the m john harrison blog

lost again

I was supposed to do a gig with a celebrity, a moderated conversation at their place, which lay deep in a set of large brick buildings, interconnected run-down old agricultual spaces, Victorian and showing it. Dark, high-contrast values to the light, as if some sort of filter had been over-applied. Someone asked me to go and buy something. I was reluctant because I didn’t understand the currency, and we were about to start the conversation, and anyway I wasn’t sure how I would find the shop. When I found it, it was like some very old-fashioned chemist’s. People were queuing without giving each other space, so I left. After that I became progressively lost. The neighbourhoods were unfamiliar–except in their layout, which was structurally that of London—with an architecture that might have been genuinely exotic or postmodern and inauthentic. There were open vistas with wooded hills, shoulders of land with houses scattered along the sides. At the same time, it was all traffic lights and tube stations the names of which I couldn’t make out, rain. First I was late for the interview, then very late. Every time I chose a new direction in the belief that I recognised a feature—an intersection of streets, the corner of a building—the landscape became a bit more bizarre. All around were the dark, saturated, varnished colours of the filter. I heard the police talking on my phone! I tried to ask for help, they couldn’t hear me. When I stumbled back into the place I’d left, the moderator had had to go back to Indonesia. I was in tears because I had spoilt the interview. The celebrity and organisers were disappointed and angry. Then I realised they were smiling and teasing. They were amused by me and the whole episode. But I still felt guilty, ashamed and awful.

I can hear you

Metaphysics: a brand that has sheltered a billion crazed subjectivities & subjective epistemes, emerging from scarified metaphors, mad culty insights, wonky observations, unbalanced personal alchemies & dogmatically institutionalised intuitions about the shapes of things & how they bolt one to another in the service of human “existence”. I love it all & I especially love the imagery that spills from it in torrents. It’s a whole Woolworths of pick n mix. I love it for all the reasons I love physics, but I don’t mistake the one for the other as a description of how things work; nor am I really interested in a particular metaphysics, or the history of metaphysics as a singular discipline or single object of study. I’m just on the lookout for a glittery concept, a slippery notion, or a deeply debatable cognitive structure I can make fiction with. What I want is to stumble over ideas that have sudden hi-res qualities and instant impact. An idea that has that kind of force, & that immediately charms me by entangling with metaphors I’ve already made, will find itself in a month or so part of the personal pathology of a short story about something else entirely. I’m a user of metaphysics, not even an amateur. I’m a user of physics too. I’ve not been the same person, let alone the same writer, since I discovered that a percentage of white noise injected into the input can, counterintuitively, amplify frequencies previously too faint to hear. Culturally, writers & readers operate in the same kind of noise-rich environment as electric fish. They live in a similar neurobiological arms race. Since Alastair Reynolds explained neurobiological stochastic resonance to me 20 years ago, my definition of a science fiction writer has been: someone who’s acutely aware of a concept like that even as they write something that never even mentions it.

maybe when things change

Feel increasingly odd. But not quite sufficiently odd to start off in a new direction. English ghost stories & religio-mystical paintings from the 30s & 40s have begun to interest me over the last few years. I don’t know why. It’s not the obvious top layer, or anything they thought they were doing. My head is trying to make patterns with this stuff & how we are now (how we feel we have to be). It’s trying to draw conclusions but they aren’t logical; they aren’t even visible, really. It’s looking for something to braid with & it has, as ever, its own motives. So far I’ve only seen the edge of that. (But maybe this is a canard, a way of distracting my attention. Maybe when things change, it won’t be in these directions at all.)

post apocalyptic

I like the holes in that building. I wouldn’t call them windows or doors, because of the state they’re in. I like any building the exterior chimney of which is peeling away from the wall of the main body. And that ivy! That ivy is like quiet vomit coming from the upper storey. Why was the house fixed to a slope in that way, not steep but noticeable? How has it stayed there all these years, without just sliding down into the river? I like the house but I would never go inside and walk about among the rubbish on the floors. All that old furniture indicating a life, or lives, lived before the place fell into… what? Disrepair isn’t quite the word. It was a transfer of power. People moved on, built new lives. I wouldn’t enter, but I would look in through the door. I don’t want to know what happened here before things got good and then got bad again.

after the rain

Nostalgia for arrangements of fields. Nostalgia for arrangements of buildings in the corners of fields. Nostalgia for things that can’t stand the sight of one another. Nostalgia for that which is accepted, celebrated and inhabited. Nostalgia for things that remain distinct & visible. Nostalgia for the excitable medium. Nostalgia for the ballistic tradition. Nostalgia for the finished & the unfinished. Trees. Trains. “The hawthorn brides.” A winter funeral in a summer suit. Nostalgia for the passage of life, the deep curve, the sense of it. Nostalgia for things you haven’t yet lost, or barely had.

strong post heart attack vibe, blogged September 2015

Writing will wreck you if you let it. The maze is inhabited. Though you need to discover what’s down there, every serious kind of writing life is a way of controlling your contact with it. Never give yourself up to the maze, much less what lives there. The way to stay safe is to keep them both at a distance. Observe the precautions. Make sure you finish at the end of the day. Make sure the fixed lines are in good repair. Make sure you have a real life to go back to. Make sure you remain an explorer. Don’t sleep there.


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?

Originally blogged 2016

the risk of being caught up

“How to characterise this novel? It is not quite genre fiction, as far as I understand that term. It is not quite realism, either, even though there is a lot of reality in it — too much for me at points. It is a writing of the provincial everyday uncanny; a novel about the return of the repressed, about feeling lost and unable to find your bearings, about the sense that the world and other people in it are engaged in an incomprehensible and indecipherable task, which you can relate to only abstractly, a task about which at times you feel the risk of being caught up in like an eddy, and, at other times, you feel as though it is something that will always be inaccessible to you.” –Andrew Key, on his reaction to The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again.

a habitation & a place

I’m always obsessed by a landscape. Since last year it’s two. Any little sandstone ridge like an island in upland heath, on a broad diagonal from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port. But also, now, the enchanted hinterland between the A496 and the Rhinogs in Gwynned. Abandoned farms the size of villages. Lost manganese mines not much bigger than animal scrapes. Bijou but contorted; gnarly but lushened by, presumably, the warm western sea; windy but always some shelteronce you get out of the laminar flow. There’s a real sense, in both these landscapes, of haunting: yet rarely by anything specific. Yes, it’s the trace of use. But the moment you try to imagine by whom, or begin to believe you might “bring it to life”, it slips quietly back into the twilight downslope, the wind-contorted tree. Every site is very calm, despite the things it must have seen. Even to say that is to say too much. At every site there’s something immanent—but that’s to say too little. Where everything you can say is either an understatement or an overstatement, a literalisation or a fiction, it’s not your place to say anything; however you describe yourself. You shiver with delight, get your coat out of your bag, and head down to the lights of Harlech or Malpas.

photo: Cath Phillips