the m john harrison blog

Category: Uncategorized

you think I’m joking

The Russians sent tortoises into space in 1968. You couldn’t make it up. All I remember from the time is being bitterly frustrated when no one came back from low earth orbit as a walking cactus & had to be incinerated after they infested the Houses of Parliament.

Originally posted 2014

things that happen

A woman walks up and down the street asking everyone she meets, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” Emphasis is on the last word, as if they already know what she’s talking about–as if she wants further news of some event so large no one is thinking about anything else. “What’s going on?” Sometimes, when there’s no one to talk to, she seems to be asking it of the street itself. “What’s going on?” This is not an illustration of a facet of her personality, or the basis of a Dickensian one-trait character paradigm. It’s an event. I think: a book is a container of events like this, as well as other types of events. Meanwhile, that noise I heard in the night, in the fog, a couple of days ago? (It sounded, I wrote, “like a digital imitation of a bird”?) I hear it again, in the street on a Saturday morning. It’s a broken starter-motor. Does the street now have a character? By combining these two images, have I characterised it as the sort of street in which these sorts of things happen? My idea would be this: human beings–readers–of the world & of books–are so used to interpreting events as carriers of a causal narrative that they don’t really see them any more.


this book is not about fish

Shaw found something else they could drink–the end of a litre of Absolut so old the shoulders of the bottle were sticky with all the condensed, gritty airs of London–and, sitting on the edge of the bed, unwrapped the housewarming present.

“Look at that!” Victoria said, as if their roles were reversed and he had given it to her. It was made of silver, with an articulated body five or six inches long and hinged sidefins. “It’s Peruvian,” she said. “It’s a fish. It’s quite old, 1860.”

Shaw weighed the fish in his hand, moved one of the fins cautiously. Its scales were tarnished and cold. “Hi fish,” he said.

“See,” Victoria said. “You like it. You like it already.”

“I do like it,” he said.

Gollancz, June 2020. Preorders fully up at Amazon on Monday, 10th February.

Tweet your guesses about the actual subject matter of the book to #TheSunkenLandBeginsToRiseAgain. Or just go here and here to read the description & epigraphs. As soon as I have more information, I’ll put up a dedicated page.

do you even write, bro

Can I recommend Jonathan Gibbs’ fine A Personal Anthology? So many writers, so many fictions. It’s a resource. My contribution was fun to do, but it suprises me now as quite a determined summing-up of what & how I prefer to read.

Davis begins this forty-six word story, “You see how circumstances are to blame”, and ends it with, “when I lived alone I had all the silence I needed.” Anyone else would have placed a novel between the two and still dealt with less along the way.

Counting the compound “forty-six” as one word, this two-sentence assessment of Lydia Davis’ “Odd Behaviour” was itself tailored to 46 words. It sums up what I think about the relations of long & short fiction: which is that, clearly, they imply a grain thing, & a focus thing, a thing managed by tone & register. But whatever length it is, I like fiction to be short. Also, to the point without seeming too densely compresssed & with a deftness & obliquity of surface that belies the power of the content.

It’s naive to dismiss a story because it’s 46 rather than 4,600 or 460,000 words long. & there’s always been something dull about the industry’s insistence that writing is a form of weight training, the novel is the only serious form, & that even a short story should bulk up.

new gibson

“Along with trust, a sense of individual agency – heroic centrality in your own story, the ability to make and carry out choices of your own, the “capacity to act” – is the central offer of most Hollywood dreams, and the product sold to us by the majority of corporate ads; but it’s the least likely attribute most of us will ever possess. Like it or not – know it or not – we tend to do what nudge and soft power would prefer. From his beginnings in 1984’s Neuromancer, Gibson has offered the struggle for agency as an unacknowledged, quietly devastating war – fought by hackers, gig economy workers, off-gridders and their networks – against the algorithm, against the manipulation of our needs, our personal information and our appetites, by big data and gangster capital. If he was “prescient” back then, he’s right on the ball now, when it’s so much harder to believe in those loose human associations he imagined in the 1990s, whose combination of technical nous and cultural know-how enabled them to quickly distinguish the real from the sucker fantasy.” –Read the rest of my review of Agency, William Gibson’s sequel to The Peripheral, in the Guardian.

hermits of the shropshire hills (432)

photo: Ruth Jarvis

advice to self, 1980s

Start with images, not ideas. Themes, not concepts. Having an idea isn’t having something to write about: having something to write about is having something to write about. People & settings aren’t something to flesh out a story; a story is something you use to flesh out people & settings. Never favour plot. Story & narrative can be ok, but plot is like chemical farming. Closure is wrong. It is toxic. Work into a genre if you like, but from as far outside it as possible. Read as much about Hollywood formalism as you can bear, so you know what not to do. Break the structures–don’t look for new & sly twists on them. Never do clever tricks with reader expectation. Instead be honest, open and direct in your intention not to deliver the things they expect. You won’t always be successful in that, because it’s harder than it looks—after all, you used to be a reader too. Oh, & that’s the last thing. You aren’t a reader any more. You’re a writer, so don’t try to get reader kicks from the act of writing. Never tell yourself a story. That romantic relationship is over for you. From now on the satisfactions will be elsewhere.

how late is yr train

London by train: that metaphysical condition or stupid limbo which sucks in your life and jellies it and doesn’t get you anywhere, even if you fetch up somewhere in the end–late, full of rage, depressed, encircled by people whose casual shoes cost more than your car. Then the same meeting as you’ve been having the last forty or fifty years, at which you learn that nothing is possible. You’ll wish you never came. Still, you made your choices long ago. You rediscover that by the end of day. You come out the other side. You decide to cope. You even see the advantages–which means you can begin to maximise them, or so you hope. At Euston station you look up at the How Late Is Your Train indicator. The thing is, you tell yourself, not to wait too long. Wait too long and eventually, if you aren’t careful, you’re going to end up looking really quite threadbare.

Originally blogged late 2015.