the m john harrison blog


The discovery of a defunct galactic culture the final activity of which seems to have been to construct a maze around a previous maze… The subsequent discovery of successions of maze-building cultures, whose energies have been directed into solving and then hiding or elaborately embedding the mazes of its precursors… Such embeddings aren’t neccessarily architecturally or even topologically congruent with the precursor maze–a maze can also penetrate or permeate the precursor. A maze like that is diffult to identify, let alone solve… Decoy mazes, often more complex than real ones, continue to be found. They contain no precursor maze, but have been built to soak up the efforts of later cultures, rendering them exhausted and passive, their energy directed away from the precursor’s artefact… The inability to solve a maze may actually be the inability to detect and solve a later maze… You may engage with a maze for a lifetime without recognising that your inability to solve it stems from the inability to solve a non-architectural maze which penetrates or permeates it… In the end, is it possible that all mazes might be hidden this way, by a single non-architectural interpenetrating over-maze applied from far in the future of all known mazes?

Enjoyed this. Made me wonder if Chuck Tingle is having such a benign effect on f/sf not just because he acted as a political releaser in a bad situation, but because his outsider art & brilliant idiolect, like his lively political tricksterism, bring him closer to the full-on act of imagination than the kind of fiction you’re used to finding inside the genre. Maybe people sense that & pick up some enthusiasm & creative velocity of their own from it. He certainly seems to have more in common with Blake or Dadd or Darger than with the f/sf professional whose imaginary, constrained from the beginning by what the industry needs, soon dries up.

sublet city

The setting of the new novel, a sort of futurised now, is predicated on economics like this. It’s kept, the way background should be, in the background; but it makes a visible contribution to the narrative. When I put out a few chapters for beta reading, the main criticism I got was that a set-up like this isn’t realistic–it’s retro. I didn’t quite know what to say. Welcome to the new world, same as the old world. I lived in London bedsitterland between 1966 & 1971. That makes it easier for me to spot & understand what’s happening here. But it doesn’t make me wrong.

won’t anyone think of our children

Saturday afternoon and a pair of magnificently helicoptering parents attempt to direct traffic on the southern approach to the level crossing on Vine Lane, Barnes. There’s nothing they can achieve by this. The crossing gates are closed. The normal protocols are in operation. The cars are already in an orderly line, exactly where the highway code requires them to be. The train passes. The gates open again. The cars move off. Everyone has plenty of space. Nobody has run over the children. The whole thing has been theatre.

Later, I wondered if they were Someone. Their casual clothing seemed expensive, accurate to a hair, formally worn. They had a clear sense of centrality in other people’s lives. But if they were Someone–if they were bankers, pols or luvvies–why were they walking their very special children down the side of Vine Road on a Saturday afternoon rather than enjoying some more gated, quietly chauffered form of activity? Something more tailored to their tastes and abilities, which would reduce their anxiety? Something involving an actual helicopter?

Who knows. But for a moment, as they mugged and grimaced at the cars and strove to make theatre of personal control out of a perfectly normal situation already managed by the rules of the road, they looked uncharacteristically vulnerable; and that turned out to be the most thought-provoking thing of all.

“Night Moves was Penn’s point of turning, his last carefully structured work, a strong and bitter film, whose bitterness emerges from an anxiety and from a loneliness that exists as a given, rather than a loneliness fought against, a fight that marks most of Penn’s best work. Night Moves is a film of impotence and despair…”

–Robert Kolker, The Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman

A Twitter mention of Bernard Moitessier reminded me of this, blogged February 11, 2011, under the title How To Write

In his NYT piece about Reid Stowe, Adam Sternberg describes a classic detournment performed by Bernard Moitessier during the Golden Globe round-the-world race in 1968–

‘…he was well in the lead when he decided to change course and simply keep sailing. He explained this in a note, which he flung by slingshot onto the deck of a passing ship, that read in part: “I am continuing non-stop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.” He later wrote that, looking back on his decision, he only regretted the inclusion in the note of the word “perhaps.”’

Moitessier himself writes, in The Long Way

‘The geography of the sailor is not always the one of the cartographer, for whom a cape is a cape with its longitude and latitude. For the sailor, a great cape is both very simple and extremely complex, with rocks, currents, furling seas, beautiful oceans, good winds and gusts, moments of happiness and of fright, fatigue, dreams, aching hands, an empty stomach, marvelous minutes and sometimes suffering. A great cape, for us, cannot be translated only into a latitude and a longitude. A great cape has a soul, with shadows and colours, very soft, very violent. A soul as smooth as that of a child, as hard as that of a criminal.’

