the m john harrison blog

Tag: empty space

in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.

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anna’s adventures in norbiton

Next morning she truanted on Dr Alpert, changed trains at London Victoria and made her way down through the postal codes until, the other side of Balham, she thought she recognised the way the streets curled and dovetailed across the swell of a hill. “Orchid Nails”, read the signs outside the station: “Minty Pearls Dental Clinic”. Anna descended from the train and wandered thoughtfully along staring into the windows of empty houses. She had no plan. She favoured quiet residential avenues and a particular kind of four-bedroom mock-Tudor, with laurels and a slip of driveway to one side of its front garden. The shabbier a place looked, the more likely it was to hold her attention. By mid afternoon she thought she might be in Sydenham Hill. She had covered miles under the enamel light, trespassed on the hard standings of a dozen middle class homes. She was exhausted. Her ankles hurt. She was lost. It wasn’t the first time she had done this.

Sydenham Hill turned out, in point of fact, to be Norbiton, a place named after the suburb in an Edwardian novel. Anna sat down with a cup of tea in the station cafe and emptied her bag on to the table. It was full of the usual silt–ends of make-up, a single glove, an address book bloated with the names of people she never saw anymore, her phone with its flat battery. There were receipts folded into very small squares, foriegn coins and coins no longer in circulation. There was an old outboard computer drive: this, she took up.

It was perhaps two inches by three, with curved, organic-looking edges, its smooth dull surface interrupted at one end by a line of firewire ports–one of those objects which, new and exciting in its day, now looked as dated as a cigarette case. Michael had left it with her, along with some instructions, putting his warm hand over Anna’s–they were in a railway cafe just like this one–and urging her:

“You will remember, won’t you ?”

All she could remember now was being afraid. When you’re afraid of everything, especially each other, you have to walk away; consign each other to the world.

Anna had arrived in Norbiton between trains. She drank a second cup of tea and stared out with vague good will at the empty platform, where everything had a thick fresh coat of paint. After about twenty minutes an old man was helped into the cafe by some railway staff. He had outlived himself. His bald brown head seemed too big for his neck; his underlip, the colour of uncooked liver, drooped in exhausted surprise at finding himself still there. They sat him at Anna’s table, where he banged her feet and legs about with his stick, shoved the contents of her bag carelessly across the table towards her, and, as soon as he was settled, began eating salmon sandwiches directly from a paper bag. His hands were ropy with veins, the skin over them shiny and slack. He ate greedily but at the same time with a curious lack of interest, as if his body remembered food but he didn’t. As he ate he whispered to himself. After some minutes he put the bag down, leaned across the table and tapped Anna’s hand sharply.

“Ow,” said Anna.

“Nothing is real,” he said.

“I’m sorry ?”

“Nothing is real. Do you understand ? There are only contexts. And what do they context ?” He gave Anna an intent look; breathed heavily a few times through his mouth. “More contexts, of course!” Anna, who had no idea how to respond, stared angrily out of the window. After a moment he said, as if he hadn’t already spoken to her, “I have to get on the next train. I wonder if you would be kind enough to help me ?”

“I wouldn’t, no,” Anna said, collecting up her things.

It was almost dark when she arrived home. Marnie had left irritable messages on the answerphone. “Pick up, Anna. I’m really very cross with you. It’s not the first time you’ve let the doctor down like this.” Anna made herself an omelette and ate it in the kitchen standing up, while she rehearsed what she would say to Marnie. The last of the daylight was fading out of the sky. James the cat jumped up on to the kitchen top and begged. Absent-minded with guilt, Anna gave him more of the omelette than she had intended to.

–Empty Space, 2012

from empty space to stanage edge

I’ve got two slots at Edge Lit in July, it seems. For the GoH “speech” I’ll read a new story & maybe answer questions about the forthcoming short story collection & the novel in progress. For the other one, an item on writing landscape, I’ll probably do something like this–

Landscape in fiction is never just background, or you’re wasting your opportunities. Let the landscape do as much of the work of informing the reader of your intentions as possible. Entangle your ideas & meanings with the setting. Fold them into one another.

Empty Space: the Funene Golden Hour, a landscape derived from photography of the Namib coast. Ad-image pseudo-sublime. What is the difference between awe & oh wow? The reification of an aesthetic judgement, a play on the use of the term “landscape porn”. Woven into the trilogy’s general position on neoLiberal postindustrial spectacle–the transformation of real sites into sites of public art, ie leisure heritage.

