the m john harrison blog

the uninevitability of the rhetorically inevitable

Nothing is inevitable. This amazing thing you’re trying to sell—this idea, this concept, this techno item, this utopia trip to another planet–this bill of goods whatever it is—doesn’t have to be the case, except for those who are already obsessed by it & are making rhetoric to show why you can’t walk away, so that they can make money, change your world & walk away. I’ve seen this happen in cycles all my life. It’s never had a good outcome. The inevitable new was always crap. The inevitable new has always been Tono Bungay*. We could have turned our backs on it any time, just by walking through the initially fragile discourse fences that now surround it & harden & become so resistant that we are going to have to put in a lot more effort to escape.

*Such a good book & very funny

stochastic resonance & electric fish

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 itself with metaphors I’ve already made, will find itself in a month or so part of the individual 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.

August 2020

dynamic stress loads & the fatigue limit

In this science fiction story, the terror we’re hearing in the media is not our own. It’s the panic of a family of gangsters who know that the near future is going to get rid of them. The barely repressed anxiety—displaced as rage & tantrum—that fills the news is not fear of UK collapse, or the fear of having to live a reduced life in the coming failed state in a heated world. It’s not ourselves we’re hearing. It’s the unspoken—literally unspeakable—panic of a collapsing corporate that bought into its own propaganda centuries ago, echoing through the structure it’s built to shield and express itself. “Great” Britain was never a place. It was psycho-economic architecture for the Firm. What we hear from it now is the sound of vibration fatigue in the structure. When the Tories bet on covid, Brexit & the bonanza of disaster capitalism, they may also have brought about the collapse of one of the most stable little earners in the world after the Catholic Church.

my first days on Junkie

My first experience with William Burroughs was during a years-long obsession with low-life memoir that started when they gave me WH Davies to read at school. After Davies I went through Eric Muspratt, Orwell, Jack London, Henry de Monfreid & many more lowlifes or people who claimed to be lowlifes or experimented briefly with being lowlifes. I was on to Genet in my late teens. I bought Junkie for eight-and-sixpence in the Four Square “Olympia Press” edition in the mid 60s. It was late on in my obsession & rapidly became my favourite example. Burroughs had me at “made the doctor for a ten-grain script”, p22, because by then I loved any kind of jargon & trade language too. I still own that volume, which had the last really decent cover I remember on a UK book until CBeditions and Fitzcarraldo began publishing. It can’t be read now without falling apart, so I keep a reading copy on my Kindle along with the other lowlife greats like Treasure Island & The Wind in the Willows. I didn’t take so completely to his later books, although I’ve read most of them at least once. Later I got into TE Lawrence’s The Mint; Oxbridge travel writing & its legacy; and, by a different route, into trade and sport memoir. That’s the mud from which Climbers emerged. In my mind, Junkie will always be the contemporary summing up of all those kinds of books that promise to let you into a closed, outlandish world. But something like Tales of a Rat-Hunting Man is pretty good too. & so is Jon Day’s Cyclogeography.

the rocks

One of the places that acted as a developmental node in British rock climbing after the second world war was a sandstone crag called Harrison’s, not far from Groombridge in Kent. It had all the qualities you associate with that medium. The holds fell off or wore down easily. If you weren’t balancing up a steep delicate slab covered with fine slippery sand, you were thugging your way round an overhang on rounded slopers. Its advantage was that you could drive down from London and spend an evening there in the summer. Harrison’s had been everyone’s hot date since the 1920s, but access had always been a problem. There were tensions between climbers and locals, the retired bank managers and solicitors who, though they didn’t own it, had always felt able to act as if they did. So when the land from which it outcropped came up for sale in 1958, it was bought by climbers and, after a curious and tortuous period of stewardship, eventually passed into the hands of the British Mountaineering Council. For the first time in history, the idea was, British climbers would own and manage a crag of their own. That was a time of optimism all over, in the sport and out of it. I went down there by train in the last days of compartmented rolling stock. That was a lottery. You were stuck at close quarters with whoever you found in there. I won two older ladies in genuine Hermes scarves, and they won me. My own fashion choice was jeans and a tee with the words Think Pink printed on the front, set off by a faded canvas rucksack and–I might as well admit it–a silk scarf of my own, oriental & tied as a headband: California Dirtbag by way of Yorkshire. I was pretty tan & at that time my hair and beard were black. We sat and did not really look at one another for forty minutes, me on one side of the compartent and them on the other. The train had to pass Harrison’s on its way into Eridge station, and as the rocks went past, the talk between the two women turned to the beauty of the view. “We’re so lucky to have this,” said one. The other made eye contact with me across the space between us. “Oh yes,” she said. “It used to be lovely until those rock climbers got in and spoilt everything.” That “got in” was a lesson in the grammars of territoriality. They had never owned it, but it was theirs by the complex associations of privilege; climbers had bought it, but it could never really belong to them. I understood that my kind would never inherit the earth even if we inherited it, and I often think about that.

