the m john harrison blog

Tag: fantasy

pulsating neural tissue etc

Corelli DeLaMary Linn Gourd, a Texan fantasy writer, finds she has run out of vanished, exotic and geographically distant cultures to loot for the milieux–or “worlds” –of her immensely successful novels. She’s bored by the costume museums, post-Steeleye Span folk rock bands and archeological websites devoted to back-engineered weapons through the ages that have previously provided inspiration, colour and filler. She’s bored by the grim daily round of combining non-scientific anthropology and relatable Campbellian selfie-stick heroism with freedom motifs to provide uplifting developmental arcs for her characters. She decides instead to actually make something up. The central race–the “Sentienta” as she will call them–of her next novel are to have transparent foreheads, behind which can be seen their pulsating neural tissue & the wispy filaments which connect to eyes like greenish half-billiard balls. It’s very exciting. The human imagination is a truly astonishing thing.

–December 13th, 2010


the truth about history

Judging by the present, all our interpretations of deep-historical human behaviour are over-dignified. Instead of, “This item was probably part of a religious ceremony,” for instance, we should always prefer: “They used this as part of some stupid fad.” Or: “It was that generation’s version of the Yo Yo.” Archeology by kitsch: foundational myth as pulp: the Mysteries as am-dram. Melinda dresses like a mermaid and sits on a rock staring out to sea. In the arena, Ronnie is pretending he can jump bull. Bull-jumping used to be a dangerous sport, but with today’s techniques and equipment, anyone can have fun at it. Later, they’ll go up to the limestone caves and watch the dogging. Then Melinda rests her head on Ronnie’s shoulder in the warm dark and you can hear her say: “It was a lovely holiday but let’s do something else next year. Everyone’s going to Hittite Anatolia these days.” Fantasy that rips off history should always take account of this.


However complete a fauxthentication is, it can’t actually be a world–-therefore the criticism, “This novel is still not fully & properly fauxthenticated” is always possible. The constant bolstering of the “world” constantly reveals it not to be one, ie reveals it never to be complete the way the world is. This seems to say more about the limits of writing & the act of suspension of disbelief (an immersion which can clearly be brought about in other ways) than it does about the actual need for a world to seem to be present in front of the reader. Also, it strikes me as a bit mad to be a fiction writer if you have to struggle so desperately to pretend you’re not. There’s some kind of guilt trip behind that. Fauxthentication seems like an attempt to deny your position as someone who makes things up.

SFF/Weird at Warwick U

I received more input than I could safely process at Irradiating the Object, so I’m looking forward to seeing all those beautifully-argued academic papers in print under the Gylphi logo. Taking it in at my own pace–and with a cup of tea–is likely to reduce the possibility of Explanatory Collapse. Thanks to everyone who gave a paper, to Rhys Williams and Mark Bould, conference organisers; and more on the book as soon as details become available.

Meanwhile here’s a podcast. The usual rants & fevers of the ageing entradista, expertly nursed on this occasion by Rhys Williams.

One of the things I did manage to take in on Thursday was that Rhys is to teach selections from Viriconium as part of Warwick University’s SFF/Weird module next year. Fantastika, he says, consistently estranges us from our own comfortable perspectives, but he’s immediately forced to admit: “it is also the literature of escapism and naivety”. That was certainly one of the things Viriconium was trying to point out, in a climate perhaps even less receptive to new ways of doing things than the one we have now. What can be seen today as a part of a major shift of ideas was experienced then simply as the struggle to get published in the face of snobbery, inverted snobbery and political panic; our rejection letters–both from genre and literary publishers–need to be seen to be believed. It’s strange, so long after the fact, to be acknowledged as an early uptaker of the post-genre fantastic, and to find myself in the company of, among others, Joanna Russ, Nalo Hopkins, William Gibson and Russell Hoban. Not to mention the Flying Strugatsky Brothers.

