the m john harrison blog

Category: Uncategorized

seaside, 2011

Implacable calm of the water. No horizon line. Heat blurs the edges of the air before eight in the morning. Distant objects–hikers on the cliffs, seabirds on the harbour mole–seem too large. Everything like a film, wrapped in cameraman sublime, documentary sublime. Light, silhouettes, warmth like a perfect saturated colour, all at once. South coast as Salton Sea. Wandering dazzled between the net shops and the fish stalls, I read “locally sourced” as “locally soured”; later, have a dream in which I am a painting by Anne Redpath. My whole life has become lodged in a few daisies, some grapes in a bowl. As the dream progresses I’m in more and more paintings. Whole rooms of myself, whole shows, stretch back for years, done out in the chalky greys of degreased paint. All my objects look calm but raw. Everything seems deliberately unfinished, wilfully unseen (or as-yet-unseen). A kind of indoor weathering has taken place on every surface. Every morning the shore is full of toddlers who don’t want to go somewhere. They’re sitting down, they’re kicking their legs, they’re repeating the same couple of words fifteen times in a row. You have to admire their commitment. But eventually even these athletes of the self will find themselves reconciled to the understanding that nothing you want–or don’t want–fits your fantasy of it, leaving you free not to want anything any more.

First blogged 2012
You Should Come With Me Now


the knack

The thing I hated most about being a child in the 1950s was that you couldn’t just open the cupboard. There was a knack to it. There was a knack to everything. Nothing fitted. Nothing worked. Nothing did what it was designed to do without some further persuasion, the application–the added value–of massively embedded and localised knowledge you didn’t have. There was a knack to opening it and a knack to closing it again. There was a knack to winding it up, or getting it to actually supply electricity to the bulb or stick to the inner tube. It was just a knack. There was a knack to getting it started in the morning. If you didn’t have the knack, you were already in arrears. Your place in the hierarchy was low. The reproducible was, for you, non-reproducible. This wasn’t just some door your father had bodged, some deflated bike tyre that would inflate for everyone in the family but you. It turned out to be everything. Entire factories–transport infrastructures–entire industries–depended on people who had got the knack of not very well designed, not very reliable machinery. School was learning that to “to learn” meant to learn the knack. There were apprenticeships that taught only the knack, and indeed knackism. Entire disciplines–like toolmaking and all kinds of assembly–were run by instinct and by eye; they were run on, fucked up and then solved by the knack. In fact they had been devised to run on the knack; it was built-in, it was the crap code that lay underneath everything. Once you got the knack of it, you were fine. Until I found language I never got a knack. But I expect you knew that. A weird side effect of growing up without the knack was that I came to loathe even slightly broken or inefficient stuff and now have difficulty keeping it near me. I understand the problematics of throwaway tech, but I’m afraid understanding them won’t cure the neurosis. Next: rationing, especially of chocolate.


The piece I enjoyed reading most last night in Sheffield was this one, developed long ago from advice given me by a fiction editor in, I think, the early 80s, with some contemporary additions. You can guess the subject. It’s so nice, at a reading, to hear the audience laughing in all the right places. At an event where Tim Etchells, The List Master himself, is present, that’s a real compliment.

Losers. Saps. People who don’t want anything much. Frail people, fragile people. Motiveless people (unless they’re evil). Broken people. People who won’t heal. People who can’t heal. Passive people. Disordered people. People who can’t stop themselves being bullied. People whose bullies don’t come to harm in the final chapter. People whose weaknesses of character aren’t balanced by corresponding opposite characteristics, or who are not redeemed by acceptable chains of events. Unacceptable chains of events. People who are too much this or that. People who won’t reason. People who are too rational. People whose puzzlement never lifts. People whose actions “don’t teach us anything about ourselves”. People I can’t identify with. People who walk away from their own narrative. People who are swept away by events (unless they’re subsidiary characters). Events that are too like reality to be interesting. Events that are too like reality to be true. Events that don’t seem familiar enough, even though they are set in a galaxy far away or in the very far future or in a civilisation of alien beings who look like plastic ducks but are in reality vortices of pure vacuum energy with goals utterly dissimilar to your own. Behaviour you really can’t understand. Sequences that don’t complete. Ideas that don’t ring true. Lack of verisimilitude. Lack of telos (see “dissimilar to your own”). Lack of common sense. Lack of a sense that this story is our story. Genuinely unpredictable events. Genuinely meaningless events. Anything obviously unacceptable that’s also funny. The obviously unacceptable insufficiently critiqued by the text. Directionlessness. Langour. The quality of being a rabbit in a headlight. The quality of being in a Tom Waits song. People the trajectory of whose lives is that of a series of Levy Flights cut short by unpredictable death. People who find the time to be alienated. People who find the time to be miserable. People who find the time to find time. People for whose idle hands the Devil found work. People who clearly haven’t got lives to live & families to bring up. People who should know better. People whose motives aren’t clear. People who should know everything the reader knows or they are clearly too stupid to live. People who aren’t sensible enough to act rationally in a deteriorating situation as if somehow they can’t see themselves doing the wrong thing. People whose ugliness is not within reasonable bounds or which has no hidden glamour. People whose anxiety is not within reasonable bounds or which has no hidden glamour. Doubt which has no hidden glamour. Doubt which has no outcome. A pistol which appears in act one but remains unfired at the end of act three. Bad people who aren’t on your side. People who are good one minute bad the next. Anything that might offend the reader’s politics. Anything that might offend the diametrically opposed politics of another reader. Irredeemable behaviour. Irredeemable circumstances. Unfathomable circumstances. Unfixable disasters. The actual end of the world, with no survivors. People who aren’t feisty. People who don’t know how to swim against the tide. People who never learn to kick ass. People who stay poor without a sick note from the narrative. People who stay poor without a sick note from the reader. People whose diseases aren’t, after all, going to be cured. People who don’t make a heroic effort. People who stay unhappy. People who don’t act as if they’re the centre of the universe.