boris’s johnson

Boris Johnson can’t deal with the material world except hedonistically. Every other aspect of materiality is, for him, subject to politics and manipulable, ie it is not material. Brexit and Covid catastrophes represent the failure of his way of connecting with the world. In that, he is so modern, so fantasyland, so secondary world. Boris Johnson in a lab coat. Boris Johnson in hi-vis. Boris Johnson cosplays looking at a test tube. Boris Johnson isn’t just a “scientist” in this picture. He’s your scientist and his own action figure. At least now we’re certain that a real disaster will be mythologised while it’s happening & that “management” will mean handling it through the myth, never by direct encounter with the thing itself; I mean, if you wanted evidence of that successful disjunction. I expect fantasy writers, perfectly sited to understand this, and with all the necessary professional skills, will be dropping everything to give us accurate portraits of the process.

snow day, late 2000s

Buggy tracks. Spindrift blowing off the roofs. Silhouette of a labrador dog hauling the silhouette of a woman across Grove Road, detail from a Lowry of the West London suburbs. Meanwhile the van from Bathrooms At Source–a constant visitor to this pleasant street–ploughs its way responsibly towards the river, first-responder to the morning’s soft catastrophe. Everything is so hushed as he makes his way down! In Barnes, bathroom commerce, second only in religion to kitchen commerce, must go on. He’s closely followed by Bespoke Carpentry.

Bigger flakes fall thick & slow. It has the feel of a phase-change. Everything goes quieter. The air seems fractionally darker. Spaces gain depth. The houses over the road recede but become somehow more solid, more delineated. The light complicates & recomplicates itself, reflecting from the surfaces of every falling flake. Nothing will be the same after this. The phenomenology of this snow is that it is the real thing, which exists only in your earliest memories of snow & puts all your ideas to shame for good. I won’t pretend not to be elated. It is the most tranquil, the most mystical time; the most transient however long it lasts. Snow falling at the end of the short winter afternoon. A bird, its grey silhouette vague & busy, is making heavy weather of it fifty or sixty feet up, tail flared, wings fluttering, slow progress. I can’t know how that feels, but if this fall continues I’ll wait for dark, pick up my head-torch and jog through the woods. By then, they’ll be woods, not just a few acres of dissected scrub in an upscale suburb. They’ll be endless.

The best snow I ever saw from a window was at Ferihegy airport, Budapest, in February 1991: but the best snow I was ever in fell during a long winter when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. I remember struggling for miles along unlit Warwickshire lanes under very bright stars, between fluted tongues, volutes and gargoyles of snow where the wind forced spindrift through the gaps in the hedges. Some of these structures had begun to shift like dunes, or elongate themselves across the verges and into the lane. I was elated, moment by moment, very aware of myself as being alive in this landscape. My toes and fingers were numb. My breath was in front of me.

I’ve inherited one of those liquid crystal thermometer cards British Gas distributes to pensioners. It’s installed near the desk. At the moment it doesn’t even say, “You are at risk of dying of hypothermia, you silly old fool! Put on more clothes! Turn up the heating you can’t afford! Eat some of that good high-calorific horse meat!” It is registering below that. In fact it is registering below the scale. The room is so cold that the pensioner thermometer can’t even patronise me. If I was a proper old person I’d be in the shit now. I’d have to spend two hours convincing the emergency services to come out (not including the means test); then, having failed, get myself into a taxi anyway & go die of neglect on a trolley in a packed annex somewhere off the semi-decommissioned National Health Service, while volunteer health workers struggled through their workload towards me. I’m glad not to have the bother of that, obviously: but I’ve already defaulted to a cup of tea and a pair of dayglo orange duvet slippers from Spain and suddenly I feel a bit privileged to be able to turn up the heating.

From the start, Jenni Fagan’s new novel gives the feel of a legend or fairy story. It’s 1910, on an unnamed island in the North Sea. Jessie Macrae and her father have had a falling out, and now he’s dead; or, given that he’s the Devil, he may still be alive. Jessie, who has been growing horns herself of late, launches into the surf in the coffin he forced her to sleep in – perhaps as a stark reminder of her mortality, perhaps as a harbinger of it – and begins to row. Three days later she lands on the Edinburgh shore, where she finds herself at 10, Luckenbooth Close, a tenement building on nine floors, “with catacombs below”. There she’ll meet Mr Udnam – gangster, property speculator and, surprisingly, minister of culture – and his wife; and become the surrogate mother of their child. She is pregnant within hours, or perhaps minutes, as you might be in a folk tale. The spiritual disaster thus ignited – the torn seam between the supernatural and capitalist reality – will haunt the tenement and its subsequent inhabitants for the rest of the century. Read the rest of my review in the Guardian here.

october 2014

Disused quarries filling with water as autumn sets in. Trees. Light rain. The power station siren. Various mud. Fallow deer in the wood, running down a narrow salient between two overgrown pits. I don’t know who was more startled, me or them. All I could do was watch. It’s one thing to see deer in parkland, another to have them flicker past you in and out of the trees on some business of their own. I come home and melt frozen soup for lunch. It slips out of the container with the polished surface of an object machined from rock. How do you continue to write about the world when it’s stopped being mysterious?

My working rule just now is, “Trust yourself.” That’s not entirely true. There are two other rules & they are, “Always flatten it off;” and, “Don’t say too much.” With regard to the latter: a science fiction editor once told me, over lunch in a not very nice restaurant (an act of language in itself), “There’s a perfectly good plot behind your novel, it’s just that the author has taken most of it out.” How perceptive, I thought, until I realised it wasn’t supposed to be a compliment. That was before I moved on to the stage of not putting most of it in.