Climbers: “The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.” But also, the gritsone edges as a kinaesthetic abacus on which you “tell” your life. To what degree–& in how many lives–has Stanage served that purpose–emotional touchstone or pivot, hermitage, site of psycho-addiction sought out at points in your life, abandoned at others–but also the sense that the gritstone landscape can in some unforgiving way abandon you & you may never be allowed to go back…

Come prepared to ask: What’s the difference, then, between a real landscape & a fictional one? & its various obvious corollaries.

singular

From “On Singularities, mathematical and metaphorical” at Soft Machines, the blog of Richard Jones, Professor of Physics and the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield:

The biggest singularity in physics of all is the singularity where we think it all began – the Big Bang, a singularity in time which it is unimaginable to see through, just as the end of the universe in a big crunch provides a singularity in time which we can’t conceive of seeing beyond. Now we enter the territory of thinking about the creation of the universe and the ultimate end of the world, which of course have long been rich themes for religious speculation. This connects us back to the conception of a technologically driven singularity in human history, as a discontinuity in the quality of human experience and the character of human nature. I’ve already argued at length that this conception of the technological singularity is a metaphor that owes a great deal to these religious forbears.

He goes on to talk about the singularity central to the KT trilogy–also the book’s centralising of human rather than post- or transhuman problems.

ruby dip on kitsch & trash

Ruby’s unreasonable anger at Renoko, it turned out, stemmed from an argument she had with him one lunchtime in the Faint Dime diner. It concerned the nature of kitsch. Renoko felt that kitsch was a product of an event he named “the postmodern ironisation”, prior to which it could not exist: before that, the objects you could now describe as kitsch were actually trash objects. “Without the operation of irony on trash,” he maintained, “there would be no kitsch.” To him, the postmodern ironisation was like the Death of History or the coming Singularity. “Everything was changed by it. Nothing could be the same again. It had the irreversibly transformational qualities of a Rapture.”

He believed it had those qualities even now.

Ruby’s committment to body-art and collectible tambourines couldn’t let this go unchallenged. Prior to the age of irony, she thought, kitsch was already established. “It was low art’s idea of high art,” she said–the aesthetic of people with no taste. Its keynote was sentimentality, not simply in conception but in use. Trash, for her, was another thing altogether, and it was with trash she found herself at home. A true low art, trash was the aesthetic of people who had no aesthetic, and in use it could almost be described as utilitarian. “In all its forms,” she insisted to MP Renoko, “and across every media platform, trash is the art of demonstrating, celebrating–and above all getting–sex. It is a Saturday night art.”

Fat Antoyne scratched his head.

“What happened when you told him that ?”

”What happened then was that a fist fight followed, which it soon drew in the entire lunchtime clientele of the Faint Dime diner, becoming a legend in its own time.”

“It doesn’t seem enough,” he said.

“That, Fat Antoyne, is the big difference between us.”

Because of the weird grimness of the work they do, Ruby believed, quarantine dogs live their opinions hard and proud: so it was predictable Antoyne wouldn’t see such things as intensely as she did. Perhaps because of that it was good that their liaison retained its temporary nature.

–Empty Space, 2012

a million-year-old starship from another galaxy

He was thinking about these things when the shadow of his friend fell across him. One monitor wasn’t enough to display her; she hung there in high aspect ratio across three of them, allowing the K-tract to paint her tip feathers mint blue and rose-pink.

“Hey,” Imps breathed.

“What do you want,” she said.

“You look beautiful today.”

“You broadcast every frequency. You call me up. You stare into the dark until you find me there. What do you want from me?”

Imps thought.

He felt he should tell her, “My day is crap when we don’t talk,” or, “I think you’re lonely too,” but both of those were too close to the truth. So he decided to say the next thing that came into his head.

Sometimes he made lists of the places he might have come from. For instance he liked the sound of Acrux, Adara, Rigil Kentaurus and, particularly, Mogliche Walder. But Motel VI was his favourite. Motel life, as he understood it, wasn’t too demanding. It was a lot closer-in than empty space, but still comfortably on the edge of things. It sounded like a good compromise between what he experienced now and some sort of full humanity. He wanted to ease himself into that. He had downloaded a brochure entitled Mobile Homes of the Galaxy, which also featured dwellings based on the classic Moderne hamburger joint–all pastel neon, pressed and ribbed aluminium–set against sunsets and mountain dawns. He showed her some of these.

