the m john harrison blog

Tag: imaginary reviews

imaginary review (14)

This novel’s central character exists only to witness something he doesn’t understand. The reader doesn’t understand it either; not because it can’t be understood, or because there is nothing to be understood, but because understanding comes at the price of reassembling the components of the book from a position that is only hinted-at. One way or another, everything’s a clue to a point of view. But, much as a gene’s most important function may be to switch on a cascade of other genes, that in itself may be a clue only to another clue.


…then when we’re all stumbling about in the dark I’ll eat the ones who come near.


For fun I put some random blog entries through I Write Like, which told me I write like: Jack London, JRR Tolkien, Chuck Palahniuk (twice), Arthur Clarke (for the “Earth Advengers” post), Cory Doctorow, Gertrude Stein, Dan Brown (for the first paragraph of a review of a Peter Ackroyd novel), Ray Bradbury, David Foster Wallace (twice, once for “Keep Smiling With Great Minutes”), and HG Wells. After that, deciding that my samples must have been generally too short to give a consistent result, I tried the whole of “Imaginary Reviews” and got Isaac Asimov; a 4000 word English ghost story, set mainly at the seaside and featuring an ageing middle class woman called Elizabeth, and got Isaac Asimov again; and then “Cave & Julia” & got HG Wells again. For the whole of Empty Space I got Arthur Clarke; but for its final chapter, which ends with that memorable sentence of crawling Cosmic horror, “First she would separate Dominic the pharma from his friends, take him upstairs, and fuck him carefully to a tearful overnight understanding of the life they all led now,” I got HP Lovecraft.


A future psychoanalyst, Diana Sontag-Cohn, recklessly intertwines her own imagination with that of an unnamed patient known only by the letter X. X has failed to construct himself & invites the psychiatrist to extend her own self-constructive efforts on his behalf. The two of them are immediately looped into the construction of a third thing–their relationship–then a fourth & fifth–each one’s perception of this relationship under the shifting terms of the old pre-analysis selves–and so on. Out of the patient’s perception of emptiness & the psychiatrist’s gesture of filling, they build not one but several “worlds”. In the end, has the psychiatrist helped X to identify, find, or make himself ? No: but between them they have made an incalculable number of new psychological spaces, their exploration of which has made an incalculable number more. This labyrinthine dissipative system fails both of them & everything they have consigned to it re-emerges sooner or later in acts of insane violence.

When I received this book from the TLS for review, it was under such heavy embargo that minor reviewers like myself weren’t even allowed to know who had written it. The name would be backfilled into our copy on delivery. I would be required to show evidence that I had destroyed the ARC by an accepted secure method. At first I thought I must be reading a lost Richard Powers, written in the mid-80s & for some reason remaining unpublished. But at 120 pages the volume seemed too slim; & the text didn’t, in the end, seem recursive enough. Then I began to count the author’s many uses of the acronym DSC, the initials of worldbuilding psychiatrist Diana Sontag-Cohn, whose name comprises the first three words of the novel. With the exception of X, all the central characters share these initials; and in one entire–thankfully short–chapter, every character’s name is made from an anagram of Sontag-Cohn’s. This led to the inevitable recognition that I was holding in my hands an early product of the legendary Dynamical Systems Collective–perhaps their first and only foray into the literary arts! You can imagine my excitement. A tragedy that, in the end, it was withdrawn a week before publication–although the occasional ARC, untitled, unattributed & unread, can still be found in the Oxfams of Clapham, Highgate & Cambridge.

(This imaginary review is revised from a 2011 post & its BTL extension.)

the last fish

In this unwritten pastiche the central character stares out over a deserted coastal town, entangling himself with mysterious couples, psychiatrists and fliers as the world around him falls slowly but irrevocably into a beach-fatigued 50s sf version of itself. “Every so often, as he waited for nightfall–signalled by the long repetitive sweep of the old Ferrari’s headlights against the greenish afterglow above the esplanade–Carson would force himself up and down Hermione Miro’s small swimming pool at a slow crawl, these few enervated daily laps a way of convincing himself that he still existed.” Etc etc. We think this is a metaphor. But here’s the concept: in Carson’s world, as in ours, everyone without sufficient ego is vanishing. As the story progresses, we see that Carson is vanishing too.

what we talk about when we talk about talking about

All the imaginary reviews.

an imaginary review (10)

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.

reader, I wrote her

“What’s your book about, Carlos ?”

“It’s about the romance & holiness & mystery & paradoxical matter-of-factness of all books. & it’s about my struggles with this book, my book, the one you hold in your hand. & it’s about women, the romance & holiness & mystery & paradoxical matter-of-factness of women, & about my struggle with this woman, the woman you–”


an imaginary review (6)

A clear & useful bridge between science and the public is constructed in this empathic literary novel of a boy & how he comes to terms with his world. Explanations of everything from black holes to epigenesis demonstrate the author’s engagement with the scientific worldview, & act as the pivots of metaphors for a full range of human emotions & concerns. The total effect is one of numbing boredom, & of a mind which has carefully removed everything of excitement from its encounters with physics, cosmology & molecular biology. A Hay Festival version of the Popular Mechanics-style science fiction of the 1920s, this novel has a similar mission to educate its demographic–primarily 40/50-year-old reading-group members with a humanities degree. As a result, the very last thing its author has managed is to be, as his dustjacket claims, “boldly imaginative”. The most interesting thing about the book is its title, the literary referentiality & linguistic quirkiness of which promise more than they can ever deliver.

an imaginary review (5)

This novelist’s characters are like himself. They speak in clever & rounded sentences. They have caught life in a linguistic net, & found some odd fish there, & now they are going to tell you about it: not really at length, but in the end at more length than you suspected in the beginning.

The impression of wisdom radiates from the feeblest of their jokes. You look covertly at your watch even as you think, “How delightful!”

It isn’t possible at this distance–the distance between writer & reader–to tell how much of the novel is “biographical”. If some of it is, there’s nothing we can do about it; if none of it is, well that’s a joke some decades old by now, & perhaps a little less joyful than it seemed in 1980. What is possible to say is that the acknowledgements page, written in the same tone as the book itself, is a very self-indulgent piece of work.

A butterfly landed on page 52 while I was reading it in my garden. From that single event I learned nothing about the book, or reading, or writing, or anything at all.