the m john harrison blog

Tag: lists

into thin air

During my recent eczema of list-making I forgot Thin Air, by George E Simpson & Neal R Burger. How could that happen ? When you’re tired of military-industrial horror-science conspiracy fiction written by non-sf writers you’re tired of life. I mean that sincerely.

shelf love, h to j

Another bulletin from the bookshelf. Many favourites here, from Dubliners to Down There On A Visit. Am I going to compare Tree of Smoke with Dispatches ? I am not.

Rawi Hage
Dashiell Hammett
Elizabeth Hand
Colin Harrison
Kent Haruf
Graham Harvey
Pete Hautman
Dick Hebdige
Michael Herr
Werner Herzog
Russell Hoban
Fred Hoyle
John H Holland
Michel Houellebecq
Bernard Huevelmans
Liam Hudson
Christopher Isherwood
Denis Johnson
Steve Jones
James Joyce

The rawest item on the shelf has to be Of Walking in Ice. When Herzog discovered that Lotte Eisner was dying in Paris, he decided to walk to her from Munich, “in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot”. His shoes fell apart quite soon. This act of commitment has additional resonance if, like me, you are reading David Constantine. But Constantine’s characters aren’t so confrontational, even as they confront the world’s implacability. They are tentative, hurt, rueful, & a kind of pliability or resilience gets them through & allows them to make the discoveries.

shelf love, e to g

TS Eliot
Richard Ellman
Tim Etchells
AA Evans
Michel Faber
Theodora Fitzgibbon
Peter Fleming
Nick Flynn
Richard Ford
Thomas Frank
Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Safran Foer
Alan Furst
Peter Gay
Gerard Genette
Ellen Gilchrist
James Gleick
William Golding
The Brothers Goncourt
Edward Gorey
Robert Graves
John Gray
Brian Greene
John Gribbin
Che Guevara
Pedro Juan Guitierrez

I take down one of these books, find a bookmark 32 years old, this torn browned bit of paper with “tabolites stored in fat” scribbled on it in a handwriting not mine, which I take to have read “metabolites”. After that, well, the voices start, “Buy the Pontiac”, “Avoid that shadow in the wall”, usual thing. So I douse the joint in gasoline & stand across the street drinking barrel proof bourbon & watching the flames etc etc. You try to break up with your library but it just follows you about whining til you hit it with a stick.

strange bedfellows episode 2: c to d*

Stripping yourself of objects is the most fantastic relief. A visit to the recycling centre brings a sense of elation & power barely matched by sex, violence, or even revising a sentence. But why, in my case, is a decrease in the number of books always matched by an increase in the amount of outdoor clothing ? Ah, I see. OK. Anyway, more scandals from my downsized bookshelves–

Tim Cahill
Italo Calvino
Truman Capote
Angela Carter
Raymond Carver
Willa Cather
Bruce Chatwin
Anton Chekhov
Norman Cohn
Peter Coveney & Roger Highfield
Robertson Davies
WH Davies
Richard Dawkins
Lawrence Durrell

I don’t know who’s unluckiest, Angela Carter or WH Davies. (*& for episode 1, see here.)

livelier than the average dragon

A few fatal omissions from the fantasy & sf lists. Doubtless there’ll be more.

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, 1815, Jan Potocki
The Circus of Dr Lao, 1935, Charles G Finney
The Street of Crocodiles & The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1934, 1937, Bruno Schulz
A Matter of Life & Death, 1946, Powell & Pressburger
The World of Null-A, 1948, AE Van Vogt
The City & the Stars, 1956, AC Clarke
On the Beach, 1957, Nevil Shute
The Saragossa Manuscript, 1965, dir Has
Crow, 1970, Ted Hughes
The Year of the Quiet Sun, 1970, Wilson Tucker
Roadrunner, 1976, Jonathan Richman (produced by John Cale)
The Affirmation, 1981, Christopher Priest
Burning Chrome, 1986, William Gibson
Violent Cases, 1987, Gaiman & McKean
Heathern, 1990, Jack Womack
Norstrilia & The Rediscovery of Man, 1993, 1994, Cordwainer Smith
Only Forward, 1994, Michael Marshall Smith
Northern Lights, 1995, Philip Pullman
Who Will Love Me Now ?, 1996 [?], PJ Harvey
The Wolves in the Walls, 2003, Gaiman & McKean
Varjak Paw, 2003, SF Said
Mortal Love, 2004, Liz Hand
Primer, 2004, dir Carruth
The Broken World, 2008, Tim Etchells
The City & the City, 2009, China Mieville