“I want you to help me go back,” he said.

“You came here of your own accord.”

“Did I?”

She considered this. “Now you want to go back where you came?”

“I came too far,” he said.

“You thought this was what you wanted.”

“Peer pressure brought me here. It would be too much to suffer the disapprobation of my friends.”

Rig and Emil and Fedy von Gang, hacking busily away at the mysteries in Radio Bay; Ed Chianese who, it was rumoured, had himself plugged into a K-ship, as dumb a thing as anyone had ever done. The entradistas, the sky-pilots like Billy Anker and Liv Hula. People who called their ship Blind by Light, or Hidden Light, or 500% Light, or anything with Light in it. People who left a note by the bed, a message in the parking orbit: Torched Out. Who were wired up wrong from the first. Whose engines cooked with hard X-rays. Who went out unassuagable and came back rich or mad, towing a million-year-old starship from another galaxy. Rocket jockeys the Halo knew by their first names. Imps shrugged. He excused himself and got a beer. When he came back to his seat she was still there, and he said: “Out here thirty years, and I find I was never like them. Whoa! What’s this? Imps, you want to go back, find your home? Stop loooking in the dark for stuff no one’s ever going to understand?”

“You came too far,” she mused.

van Sant didn’t know if she was agreeing with him, or what. When he looked up at the monitor again, she had vanished.

Empty Space, 2012

a kind of careful rage

‘Anna Kearney, meanwhile, her mood still elevated, loitered a moment or two on the consulting-room steps, watching the tide sidle upriver like a long brown dog; then, with the whole afternoon in front of her, made her way by two buses and a train to Carshalton. September, the greenhouse month, wrapped discoloured, vaporous distances around Streatham Vale and Norbury, where silvery showers of rain–falling without warning out of a cloudless blue-brown haze–evaporated from the hot pavements as quickly as they fell. Nothing relieved the humidity. At the other end, Carshalton dreamed supine under its blanket of afternoon heat as Anna made her way cautiously back to the house on The Oaks, approaching this time from the direction of Banstead, crossing the Common on foot–past the prison compounds which lay as innocuous as gated housing in the woods–and entering the maze of long suburban streets at a point halfway between the hospital and the cemetery. 121, The Oaks remained empty, with no sign of the boy who had disturbed her on her previous visit. When she tried the back door it proved to be unfastened as well as unlocked, opening to a push. Inside, economics–as invisible as a poltergeist, a force without apparent agency–was dividing the place up into single rooms. Evidence of its recent activity was easy to come by: stairs and hallways smelling of water-based emulsion and new wood. Bare floors scabbed with spilt filler, power cables lying patiently in the broad fans of dust they had scraped across the parquet, ladders and paint cans that had changed places. Anna wandered around picking things up and putting them down again, until she came to rest in what had been a large back bedroom, split by means of a plaster partition carefully jigsawed at one end to follow the inner contour of the bay window. In this way, the invisible hand generously accorded its potential tenants half the view of the garden–flowerbeds overgrown with monbretia and ground-ivy, rotting old fruit nets on gooseberry bushes, a burnt lawn across which the damp, caramel-coloured pages of a paperback book had been strewn. Anna blinked in the incoming light, touched the unpainted partition, drew her fingers along the windowsill. Sharp granular dust; builders’ dust. Nothing can hurt in these unfinished spaces. Life suspends itself. After a minute or two, an animal–a dog, thin and whippy-looking, brindled grey, with patches of long wiry hair around its muzzle and lower legs–pushed its way through the hedge from the next garden and went sniffing intently along the edge of the lawn, pausing to scrape at the earth suddenly with its front paws. Anna rapped her knuckles on the window. Something about the dog confused her. Rain poured down suddenly through the sunshine, the discarded pages sagged visibly under the onslaught as if made of a paper so cheap it would melt on contact with water. Anna rapped on the window again. At this the dog winced, stared back vaguely over its shoulder into the empty air. It shook itself vigorously–prismatic drops flew up–and ran off. The rain thickened and then tapered away and passed. Out on the lawn, humidity wrapped about her face like a wet bag, Anna collected up as much of the book as she could and leafed through it. It was the novel the boy had recommended to her, Lost Horizon, ripped apart, perhaps, because it had finally failed to deliver on its promises of the world hidden inside our own. None of the pages were consecutive. Anna could assemble only the barest idea of the story. A crashed nuclear bomber pilot, perhaps American, finds himself in a secret country, only to have it–and his heart’s desire–snatched away from him at the last; paradoxically, that very loss seems to endorse the reader’s hope that such a country might exist. The front cover had been torn down the middle in a kind of careful rage. Anna read: “The classic tale of Shangri-La”. A telephone, its ringer set to simulate an old-fashioned electric bell, started up inside the house.’ —Empty Space, 2012.