It’s more than possible that there’ll be a previously-unpublished Viriconium piece in my new short story collection, which is now officially in the publication pipeline. Updates on the collection, here, as things develop. (Don’t expect the Viriconium of 1978 or 1982, by the way. The city moves on with its author, so keep up.)

the name of the roads [slight return]

Someone got here yesterday by typing “If you had to name your own city what would you call it ?”

Here at the Ambiente Hotel’s retirement wing, we are all up to competition standard at naming our own city. I’d call it Vertebrast. Dunromin. Muntforby. BHX34. Ball Lock, Donkey Trot, Nostrick or Doakenero-Frote.

No, I’d call it Mast Ivia.

If I was you I’d drive around that unnamed city randomly recombining words I saw on the backs of trucks. Don’t think I haven’t, because I have.

One word of warning: using some kind of word generator you found on the web is not only cheap, it’s no fun.

[First posted 2009.]

the usual impostures

For some reason this seems apt–

The behaviouristic universe, controlled from outside the text. The meaningless anxiety generated by a plot trope carefully isolated from any actual plot. The meaningless preparation for action. The preparation for meaningless action. The Proppian magic object, its discovery the next item on a to-do list checked from outside the text. The freedom motif & its meaninglessly glib reversal. All of it makes a Skinner box look like To the Lighthouse. The actant has nice muscles but you feel only compassion. Not because she’s haggard from the effort of keeping in shape; not because she’s trapped in a scenario one millimetre deep; not because she’s encumbered by those risible poses of faux-aggression & off-the-shelf feistiness; not because her humanity has been reduced to an algorithm, a schematic whose tragedy is to make Lara Croft seem complex: but because she exists only as cultural property at the beck & call of the rights holder & the player. She can escape the prison but not the game.

ceremony & pathology of the blessed angel of our country

“Sometimes as it blows across the Great Brown Waste in summer, the wind will uncover a bit of petrified wood. Mammy Vooley’s head had the shape and the shiny grey look of wood like that. It was provided with one good eye, as if at one time it had grown round a glass marble streaked with milky blue. She bobbed it stiffly right and left to the crowds: who stood to watch her approach; knelt as she passed; and stood up again behind her. Her bearers grunted patiently under the weigh of the pole that bore her up. As they brought her slowly closer it could be seen that her dress–so curved between her bony, strangely-articulated knees that dead leaves, lumps of plaster and crusts of wholemeal bread had gathered in her lap–was russet-orange; and that she wore askew on the top of her head a hank of faded purple hair, wispy and fine like a very old woman’s. Mammy Vooley, celebrating with black banners and young women chanting; Mammy Vooley, Queen of Uroconium, Moderator of the city; as silent as a log of wood.” [The Luck in the Head, 1982, from Viriconium, also in audio download.]

a new short story

FINAL Cave  Julia_Cover“That whole year, and to a lesser extent the year after, bodies were washed up all along that part of the coast, some whole, some in pieces … In the south of Autotelia, especially, it was a bad year for bodies; but the body of the vanished brother didn’t show up among them. Passive and silent, full of some incommunicable anger, the sister attempted suicide, spent time in institutions; then, her work suddenly becoming popular, left the country for a new life on our side of things.” When Cave meets Julia, he finds himself sucked into her strange alienated history of loss and sacrifice. “Cave & Julia” is a love story set between our world and Autotelia. Available from the Kindle Store today, 99p; or free to borrow from the Kindle Library. You can still find “In Autotelia”, the first Autotelia story, in Arc #1, here.

Just to round up what’s available, electronically and otherwise: you can buy Light, Nova Swing and Empty Space; The Centauri Device, cursed be its name, with its very fine paper-sculpture cover image; and Viriconium in the old paperback Fantasy Masterworks edition. The new edition of Climbers (coming in May) is ready for pre-order, both as paper and as ebook, with a fabulous new Sam Green cover and a very special introduction I’m not allowed to tell you about yet, although you probably already found out for yourself. The books you won’t find, except as pre-enjoyed or remaindered, are The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen.