Oh, & Oaxacan woodcarvings, livelier than the average fantasy by ten thousand watts of power–


–not to say simpler, more direct, more fun, & a lot more appealing in terms of their aesthetic.

Photo: Cath Phillips

fantasy: building the new canon

Barbaric Document has YouTube of Polly Harvey’s Who Will Love Me Now ?, a mix of raw yearning, total self-awareness & Angela Carter-like manipulation of folk imagery which should have gone straight on to the fantasy list.

Apropos of that list–

One or two people have emailed me to point out that it is eccentric. Many of the recommendations on it are “not true fantasy” (ie, they weren’t written in the US after 1970). Some “aren’t fantasy at all”. Some aren’t even books. While several have done well, others are barely known.

I’m sorry you feel like that. Actually, I’ve begun to feel that it wasn’t eccentric enough. By concentrating on items made specifically to be art or entertainment objects, it missed an opportunity. So here’s a modest proposal.

The car industry offers fantasies of success, escape &, especially, competence (ninety percent of drivers rate themselves in the top ten percent of driving ability). The cosmetic & fashion industries offer the fantasy of perfectibility. The sports industry sells a fantasy of activity to people who rarely leave their cars or their sofas unless it’s to go to bed. From the iconography of Nationalism to the publicly managed death of a Reality TV star, cultural psychodramas have always been fantasies–some orchestrated, some spontaneous, most a mixture of both. All these elements are interlocked. You don’t have to be a theorist to recognise that. You only have to have lived in the 20th & 21st Centuries.

The world is constructed. It is imaginary from the off. Inside that imagined space, we act out off-the-rack fictions. Take a bus, sign a form, buy a product, catch up on your friends, catch up on the latest panic: each time we move we model the visions of politicians, journalists, lobbyists, standards agencies, architects, fashion houses, hypermarket shelf-planners. Each satisfactory performance brings fantasy rewards. Life flatpacks into a mobile phone. A bottle of shampoo contains a brief orgasm.

So my list is deficient in that it doesn’t include some of the truly great fantasies. Coca Cola’s appropriation and redesign of “Father Christmas” in 1931. Bernie Eccleston’s “Formula One” (see fantasies of competence, above). L’Oreal’s brilliant narcissistic fantasy, “You’re worth it!”, in which the full experience of the flattered self is stuffed into an astonishingly small word-count. (It would take the best–ie, highest-earning–fantasy writer in the world, JK Rowling herself, a minimum of 200,000 words to shift a fraction of the product to a fraction of the customers reached by that short phrase.)

These texts are more successful than fantasy novels. Their penetration of the global market is deeper. Yet we don’t find them, or the people who wrote them, on any list of great fantasies. They don’t win awards. The literary snobbery of the fantasy publishing industry excludes them. Compared to brand campaigns, political slogans & media psychodramas, fantasy novels speak to a minority. They are the indulgence of an elite, maintained in the face of the tastes of ordinary people, who don’t read but who just want to find some direct connection to their dreams–through a household purchase, an opportunity to vote, a day at a theme park–which allows them a moment of escape from the dreariness of daily existence. Is that wrong ? Was The Life & Death of Jade Goody any less of a fulfilling fantasy experience than The Lord of the Rings ? Only an elitist would say so.