in the simulator

This amazing browser fluid simulation made me think of the Light trilogy’s conscious dialogue with both Tarkovsky and the Strugatsky Bros about what individuals can “know” in their context. I think that stumbling about in what is essentially your own head, with indifferent epistemological tools at your disposal, is less of a big deal than it seemed to be to them. (It’s like life. It’s a world, you make no sense of it, then you die. Any sense has been made prior to conscious perception by all the non-conscious systems that run you, in conjunction with an environment. A broth of algorithms gets stirred up. You try to see that as a meaningful structure. Sometimes it can seem satisfying–even sublime–but most of it is just dull and unfulfilling.) The only way to keep the encounter with the Zone fulfilling is as an adrenalin sport. Imagine the Nova Swing event site two hundred years in Vic Serotonin’s future. It’s been fully colonised as an adventure playground. (See the little sun-diver theme that links Liv Hula and Ed Chianese; also the idea of “maze running” which refers neither to the Strugatskys nor Tarkovksy, but to Algis Budrys’ 1960 existentialist novel Rogue Moon, in which one explorer’s repeated death in an alien maze stands in for the human process of learning an envirnoment.) In two hundred years, all the hard problems have been solved. The death rate has dropped right off. Everything that seemed so doomy and weird to Vic is now packaged and sold on as an “experience” of danger. Vic should be seen as the beginning of that, an early crude attempt at replacing the exploratory value with a tourist value–thus Emil Bonaventure’s contempt for him. If you want to know about the inevitable end-state of all zones & event sites (including that of the Kefahuchi Tract itself), you only need look at the development of the Alps (& now the Himalaya). What was a nightmare is controlled by learned skillsets into a form of play. What used to kill you is now so well understood that you can enjoy it. Or, to put it another way: what used to kill explorers first begins to kill only experts who push their skillset too hard, then winds up only killing the tourist the experts usher up the mountain for money–and even then only often enough to keep up the activity’s reputation as an experience. What began as a challenge ends as a “challenge”.

Anyway, run the Fluid Experiment for a moment or two, then select “reset particles” while it’s still going and just watch for a few minutes: that will fully explain to you the plot of the Light trilogy (along with a plot of its overarching implied context). Or you could read the books & have a laugh about how Ed’s body ends up.

whoa

03.10.2009–

There’s no such thing as character, D says. There’s only behaviour. We’re memes but we’re careful not to admit it–so careful with one another! That shouldn’t be taken, he’s quick to add, to mean that we exist in some state aside from materiality. We’re subject to material forces but won’t allow ourselves to see that either. The whole West, D says, is in massive denial of both these ideas. He suggests we have more bourbon. He likes the Bulleit bottle–it looks, he thinks, like a bottle you’d see behind the bar in an episode of Deadwood. Memes, he says, in a complex, randomly-shifting flow of other memes. Turbulence gives the flow that aching sense of depth or meaningfulness.

dscf0643

retrospective

Things I have bought over the years to convince myself I was happy: a brass lizard; a wire lizard; two small boxes, one in some featherweight lacquered wood, the other ceramic and half glazed with a stylised picture of the local architecture; a bowl in striking fire and earth colours now faded; various earrings; two belts and some peculiarly sordid- and pre-used-looking suede shoes; Italian things; Canary Island things; Spanish things. All these things bought out of a mistaken elation or assumption, all this unwarranted semiosis, all these unmemorable memories and tokens from moments unviable from the very start. You can’t quite call them kitsch, but they don’t have a quality of personal nostalgia either. It was weird being a romantic and living in a constant aura or vibe, a “dream” I suppose, or at any rate a sense of something happening when nothing, in retrospect, was. Luckily, age lifts you out of that, enabling a proud shiny new impulse control in boutique, fleamarket and gallery shop; freeing you up to buy the rubbish you actually like. (Something resembling a small wormy stone brain picked up on a beach does not belong to this class of objects.)