the m john harrison blog

Tag: fantasy

pink slime fiction

A genre’s landscape should be littered with used tropes half-visible through their own smoke & surrounded by salvage artists with welding sets, otherwise it isn’t a genre at all. But what Paul Kincaid describes here & here as “exhaustion” is something else. It’s not creative redevelopment, it’s not evolution by bricolage, it’s not the boring old being kicked apart to reveal an interesting new inside. It’s not even laziness. It’s the intense commodification of ideas & styles evacuated of their original meaning & impact, an apparently deliberate industrialisation of the commonplace & worn out. In using the term exhaustion, Paul Kincaid is not announcing the “death” of F/SF as a genre. He’s very clear on that. Nor is he suggesting, from his broad, long-term experience as a reader & critic, that no interesting fiction is being written into or out of the genre–you’d be mad to claim that in a year which has seen the publication of Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees, or the long-hoped-for return of Jeff Noon with Channel SK1N, to mention only two examples. What Kincaid seems to be bringing to our attention here is that while genre has always been economical in the way it scrapes the carcass, much of what is published now is the product of a thoroughly mechanical separation & disinfection: LFTB of the imaginative.

everything gilded

Richmond Park. Cold & clear but no frost. An argument about how few cyclists are out this morning–C rightly points out that all we can know is that there is one cow in Scotland & one side of it is black. We run downhill at first, round a wood, along a stretch of bridle path slightly up hill in sand. Stags regard us with momentary irritation from the bracken, then go back to honking & clearing their throats at one another like theorists. It isn’t the Peak District but I feel good just to be outside & not in a street. Later at the hot snacks stand, two men chat about computers. “Of course, of course,” they agree. They laugh. They’re knee deep in terriers, one of which–a Border bitch dubbed “Maisie” –is very clever with a stick. The sunshine looks as if it was applied to every individual item during the night, like gold leaf. It’s as if someone worked so hard to make things nice for the people who come here from Kingston, Richmond, Barnes, East Sheen, as far away as Clapham. Later, Billy the bloodhound arrives, queen among dogs. The Saturday trade is mainly in bacon sandwiches, although one boy eats a frankfurter with thick squiggles of mustard & ketchup at 8.30 in the morning before he gets across his rather beautiful road bike.

use your new genre

Lowrider sword & sorcery. Before the battle of Helm’s Deep, Galadriel, who’s eaten nothing for a week but the wadding from benzedrine inhalers, does Cootchie Cootie in the back of his 1951 Fleetline bomb. It’s a favour for a friend. Wittgenstein, Merlin & CS Lewis look on in passive-aggressive disavowal. After that, for the founding volume anyway, it’s Zap Comic dynamics on a lean-burn version of The Revenger’s Tragedy–the usual tale of poor choices, low ground clearance & self medication. Emotional palette from A Glastonbury Romance, prose from Destination: Moon! & worldbuilding from one of those ads where if you buy the right mobile phone it causes inconvenient buildings to fold themselves away in front of the user so she can get to some other stuff she wants to consume without ever walking round a corner or even, apparently, consulting the phone itself? (The world will be called Eldrano, & not as I first proposed Eldranol, which turns out to be already TM’d for a bovine mastitis application.)

in the crime quarter

He worked out of a small office the only feature of which was the clarity and interest of the screen saver images. They were beachscapes exotic & hard to place, with a sharp, travelogue quality. He had the screen positioned so it was impossible to ignore these glimpses as they dissolved softly into one another; while to the client he presented the city as a surf of buildings & people & consumer goods. The motives that powered it were tidal. Unpredictable winds played against masses of water, currents too complex to understand. Crimes were whipped off the crest of events like spray. “A great wave,” he would explain, “composed of the billion actions of the very citizens it curls so threateningly above!” It was the perfected experience of art, he said, in the perfect space–art as an aspect of architectonic and thence, with perfect logic, of lifestyle. His clientele were not so sure. These carefully groomed & dressed art tourists would look across the desk at him with a kind of puzzled distaste, & wonder if they were in the process of making a mistake. They understood their own inauthenticity: they weren’t, at the outset anyway, so certain about his. The women had come for the sensorium porn. The men, though they would pretend to enjoy “seeing the world from a different point of view”, were only interested in donkey crime.


