the m john harrison blog

the retreat to metaphor

I thought I might describe every single step of this staircase, every crack, flaw and grain in the oak as if it were a landscape. But if I can’t describe what’s outside the window–the way the winter sunshine falls on houses half a mile away while the High Street lies in shadow–how can I attempt something that much more complex? Close up, as far as language is concerned, the stairs exist off the edge of resolution. I continue to be an observer who was never much good at observation, stuck with a means of communication which can’t carry enough information. No wonder there’s this constant retreat to metaphor. The attempt to push through into something else is always a failed attempt to be in the real.

Originally posted 2014, as “I would give you the world if I could”

we are not here at all

1. Pinkish and surrounded by brand new wire netting, the surface of the tennis court is already sinking into the mud, so that the drainage channels around it, which are still to be filled in, look more like the remains of a half-hearted rescue attempt.
2. Someone has scratched the mileage off the nearby road signs, as if to hide the town or perhaps deny its existence. Self-abnegation, a complex act of defiance: we are not here for you. We are not here at all. 3. Looking through the lacework of a broken wall you see a man standing in the sun at a baking road junction, holding a pane of glass which has broken directly across, half in each hand, while he stares emptily into the distance through the heavy summer traffic. A woman with a buggy stands near him but ignores him. She might be with him or not.
4. Complete the following sentences: (a) They had once been nice little houses, half-timbered and with tall, elegant, steeply-pitched roofs. Now, trapped between the sewage works and the railway line, they… (b) New build was going up all around them. Soon they would be encysted. People would look at their Queen Anne chimneys and wonder what things had been like before…

Originally posted 2011

opening for an unwritten story

For maybe five decades, maybe more, I didn’t want my life to be what it was. It was perfectly ordinary but I didn’t want to be in it. I found escape routes from some of it in writing and climbing; I developed a bad memory to deal with the rest. Only now, after I’ve spent a few years in a life I want, do I see what an odd admission that is to make. People seem quite horrified by it; but I wouldn’t want to live among people who aren’t. How do you write about a life like that, legacy of your own poor management of childhood & adolescence, except veiled in concepts such as “haunting”, “navigation failure” or ”behaviour after a disaster”? I wouldn’t know where to begin. Living is the endless discovery that you’re weirder than you thought, & you’ll never retrieve any of it except via the metaphors you’ve had all along. That seems to have been the advantage of genre fiction for me.

Sure, sex is ok. & Viriconium’s fine–

–But this dog knows where things are really at. The new novel at your trusted outlets from June 25th.


Photo: Will O’Mullane

the drift

The city of Viriconium drifts around the internet like a ghost site, abandoned, glitched and malfunctioning, composed of failed attempts to turn it into one thing; to place it back in the genre it began to undo in 1966; or as imitations designed to repurpose it as the founding platform of a version of itself corrected for the fantasy market. In Japan, meanwhile, a version generated by the selection of one novel and five of the short stories is about to be published in real life.

Obviously I enjoy the accidental ironies of these revisions, attempted coups and counter revolutions: to a degree they’re in the spirit of the thing– which was conceived of from the start as impossible to bring into focus, shattered and drifting about in its own timeline; certainly they’re in the spirit of cities.

I was recently offered the opportunity to join in, via a de luxe hardback edition of the entire sequence. If that happens–and I should emphasise that it’s a big “if” at this early stage–I’ll probably make a new author-approved order, based on the Fantasy Masterworks edition (Gollancz, UK, 2000), in which the short stories were woven between the novels. I’ll write a preface to explain why I prefer it ordered like that, as opposed to the normalising, dull & above all inaccurate presentation of it as a trilogy and some related short stories; why it should be read as single volume (but not necessarily in a prescribed order); and probably why it was such a personal nightmare to find a place in that order for the final “final” story, “Jack O’ Mercy’s”. Possibly I’ll add some older material, and some wilfully non-canonical material…

I feel relieved that I won’t have to do the same with the Light trilogy, which was written & published in the order in which it needs to be read to make a single, solid unit, and which has already been published in one volume in Germany. Time someone caught up and did that in English.

the sunken land begins to rise

Finished copies of this strange kettle of fish are now going out to reviewers, etc. I’m reliably informed that release date is June 25th. So for guaranteed satisfaction, get your preorders in now. & if you see another date anywhere, please let Gollancz know, not here but here, or @Gollancz on Twitter. On the same date you’ll be able to get Comma Press’s collection, Settling the World, which selects from my short stories between 1969 and 2019, with an introduction by Jennifer Hodgson.

all those summers

We were under a quarried gritstone wall. We were under the big arc-lamp of limestone at Stennis. We weren’t anything special but we were out from nine in the morning until last light at ten. In cut-offs. They were torn off awkwardly and not cool. We wrapped t shirts round our heads against the light. We hobbled about with our first-generation sticky rubber hung round our necks by the laces, wincing barefoot at the heat. We were so full of vitamin D we didn’t need to eat. You can see our smiles, stupid with vitamin D, in the polaroid; our stupid, sun-bleached heavy metal hair. We watched the sea-spray explode up with a grunt you couldn’t imitate but could feel in your knees, your hips, up your spine and deep into the reptile brain. We were up for it, even if it was the 6b pitch off some fucking loose MOAC “belay” or the ab from the unbacked number 5 wire. We were exhausted. Our hands gave us away. A scabbed knuckle, a scabbed elbow. Abraded finger pad. We were “as brown as berries” all those summers. We found a pair of trousers discarded at the top of a route. We laughed until we were incapable and two serious people told us off for putting in a forty foot traverse, thirty feet up, with no pro for the second and the rope in a perfect curve. Every day we were too tired to drive home but every one of us could finish two deep-dish pizzas. It was a roped solo, that’s all, but we took our telling-off. It was a life in the amygdala and none of us is ever going to forget it.

Weird is not a thing, it is a process. It is also an emergent product which somehow precedes every combination of events, genres & skills it can be said to emerge from. Good luck with planning to be weird, see you at the ceremony.