the m john harrison blog

Category: travel

in real life, postscript

If you’re interested in the epistemology, phenomenology, and existentialist issues of adventure, and you like science fiction too, you couldn’t do better than read a novel called Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It is a much less woolly and more concise analysis of ”exploratory values” than either Roadside Picnic or Stalker, and preceded both. Aesthetically, I prefer the latter two, obviously (and I am aware of Budrys’ problematics, so please don’t @ me). But he makes his points—about exploration and the learning curve–in a more clinical manner than the Strugatsky Brothers or Tarkovsky, while artfully using the metaphor they rediscovered to do double duty: his set-up also allows him to examine the repetition-compulsions on which risk sports are founded. (Also worth a look in that context is the movie Flatliners, in which, as in Rogue Moon, killing yourself repeatedly becomes both the exploratory method and the basis for a game.)

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.

passing the sump

Some ways of being dead are good, some are not so good, X claimed. But admitting you are dead is generally a good thing. When he first entered the sump he found a layer of dense blue “air” which lay at the midpoint between the ceiling and the floor. While this layer was generally twelve to eighteen inches thick, and in some places could be measured at twenty five inches, it once shrank to a millimetre or two, causing him to choke and panic. It looked & behaved more like a liquid than a gas. How was he to pass it? He began work immediately. For two nights in a row he didn’t sleep at all. For six nights in a row, he dreamed of the wrong thing. For a further fourteen nights in a row he dreamed that his lungs had turned inside out and expressed themselves through his mouth, after the use of a home-made SCUBA device–he had failed to pass the sump in all fourteen cases. For eight nights in a row he didn’t dream, although he woke with memories of something moving in darkness. On the next night he passed the sump, but not in a dream. No equipment was required. He was able to breathe normally.

A458

Sunday lunchtime. We’re going against the flow, into Wales. Mystical light on hillsides. Caravans with ludicrous names. Dead foxes, cats. A brand new motorcycle rammed in among the ivy at the side of the road in a pool of its own fluids. It looks collapsed. Hard to see how it got there, given the angle of the bend. He passed us a couple of miles back, third in a fast but careful group. Now he’s standing fifty yards away from the wreck with his back to it. He looks ok, but none of his friends want to get too near him. He’s smoking hard and looking into the river fifty feet below. Furious with himself but glad at least he didn’t go over that side.

DSCF7404

explaining the undiscovered continent

All things metal tapping together in the wind. Bleached fishbones one thousand miles from the sea. Sheds where you can get directions & diving apparatus. The inevitable airstream trailer. The inevitable rusty boiler. The inevitable graffito of a coelacanth. The highline of the last tide strewn with yellowish swim bladders of unknown animals like condoms inflated then varnished into fragility. Kilometer upon kilometer of unravelled polypropylene rope. Tin signs. Tied knots. A sense of petrol. Then the cliffs! with their abandoned funicular slicing up through maroon sandstone “to the plateau above”. Windows of static ice cream parlours. Buildings filled to the fourth storey with the grey flock from old padded bags. “This is where we’ll dive.” As far as anyone can tell, they lived in threes or fives, odd numbers anyway. Each household kept a small allosaur on a bit of coloured string. We have no idea who they were or when they were here or what they wanted out of life. That’s the attraction. (& afterwards to sit in the boat, tired, happy, washing a small blue item in the most gentle solvent: no one will ever know what it is.)

away day

Very blue sky. Light rebroadcast into the room by the weird yellow facades of the buildings across the road. Shouts from the all-day drinkers in the bars down the hill. We could be anywhere in Tenerife, except for the temperature and the English newspapers scattered over the carpet. In fact it’s the Midlands. There’s tractor porn on the newsagent’s top shelves, shooting accessories in the ironmongers, and the gentle remains of Georgian town houses compete with the main street pet enterprises to see who’ll subside first. I quite like it. It’s nice.

rockets of the western suburbs

Listen, and it’s steady straight-down rain. No wind. A car halts at the corner, pulls away in acknowledgement of its own muffled existence. Tyre noise louder than engine noise. Against this, the tendency of things to be. The rims and ribs of terracotta pots hard and slick with light. Roofs like mirrors. The bricks suck up water. Everything supported by the perfect angle of a drainpipe. This afternoon Barnes is quiet. This afternoon every garden plant is one uncanny green or another. The visitors ring the bell, wait in the doorway, too polite to come in immediately but chatter a lot when they do. They are nice. Their children always have some new practical thing, less a toy than the beginnings of a fruitful lifetime interest. Without warning (an act in itself 100% pure communication) the camera cuts away from this: very fast, upwards, turning in a series of vertical 180 degree snap rolls, so that first you see the world kaleidoscoping rapidly from a thousand feet up, then from low orbit. By the time everything’s returned to the right scale again, the rain has stopped and the sun is coming out.

i’ve left you my kettle & some money

Ten years ago I looked up and saw a layer of fluid ice, the exact blue of the chemicals in a cold pack, trapped between two layers of air. It was still there an hour later. It was still there the next day, like a temperature inversion hanging above the lawn. I took a chair out and climbed up on it and put my hand in. There was no resistance. Nothing leaked out. I could see my hand in there. Once I got inside I could breathe, though there was some discomfort to begin with. I’ve been hauling my stuff up there ever since, stashing it item by item until I was ready to leave. I’ll have to crawl, because it’s pretty low, and I’m not sure what I’d find if my head broke out of the top. I know I can keep warm. I’ve got enough food for a month. After that I plan to live on my wits, always moving east, pushing the office furniture in front of me. None of the others know. Don’t tell them after I’ve gone.