the m john harrison blog

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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.

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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

the schools of night

Catching up late with Cyclogeography, Jon Day’s excitingly obsessive memoir of the cycle-courier trade. Dispatchers become the map, couriers map themselves onto the ground. History & literature of the discipline. All the things, fluidly organised & delivered at speed: just what writing ought to be. Excellent review here. And buy it here or at your usual outlets. I love experiential memoir, hermetic knowledge of actual events; but then you know that. Propellerhead, Junkie, Space Below My Feet, Tales of a Rat Hunting Man, How the Universe Got Its Spots, The Mint: nothing more exciting than someone else’s descent into a discipline–whether it’s sex, math, junk, microlighting, rat-hunting or whatever–and do they or don’t they manage to haul themselves out afterwards. One of the brilliances of Cyclogeography is that it’s catalogued as travel writing. If I was Jon Day I’d be so happy with that. The height of my career was walking into a Charing X Road bookstore & finding Climbers shelved under Fiction, Autobiography, Travel & Sport. What more are you going ask of life? In that kind of writing you surf the difference between the act and the record of the act. You’re jumping red lights in the rain at night in November in a space engineered to be somewhere between life and the discourse. The knack of writing like that is to know exactly where you were in that space when you fell off.

R&R

It’s 2001. The central character of this hilarious, unremitting and cruelly intelligent satire of privilege decides to sleep a year away, in the hope that her life will have improved by the time she wakes up. Her plan works best–at least to start with–in the supply closet underneath the stairs at the New York “art” gallery where she works. “Every time I lay down in that supply closet I went straight into black emptiness, an infinite space of nothingness. I had no visions. I had no ideas.” She’s aware of the nothingness– “I was awake in the sleep, somehow. I felt good” –and it becomes her target state. Prescription drugs become its vector. Otessa Mossfegh’s observational skills are surgically accurate, her deployment of them produces effects on a spectrum from wry to savage; the picture she builds up is of a society so rotten to the core with privilege and self-involvement that it can only be ours. Expect a lot of ruffled feathers, projection and aggressive-defensive reaction to this book. Expect it to be brushed aside as unpleasant and needlessly negative–always a sign that the target’s been hit. Read my review of it at the Guardian, here.

high ticket, obsessed & adrift

When we first see Laura Bow, she’s a lonely adolescent, self-harming with a lighted match. She’s talking by email with a friend in the US. She’s already a coder, already hooked by the urgency and excitement of a conversation that only exists between her and the computer. It’s the 1990s, and dial-up connections still make a noise like an animal in pain, and she’s just added another £150 to her parents’ phone bill. Thereafter, James Smythe slices her life for us at ten-year intervals. By 2007, things are out of hand: she’s a high-ticket professional, obsessed and simultaneously adrift–we see her in that classic old-fashioned hacker-movie style, running panickily down a line of servers in a Palo Alto corporate, trying to retrieve a deteriorating situation. 2017, she’s running down a street in Kuala Lumpur in the rain, thirty-seven years old now and pregnant. All this time she’s been building an artificial intelligence.

My review of James Smythe’s excellent AI thriller I Still Dream, in the Times Literary Supplement today (£).