills, which caused another. I had hurt my left hand climbing. Trying to be cheerful with everyone, I said: “These gritstone abrasions are always slow to heal.” But really, the thumb and part of the hand were missing and the exposed flesh had gone an odd colour. Inside the various cracks and fissures of the wound, so that they looked as if they were interleaved with strips of raw bacon, were strange creamy looking blobs of something. I didn’t want to acknowledge this but in the end I had to look. They were small, slim, white crocuses, growing in tight clusters in my hand. When I woke up it was snowing again.

evening routines of the world’s most unproductive people

• Not collecting anything or putting it in order.
• Standing on the stairs thinking what to do next.
• Thinking what you would do if another set of conditions applied.
• Going dressed for Cannery Row.
• “When I feel I’ve had it up to here with the entire shitshow, I sit in a chair.”
• You don’t know what you know.
• Having the wrong set of emotions for what you dreamed.
• Not knowing how it happened.
• Remembering that, before you came here, people seemed to move about a bit more.

some news

My new collection will be published later this year by Comma Press. It’s taken a while to get this sorted, and I want to thank everyone involved–also apologise to everyone else for the wait. Details as they arrive, here and from the Comma team. The book features eighteen short stories–five of which are original, unpublished & unavailable anywhere else and a further half dozen that will be new to most readers–and some flash fiction, much of which will be recognisable to habitues of the Ambiente Hotel. Contents include: a distributed sword & sorcery trilogy; two or three full-size sci-fi novels, one of which is two sentences and forty eight words long (fifty if you count the title); several visits to Autotelia, some that identify as such and some that don’t; and two final dispatches from Viriconium, neither of which would get house-room in an anthology of epic fantasy.

More details here.

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photo: C Phillips

This character wants connection with others, he’s just inept at choosing them. He’s led by his own passivity. He ends up on the edges of other people’s lives and relationships, drawn there by the obsessive-compulsive cycles of his own personality. His favourite pretence is that before the story began, before he met you, he had a life. He had momentum, which he lost through no fault of his own. We see right through that. It’s comically self-deceptive. He leans towards the normal, he’s optimistic he can achieve it: what he doesn’t seem to understand is that any context will satisfy him, however grotesque. If he’s lucky he can settle in a temporary unstable orbit around people who don’t need him for anything. He’s of no utility. He’s damaged goods. He’s the drowned man, the text’s corpse looking for somewhere to wash up.

(First published last June as “Any Port In a Storm”.)

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.

who is anyone kidding here

Or knows which way up anything is. You need a lot of bolts & sometimes even that’s not enough. There’s no certainty this is the neck or that, even if it is, it’ll hold the head on. Just the usual sounds of the floor being up, probably in the wrong room, & a cheerful sense of applied despair. All morning connecting three feet of pipe to nothing. Fucked ducting. Defibrillators, dessicant dehumidifiers & now something like a lobster the size of a kiddy but without a shell, stuffed in there for reasons no right minded person could entertain. You’re late, you brought the wrong tools & you’re supposed to think of this as the chassis? Then shouts from near a stream (they sound like they come out of the Brueghel in the middle distance) & your mother’s voice from, really, a long time ago, asking what’s the story & advising you put that arm down. You’re in the wrong house again, Jack, & it’s rain later.