Lewis Hamilton would be my pick for the World Fantasy Award this year. A well crafted YA fiction, it’s packed full of thrills & spills: the story of how one talented boy’s aspirational dream turns into a nightmare and then back into a dream and then back into a nightmare again and then back into a dream again and then… It lacks the feelgood appeal of Obama! But I think, in the end, it’s more original. After all, Hamilton didn’t steal his shoutline from Bob the Builder, a UK TV series for very young children.

some interesting science fiction

Frankenstein, 1818, Mary Shelley
The Time Machine, 1895, HG Wells
The War of the Worlds, 1898, HG Wells
The Purple Cloud , 1901, MP Shiel
The House on the Borderland, 1908, W Hope Hodgson
Metropolis, 1927, Fritz Lang
Last & First Men, 1930, Olaf Stapledon
At the Mountains of Madness, 1936, HP Lovecraft
Out of the Silent Planet, 1938, CS Lewis
The Golden Amazon, 1944, John Russel Fearn
1984, 1949, George Orwell
The Paradox Men, 1953, Charles L Harness
Shambleau & Others, 1953, CL Moore
Dan Dare: Operation Saturn, 1953/4, Frank Hampson
Them!, 1954, dir Douglas
The Man with Absolute Motion, 1955, Silas Water
Tiger Tiger, 1955, Alfred Bester
The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957, dir Arnold
Quatermass 2, 1957, Nigel Kneale
Journey Into Space, 1953/8, Charles Chilton
The Sirens of Titan, 1959, Kurt Vonnegut
Rogue Moon, 1960, Algis Budrys
The Voices of Time, 1962, JG Ballard
The Alley God, 1962, Philip Jose Farmer
A for Andromeda, 1962, Fred Hoyle & John Elliot
V, 1963, Thomas Pynchon
The Secret of Sinharat, 1964, Leigh Brackett
The Terminal Beach, 1964, JG Ballard
The Anything Box, 1965, Zenna Henderson
Alphaville, 1965, dir Goddard
Babel 17, 1966, Samuel R Delany
Mr Da V & Other Stories, 1967, Kit Reed
Report on Probability A, 1968, Brian W Aldiss
The Final Programme, 1968, Michael Moorcock
The Atrocity Exhibition, 1969, JG Ballard
Roadside Picnic, 1971, A&B Strugatsky
Vermillion Sands, 1971, JG Ballard
334, 1972, Thomas M Disch
Ten Thousand Light Years from Home, 1973, James Tiptree Jr
The Clangers, 1969/74, Oliver Postgate
The Grain Kings, 1976, Keith Roberts
Altered States, 1978, Paddy Chayevsky
Timescape, 1980, Gregory Benford
Repo Man, 1984, dir Cox
Neuromancer, 1984, William Gibson
Schismatrix, 1985, Bruce Sterling
The Unconquered Country, 1986, Geoff Ryman
Escape Plans, 1986, Gwyneth Jones
A Spaceship Built of Stone, 1987, Lisa Tuttle
Tank Girl, 1988, Martin & Hewlett
Flatliners, 1990, dir Schumacher
War Fever, 1990, JG Ballard
Sarah Canary, 1991, Karen Joy Fowler
Feersum Endjinn, 1994, Iain M Banks
Fairyland, 1996, Paul J McCauley
Event Horizon, 1997, dir Anderson
What’s He Building in There ?, 1999, Tom Waits
Under the Skin, 2000, Michel Faber
Synners, 2001, by Pat Cadigan
Natural History, 2003, Justina Robson
Samorost, 2003, Jakub Dvorsky
Dare, 2005, Gorillaz
The Weight of Numbers, 2006, Simon Ings

As with the fantasy list, there’s no attempt to provide “balance” between old & new, to weight each decade evenly, or to make the list exhaustive. It’s just stuff that turned me on when I read it or watched it; or which still turns me on now. I haven’t tried to correct for the fact that most of it originated in the US or UK. I haven’t played the game, “I know an earlier & more contentious example of sf than you” because (a) if I ever did, I’ve forgotten it & (b) apart from Wells & Shelley I don’t care about anything much before the turn of the 20th Century. If you want to claim The Epic of Gilgamesh or something, be my guest. If I’ve missed off your favourite book, or left out a category of authors, the same.