Still can’t think of anything to add to this. Magnificent.


fermin lima at the well of souls

You’ve been inside the mystery long enough not to care anymore that you can’t encompass it. In fact you’ve been inside long enough to prefer a position a little way outside, just left of the door. The view is more interesting. Parallax error runs in the background of everything you see, like a little bit of code totting up Air Miles and Nectar Points & so on. The main thing is that you don’t have to try, although it takes a few decades of trying before you discover that. You have to put in those decades, then one day you just build a new instrument out of inappropriate &/or broken bits; then you stand on a corner in all weathers playing it. People see you there night and day and they wonder about your life, something that stopped puzzling you years ago. You’re happy at last, give them a few years & they will be too.

–Originally blogged 2013, as halloween, or Charlie Mingus at the Well of Souls

being somewhere else

Blustery wind & rain overnight, thumping on the windows, then strong sunshine scouring the housefronts along the curve of the river, transforming gable ends into blocks & triangles of light, investing an aluminium cowl, a sagging phone cable, the yellow registration plate of a passing Audi. A couple of crows parapent happily over the recreation ground, doing airpocket work, loosening up, breathing into their stalls & sideslips. Mornings like these are the only times Hammersmith can be said to have fresh air. Wind shakes the stationary water-drops on everything: a visual cue for being somewhere else, the best thing you can hope for in London. A morning like this the air seems transparent–-go on, laugh. At the same time you’re walking through a frictionless gel, in which mystery nanoplasmas have somehow slowed down the light. It’s cold on your skin. A morning like this you dream of waking up in Cornwall or Pembroke listening to the updrafts banging & bashing about the headland & knowing the next thing you’ll do is abseil to the wave-washed platform at Sennen or slither down the greasy polished limestone uterus that will eject you in one piece into the salt dazzle & sharp rocks beneath St Govan’s Head. Then the real day can start. Anticipation is a supersubstance. It’s the quantum froth under everything. It’s the only advantage of being conscious, when you come to think of it. Meanwhile, framed by a sash window across the street, I can see a single arm. It is ironing. It belongs to someone’s cleaner. The upper arm is parallel to the ironing board; the forearm and fist move the iron towards the body and away again in brusque smooth powerful strokes pivoted at the elbow.

–reblogged from Uncle Zip’s Window, February 28, 2007

the struggle to admit who you were

A quiet morning. I imagine I can almost smell the river. In the garden is a rose so old its best use is to prop up the exhausted, driftwood-coloured trunk of an even older lavender bush. Should I let the ivy grow up both? I like gardens though I don’t know anything about them. This one is dilapidated enough to absorb any effort. New things are naturalised quite quickly. In the beds & borders, bluebells, aqualegia, wild stawberry runners, monbretia, packed & dense around leggy rosebushes. Light falls in at a steep angle between the houses to be fixed by the new leaves of the roses, which show in curiously transparent autumn colours. Each border is edged with two courses of old & tumbled brick, overgrown with herb robert & dandelions. At the sunny end there’s a worn-down lapboard shed, white, windows fallen out. A vine over everything. I think about this when I should probably be reviewing a book. A car passes. A few aimless notes issue from the open window of the upstairs flat, then two chords repeated in an unsteady, clumping rhythm: one of Fiona’s pupils, trying to find her way around the keyboard. In the late 80s I was going to write an HE Bates-ish, VS Pritchett-ish story set in a middle class garden: Elizabeth (60-ish, calm, already in a kind of mild confusion about her life, resilient if a little put upon by her Thatcherite children) would discover exotic species invading a space originally based on the South Cottage garden at Sissinghurst. Global warming, you see. By the end of the story she would have quite taken to them. I didn’t write it because if you cross HE Bates with global warming & the welcoming of bizarre change, all you get is JG Ballard. (Now it’s too late. I’m 60-ish myself & I can see a parakeet here any time.) In my life gardens have always belonged to someone else. I am beginning to be less envious of this, instead just enjoy the spalled and bowed wall, the perfectly broken plant pots in sunlight. Then, between the warm eroded terracotta tiles under the garden bench, a yellow flower with each tiny leaf made up of three blunt heart shapes arranged to form a hexagon. I have no idea what it is; both leaves and flowers have a distressed look, Italianate, as if they were rag-rolled in Fulham in the early 1990s. The cat stops licking its paw & looks up in a brief acknowledgement of some bird’s moving shadow. When I was younger I thought writing should be the struggle with what you are. Now I think it’s the struggle to admit who you were. But I would invent a better past for myself now if I knew exactly how to assemble elements like these, especially without letting myself in to spoil them.

–reblogged from April 29, 2007. All these selections are from the short-lived Uncle Zip’s Window, which ran 2006/2008.