experts hate the Flat Earth Society for revealing this writing secret

Advice for aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers (others can look away). The Flat Earth Society recently tweeted, or is said to have tweeted, “The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe.” This sentence is as fabulously funny as you would expect; but it is also a fabulously good writing tip, because it levers open the relationship between prose and substance. In Certain Quarters you will hear the traditional dismissal of “style” as no more than the application of a light cosmetic coating to some pre-existing item of meaning. But do not fall for this quasi-platonic bollocks. All you have is language, and everything you succeed in conveying will have been conveyed by it. The pro tip the Flat Earth Society has been so kind as to give you for free is this: style is being careful what you say, because what you say is what you say.

plug & play

The more all of this goes on, the more you recognise a vocabulary of reusable rhetorical structures, some new, some achingly traditional. Following the latest skirmish becomes like consuming TV bolted together from tropes: by the end of ep one you’re following the structures but ignoring their apparent “content” (as you would with, say, Keeping Faith, The OA, or Cardinal); by ep two, of course, you’ve started watching something else. One of the recent additions to the rhetorical vocabulary is, “No, I must do [insert clearly immoral act] because it is in fact right & I would be irresponsible NOT to.” This to be delivered, obviously, in conjunction with either a po-faced passive aggressive expression indicating middle class woundedness; or with the appended Putinesque metatext for “Fuck lads, look, they can’t even stop me saying this crap”. But its USP is its utility: like the best of these proven tropes it’s fully pret a porter, quick to deploy in symmetrical or asymmetrical arenas & can be used by anyone in defence of either side of any argument, especially in conjunction with popular “pushing the boundaries of The New in tech, politics or media” formulations. A good solid buy for your culture war. The only risk in use is that your audience will become exhausted, complain puzzledly, “Haven’t I heard all this before,” and change channels. But we can sell you one of several specialised plug-&-plays to control that response.

wild epistemologies

From the absorbing and enjoyable Cyclogeography, by John Day, of a London cab driver who retired to become the dispatcher at a bike-courier operation–

“But after a few years on the road [Frank] realised that he preferred his mental map of the city to the real thing, and so he retreated to the office to live in it at one remove, traversing London vicariously in his imagination.”

In this narrative, Frank spends his wild years stealing cars and mopeds and racing around the city, learning “the knowledge” by accident as a way of avoiding arrest. Then he makes a socially acceptable, civilian use of what he’s learned, by becoming a cab driver. Finally, in later life, he places himself at the heart of the embodied space, as a kind of human map. He has become not the city but an expression of the city, not a user of the knowledge so much as the knowledge itself. The austere beauty of this developmental arc is that it can exist only to the extent that you have followed it: you can’t achieve state three without having first been through states one and two. This was very much the point of the relationship between the narrator and his mentor Sankey in Climbers; or the relationship between the middle class students of metaphysics and Yaxley the magician in The Course of the Heart.

the deep road

This post, from 2008, seems to have growing relevance for me–

You have to look at the major transitions of your life with a metaphor that makes aesthetic and emotional sense. That metaphor has to be waiting there in your unconscious to become available to you. You might be offered any number of public metaphors, but only the private one is of use. What parts of the transition are you prepared to label?

what we talk about when we talk about Viriconium

The houses up here, warm and cheerful as they are in summer, become in the first week of September cold and damp. Ordinary vigorous houseflies, which have crawled all August over the unripe lupine pods beneath the window, pour in and cluster on any warm surface, but especially on the floor near the electric fire, and the dusty grid at the back of the fridge; they cling to the side of the kettle as it cools. That year you couldn’t leave food out for a moment. When I sat down to read in the morning, flies ran over my outstretched legs.

“I suppose you’ve got the same problem,” I said to Mr Ambrayses. “I poison them,” I said, “but they don’t seem to take much notice.” I held up the Vapona, with its picture of a huge fly. “Might as well try again.”

Mr Ambrayses nodded. “Two explanations are commonly offered for this,” he said:

“In the first we are asked to imagine certain sites in the world–a crack in the concrete in Chicago or New Delhi, a twist in the air in an empty suburb of Prague, a clotted milk bottle on a Bradford tip–from which all flies issue in a constant stream, a smoke exhaled from some fundamental level of things. This is what people are asking–though they do not usually know it–when they say exasperatedly, “Where are all these flies coming from ?” Such locations are like the holes in the side of a new house where insulation has been pumped in: something left over from the constructional phase of the world.

“This is an adequate, even an appealing model of the process. But it is not modern; and I prefer the alternative, in which it is assumed that as Viriconium grinds past us, dragging its enormous bulk against the bulk of the world, the energy generated is expressed in the form of these insects, which are like the sparks shooting from between two flywheels that have momentarily brushed each other.” —-A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium.

various news

For a project, I’m collecting fictions that appeared here but didn’t make the cut for You Should Come With Me Now. If you have favourites, suggest them below. There’s a Selected Short Stories in the planning stage, so the same goes for that: leave your picks below–the whole motley lot will be considered, if anyone can find a copy of The Machine in Shaft Ten & Others, although I don’t actually promise to include anything from that. In other news there are three gigs forthcoming in October–two in Sheffield, one in Kent. One of them is with a Famous Person–exciting details here & on twitter nearer the time. The new novel is down to three chapters of 4000 words each but they are crucial & then there will be Overall Structural Adjustments, so expect silence, hysteria, panic, bad behaviour. I have no idea how to describe this book, although I predict that others will manage fine & I have a fairly clear idea how. Nothing new there then.

photo: Cath Phillips