Since these three, along with Climbers and my new short stories, rather sum up the point of writing for me, I hope we can do something about that soon.

“Cave & Julia” being very much a product of the Ambiente Hotel, back-bar regulars will add value by tracing its beginnings in these entries over the last year or two. I’ve set up a “Cave & Julia” page: leave your criticisms, gasps of almost sexual delight & sighs of sarcastic disbelief etc there, where comments aren’t time-limited, rather than here, where they close after a few days.

Or, of course, leave a review at Amazon.

interior with pvc bucket

We are so quick to look for closure, for the clear termination of sections of our life, that we often invent it. After the debacle at 17 Hill Park I had assumed I would never be caught up with Yaxley again. Indeed, obsessed with the Pleroma, he did leave me alone for two or three years. But after his failure with the ritual he called the Infolding, everything failed. The fear that he would be absorbed by the Pleroma grew daily, until his whole position was undercut by it. Associated phobias developed to include a horror of dirt. That, and the residue of one too many magical operations, drove him out of his rooms above the Atlantis bookshop & I lost sight of him. Then I received a telephone call, I don’t believe from Yaxley himself. After I picked up the receiver there was a prolonged silence, into which I prompted–

“Hello? Hello?”

Nothing. Then someone said softly:

“Go to this address–”

Other instructions followed, some infantile, some meaningless. I did not recognise the magical operation to which they referred. The voice was hard to hear, let alone to identify. It paused, failed, picked up again. Once or twice it laughed. “Two fucks and a pig,” it said. It seemed to come from a long way away, and there were other voices behind it. “Two fine fucks and a pig.”

I walked past the building twice. It was a spacious modern block on the north side of Upper Richmond Road, close to East Putney station. It reminded me less of Yaxley than Lawson, and perhaps it was in fact some fossil of their brief partnership. The people who lived there worked in property or investment banking. Traffic laboured under their windows all day, but double glazing muted the noise to a comfortable hum. By night their black European executive saloons lined up at the kerb in rows. I went through a cold well-kept entrance hall, unrelieved by two shallow brick structures like small municipal flowerbeds filled with decorative gravel, and took the stairs to the top floor. Between landings I wavered; touched for reassurance the white painted metal handrail. Had I heard someone coming up behind me?


Modern flats have a precision, a bleak openness to their angles, which encourages hygiene. Yaxley’s was painted off-white throughout, with white woodwork. Every wall, every wainscot, was spotless. There were some rather nice carpets in a kind of flushed pink. Furnished properly, it might have been comfortable if rather affectless. But all I could find was a telephone on a table and, in the middle of the lounge floor a state-of-the-art television. (When I switched it on, an unlabelled DVD began to play. I switched it off again immediately.) The kitchen was fitted expensively enough, with oak units, Creda Solarspeed hob, butcher-striped roller blinds. Under the immaculate stainless-steel double sink I found Flash, Jif, sponge floor mops, plastic buckets and Marigold rubber gloves–several of everything, all brand new, as if he had cached them against a seige; or agoraphobia.

Yaxley was in the bedroom.

He lay naked on his side in the middle of the uncarpeted floor, knees drawn up slightly. One hand was curled gently under the side of his head to support it. The other cupped his genitals. Death had aged him. With his long deceitful face, grey stubbled jaw, and lips drawn back over blackened or yellowish teeth, he might have been seventy or eighty. He looked like an old untrustworthy dog, shrunk, famished, reduced. Before he died, he had been trying to make something with two sticks. Above him on the wall was pinned a postcard reproduction of the steps of the British Museum. Under this he had scrawled in soft pencil the words ‘The Place of the Cure of the Soul’, a description reputed to have been carved over the doors of the Library at Alexandria. Otherwise the room was empty. There was no furniture, not even a bed. It stank. Yaxley hadn’t washed since I last saw him. The dirt was glazed on, as if he had spent the intervening years living in a doorway off the Charing Cross Road. In addition some sort of fat was smeared all over his emaciated upper body, perhaps as lubrication. He had been frightened the Pleroma would invaginate him. In the event though he seemed to have been not so much sucked in as sucked.