freedom from

Escape began in the 1960s. It was tentative & difficult at first. But later under neoliberalism & identity politics everyone escaped, even the people who were being escaped from. As a result there was nowhere left to go. Escape in that sense was finished as a paradigm & thereafter could only be attached to adverts for hair care product. Escape turned out to be an end, not a beginning. It was a brand; a version of “they lived happily ever after” tenable only as long as you didn’t try to live the other side of it.

postcard from Autotelia

The whole of the beach is artificial, white sand trucked in from somewhere else to complete the ruler-straight concrete strip with its fringe of mostly ghastly hotels, lowrise apartment clusters & restaurants. It receives a lot of traffic in the early & late summer but the rest of the year it’s like this, empty, exhausted-looking & scattered with objects you can’t quite understand. If you walk round the point at the south end, though, you find a different kind of beach altogether–rocky, terraced, without beach umbrellas or tourists. You have left a sullen, humid day, with a sort of hidden light coming through the cloud, for sunlight & abrasive air. A brisk inshore wind drives the sea up over the tide pools, the water is a murky detergent of grey and green, & a huge bank of black weed has formed on the tideline. A few hundred yards behind the beach lies the town crematorium, a curious truncated cylinder decorated on the outside with a huge mural like a 1920s woodcut: dead people silhouetted by the invisible sun & weird perspectives of the afterlife. One warning: when they offer you “Tiny Fishes” in the beach cafes, they are not. For me, whitebait are tiny fishes. These fishes are three inches long. On the whole, they eat like whitebait; but tiny is a misnomer. “Quite small” would be better.

elf land: the lost palaces

Eldranol the Elf Lord is wheeled to bed every night on a reinforced composite & titanium gurney. Two or three attendants lift the thick laps of flesh & lovingly clean out the sores down in the creamy, lardy folds where his genitals still nestle. He has lost some of his right foot to diabetes. The Queen left him 100 years ago, with her dwarf, for the North. But none of this will ever spoil his dream of finishing an ultra-marathon. At night in a secondary world of his secondary world the Elf Lord runs, barefoot & effortless, across the Great Erg Desert (see map), wearing only the traditional leather kirtle, while his favorite daughter keeps watch over his sleeping body with its faint, calming smells of ketones & antifungal cream. She’s a feisty urban vampire princess but her heart is so in the right place. She can’t help but wonder how things will go with them when the horde arrives at the gate next Wednesday. Tomorrow, in a final attempt to reach out to his people, the Elf Lord will feature kingdom-wide in the Don’t Do This To Yourself segment of Supersize vs Superskinny; while for the Princess it’s a Kickass Battle Looks last chance on QVC.

Image by Zali Krishna, from his Flickr

More on Elf Land here.

I’m not against worldbuilding…

…on the grounds that it impedes narrative. Nothing I’ve said has anything to do with worldbuilding vs narrative. Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed. Whatever the term worldbuilding implies, it isn’t deftness or economy. A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass. It has no V. It has no Dog Years. It has no David Foster Wallace. It isn’t a generous genre. The same few stolen cultures & bits of history, the same few biomes, the same few ideas about things. It’s a big bag but there isn’t much in it. With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.

in elf land

Over time the Elf Queen’s underjaw has thickened, while her chin has remained small & pointed, her nose turned up: so that you can see, embedded in fat, the adolescent she was fifteen hundred years ago. In her garden she keeps papery silver poppies & an iris which smells of chocolate; but since the Fall of Llyngitgothgethreal, the rest of her life has been half-warm meals in cold rooms. Though he still carries the single strand of her hair she gave him in the grim days before the battle of Clotsore Moor, the dwarf knows that their relationship is over. So when she says, in a final rather desperate move to regain the initiative, that she has decided to go away for a week, he only shrugs.

“I need to get some space,” she tells him.

“Great,” he says vaguely.

“Get right away,” she insists.

“Everyone needs space,” he says.

She leaves the room but calls back, “I can’t think what’s wrong with you.”

The dwarf can’t bring himself to say. As they fail to get older, elves cling on to peak moments & try to repeat them, squeezing a little less out each time until they are only going through the motions. To an outsider this makes their whole society seem grotesque, caricatured, desperate. He doesn’t want to be a party to it any more. He wants to be back underground, where the real things are happening.

More on Elf Land here.