Some of these picks come with a caveat: I don’t much like either the metaphysics or the outcome of Flatliners, for instance, but I think the basic idea–killing yourself for fun–is so sound it makes up for a lot. To avoid revisionary items like “the first 20 minutes of Stargate but the rest is such shite”, I curbed this tendency.

literary scandals

To pass the time–time I don’t have–I played the game “Strange Bedfellows” with my newly pruned bookcase. Here are the As & the Bs, as they cuddle up to one another on the shelves–

Carolyn Abraham
Kathy Acker
Martin Amis
Kent Anderson
Guillermo Arriaga
HE Bates
Nigel Balchin
T Behrens
John Bliebtrau
Harold Bloom
Marc Bojanowski
Roberto Bolano
Elizabeth Bowen
Charles Bukowski
Michel Butor
Dino Buzzati

There are two games to be played here. One is to guess which books I own of which author. The other is to imagine what these scandalous couples & triples might be saying to one another as they switch off the light (or in Bukowski’s case, accidentally set fire to their own vomit). Obviously, you can only do the adjacent ones, ie Acker/Amis (fun, given what he said about her) but not Acker/Butor, which anyway would be just perverted. Since the Bowen Bukowski coupling is the most unnatural & interesting, you get fewer points for doing that one. If anyone’s interested, I’ll put up the Cs & Ds next. If not, not to worry.

some good fantasy

The House on the Borderland, 1908, William Hope Hodgson
The Wind in the Willows, 1908, Kenneth Grahame
The Great Return, 1915, Arthur Machen
From Ritual to Romance, 1920, Jessie L Weston
Nosferatu, 1922, dir FW Murnau
Mr Weston’s Good Wine, 1927, TF Powys
War in Heaven, 1930, Charles Williams
The Green Child, 1935, Herbert Read
At the Mountains of Madness, 1936, HP Lovecraft
At Swim-Two-Birds, 1939, Flann O’Brien
Fantasia, 1940, dir Walt Disney
The Journal of Albion Moonlight, 1941, Kenneth Patchen
That Hideous Strength, 1945, CS Lewis
The Martian Chronicles, 1950, Ray Bradbury
Mazirian the Magician, 1950, Jack Vance
E Pluribus Unicorn, 1953, Theodore Sturgeon
The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957, dir Jack Arnold
The Vodi, 1959, John Braine
The Alexandria Quartet, 1957-1960, Lawrence Durrell
A Fine & Private Place, 1960, Peter Beagle
The Stealer of Souls, 1963, Michael Moorcock
V, 1963, Thomas Pynchon
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, 1963, Joan Aiken
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, 1964, Joanne Greenberg
The Magus, 1966, John Fowles
All Along the Watchtower, 1967, Bob Dylan
Mooncranker’s Gift, 1973, Barry Unsworth
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974, dir Werner Herzog
Diamond Dogs, 1974, David Bowie
Ritual Animal Disguise, 1977, EC Cawte
Stalker, 1979, dir Andrei Tarkovsky
The Bloody Chamber, 1979, Angela Carter
The Fall of the House of Usher, 1981, dir Jan Svankmajer
Mythago Wood, 1984, Robert Holdstock
Halo Jones, 1984, Alan Moore & Ian Gibson
Rain Dogs, 1985, Tom Waits
Blue Velvet, 1986, dir David Lynch
The Mortmere Stories, 1994, Edward Upward & Christopher Isherwood
Jumping Joan, 1994, dir Petra Freeman
Institute Benjamenta, 1995, dir The Brothers Quay
The Voice of the Fire, 1996, Alan Moore
Lost Highway, 1997, dir David Lynch
Simon Magus, 1999, dir Ben Hopkins
The Dream Archipelago, 1999, Christopher Priest
Under the Skin, 2000, Michel Faber
Ratchet & Clank, 2002, Insomniac Games
The Carpet Makers, 2006, Andreas Eschbach
Peter & the Wolf, 2006, dir Suzie Templeton
The Night Buffalo, 2007, Guillermo Arriaga
Night Work, 2008, Thomas Glavinic