Behind him on the floor I found an envelope; inside that the key to a safety deposit box in the City. In the box, I knew, there would be two thick black notebooks. I had seen them before. I collected them that afternoon, and over the next two days, coming and going under Yaxley’s dead ironic eye, fetched his papers, his pictures and other magical paraphernalia from locations to which the notebooks gave access. Some of the larger items–an old fashioned Dansette record player, a wooden chair with awkwardly curved arms, two crates of books–I was forced to move by taxi. Decaying ring-binders burst and gave forth yellow papers, upon which I read in a scrawled hand:

    “The door! The rosy door!”


    “…two distinct and irreconcilable worlds, pleroma or fullness–which has come down to us as the muddled Christian promise of “Heaven”; and hysterema or kenoma, pain, illusion, emptiness–the life we must actually live. Between them, it used to be said, lies the paradox or boundary-state horos. But the great discovery of this century has been to knock at the door of horos and find no one at home. Horos is the wish-fulfilment dream, the treachery of the mirror…”

Eventually I had assembled it all in the stinking bedroom. The rest of the instructions proved harder to follow. I was required to set certain small objects–including a stoppered bottle half full of rose water and a Polaroid photograph of someone’s left hand–in precise relationships to one another on a small wooden table, about five feet in front of the corpse. The table itself must stand at the apex of a precise triangle, the other two points of which were represented by a burned-out electric kettle from some Tufnell Park bedsitter; and a split PVC bucket. I was to turn on the old Dansette in its peeled grey leatherette case, play a certain record, then undress, fold my clothes in a particular way, and masturbate. I knelt down before the table, with its burden of futile or malign objects. I pulled bleakly and unhappily at myself for perhaps ten minutes, but every time I felt the drowsy approach of orgasm, I seemed to snap back into self awareness, and feel upon me the dead magician’s amused, dispassionate gaze.

“Yaxley never did anything to anybody,” I remembered Pam Stuyvesant advising me. “He encourages you to do it to yourself.”

From the cloth-covered speaker of the Dansette, to a background of crackles and distant music, some chirpy pre-War entertainer sang:

    Who’s been polishing the sun,
    Sprucing up the clouds so grey?
    Does she know that’s how I like it?
    I hope she’s going my way!

Suddenly I felt exhausted and ill. I gave up the attempt and instead was violently sick into the plastic bucket. Yaxley, I suppose, may have allowed for this. It was hard to see whether the act had been designed to free or redeem him; or as a last meaningless sneer. Anyway, nothing seemed to happen, so after a bit I left. I closed and locked the door behind me, and later threw the key and the notebooks off Putney Bridge and into the river.

As far as I know, Yaxley’s still there.

[From The Course of the Heart, 1992.]

authenticating the crock

Unable to find a convincing voice, the narrator provides instead a running commentary on her own credibility, making furtive eye contact with the audience, offering & discarding alternative behaviours & engaging in a muddled discussion of her adventures & decisions. In this way she hopes to divert the unanswerable objection, “But surely in this situation–in which the Boobinog is throwing out vast bolts of power-energy & the ponies have no defense shields!–no one who thought like X would ever do Y!” or “Only somebody completely stupid would have gone into that alley in the first place.” It might be described as the motivational fallacy, typical of the aggressive-defensive relationship between failed writers, who dare not trust the reader, & failed readers, who will not trust the writer. For observers of such nightmare marriages, the appropriate question to ask of the writer is, “Excuse me, how many people have ever found themselves in a situation which even faintly resembles your absurd crock of shit?” While, in every case of motivational fallacy on the part of a reader, a similarly direct approach is to enquire, “What the fuck are you talking about ? None of this hokum has the slightest relationship to what you know or how you know it: so either the writer can sell you her crock or she can’t.” In short, it comes down not to credibility but to charisma.