the m john harrison blog

Tag: science fiction

a difficult time for everyone

If you’re in London on the evening of the 5th March & you’d like to hear me reading “The Crisis”, leave an email address here, or DM me at @mjohnharrison on Twitter–

Adolescence. West London. You always believed a hidden war was being fought, a war nobody would ever admit to. Lay awake at night, listening to bursts of corporate fireworks that seemed too aggressive to be anything other than a small arms exchange; while by day, ground-attack helicopters clattered suddenly and purposively along the curve of the Thames towards Heathrow. You held your breath in moments of prolonged suspense, imagining the smoke trails of rockets launched from the bed of a builder’s pickup in Richmond or Kingston. These fantasy-engagements, asymmetric and furtive, a kind of secret, personalised Middle East, left you as exhausted as masturbation. There was something narcissistic about them. A decade later, everyone was able to feel a similar confused excitement. With the coming of the iGhetti, everyone had a story to tell but no one could be sure what it was. Information was so hard to come by. Between anecdotal evidence and the spectacular misdirections of the news cycle lay gulfs of supposition, fear, and denial. People didn’t know how to act. One minute they heard the guns, the next they were assured that nothing was happening. One day they were panicking and leaving the city in numbers, the next they were returning but rumour had convinced them to throw their tablet computers in the river. The thing they feared most was contagion. They locked their doors. They severed their broadband connections and tanked their cellars. They avoided a growing list of foods. They clustered round a smartphone every summer evening after dark, eavesdropping on the comings and goings of the local militas as they scoured the railway banks and canalsides for telltale astral jelly. Were the iGhetti here or not? It was a difficult time for everyone.

synopsis

Embrace austerity. Take the shit money, suck up the shit treatment. Let it make you hard, unforgiving & suspicious of everything. Appropriate all those faked-up calls for discipline & self control & make them real. Use them to build. Organise quietly in the evenings & at weekends. Don’t use the phone. Avoid the internet. Don’t be public. Don’t join the debate. Don’t bother with the left (the left allowed itself to be liquidated in one generation, not by vertical force but by the horizontal spread of philosophies of greed & narcissism). Real austerity is the last thing the one percent want to see in an economy. Real austereness is the last virtue they possess or want to possess. Real austereness is the last thing they expect from anyone. Real austereness is the last quality they want you to have, because they built their counter-revolution on selling self-indulgence & it’s the only technique they know. Reject comfort. Take austerity to yourself & use it. Be careful who you talk to. Learn how to be calmly determined & work for long term change.

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.

living in the future

There are futures everywhere. They’re at street corners. They’re waiting between the buildings of an old-fashioned industrial estate, the architecture of which hasn’t changed since the 50s. Or they’re waiting for a train in the middle of the day, in the empty middle of an afternoon, for something important to them but invisible to you. They’re in the provinces. They have a provincial nature, which is also invisible to you. They’re ordinary and self-similar. They’re not transparent. They have clothes, children, a job, or no job. They have ambitions. They’re a gesture, a posture, an item of baggage.

The Web, December 12, 2012–

Deep cold air. Triangular spiderweb, curved like a sail, attached at two points to the house & at the third to an old dry poppy head in a pot on the balcony. Most of it invisible, but the edges & all the rigging picked out with frost. One patch of frost, about three inches in from the leading edge, minutely cross-hatched in the shape of a section through an ammonite. I can’t see if the spider’s part of that little structure. The effect is of a journey in a different regime to ours. Whatever medium is inflating the sail–whatever medium, conversely, is rushing past it–is not a property of our universe & cannot be defined by our way of relating to things. That’s why we have a duty of care to the spider. She’s sailing into an idea of winter we can’t have. Her perception, acted out as this structure, is a valuable resource. I’ve watched her mother & grandmother make webs there, and their mothers and grandmothers, right back into the historical times. They all built ships but none of them built quite like this.

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.)

what it looks like now again

You sit over a one-bar electric fire in a rented room. As soon as you feel recovered from the commute you’ll boil some potatoes on the gas ring, then, three minutes before they’re done, drop an egg into the same water. You can hear the family downstairs laughing at something, some dressed-up cats or something, on the internet. After people have cooked, they can often get use out of their gadgets–join a world building game, preorder the gadget they want next–although the load soon precipitates a brownout. During the day you work in a 7th floor office in the Strand. Publicity for a fuel corporate. It’s nice. All very heads-down but worth it to have the security. Last year you got involved with an East Midlands junkie who claimed to have a telepathic link to another world & to be able to control a 3d printer with their mind alone, & they turned out to be seventeen not twenty seven as they said, & after their staffie/mastiff cross, which they were looking after for a friend in rehab, bit two fingers off your ex’s left hand when he came back from an oil-exploration contract in one of the ‘stans, you forget which one, they fitted all the lights in the house with blue bulbs then tried to commit suicide in your bath in an excess of adolescent self-disgust. It was a cry for help. They’ve gone now–last you heard they were with a grindcore musician in Peckham–and you’re glad, but you miss their smell, which was instantly exciting; & their dysfunctionality, which you remember as “character”. The sex was tremendous, if a little full on & tiring. Outside it’s minus ten & you have no idea what’s happening on the old housing estates by the river. “Welcome to London,” someone in the office said today. That got a laugh. “Welcome to the managerial classes.” All he really meant was that like everyone else he would do anything to stay this side of the line.

Analyses

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 little bit of empty space

“Have you ever been inside a quarantine hulk ?”

This voice belonged to MP Renoko, a man you often met at The East Ural Nature Reserve, where he would begin a conversation by saying: “You agree there’s no neccessity to confuse a practical tool with a theory of the world ?” Renoko came and went, but always bought rounds of drinks.

“I’m relieved to see you,” Antoyne said. “Considering this.”

“Considering what ?”

“That,” Antoyne said, pointing above his head; but the baby was gone. He looked up, around, behind him: nothing.

Gravuley Street offered no aid. To the left lay darkness and the empty planet; to the right, the savagely lighted window of the Faint Dime. He could see every item of interior decoration, pressed-out and perfect in candy colours. Someone was drinking Ovaltine with rum. Someone else was getting a big-size ham on rye sandwich with fries. Antoyne wiped his mouth. The hair went up on his neck. One o’ clock in the morning, and a light wind blew dust in ribbons down the middle of the street.

“Something was here,” he asserted. “Why don’t we get a drink ?”

“I’m buying,” said MP Renoko. “It seems to me you’ve had some sort of shock.”

Renoko looked like a photograph of Anton Chekhov, if Chekhov had aged more and come to favour a little white chin-beard. Otherwise his look sucessfully teamed used raincoats with grey worsted trousers five inches too short. His hair–white, swept back to a grubby collar–always seemed full of light. He was smallboned, and intense in manner. His clothes came spattered with outmoded foods such as tapioca and “soup”. On his feet he wore cracked tan wingtips without socks, and it was a feature of this careful image that his ankles went unwashed. As soon as he and Fat Antoyne had settled themselves in the comparitive safety of The East Ural Nature Reserve, he returned to his original subject as if he had never left it:

“‘Everyone their own evolutionary project,’ we tell each other here in the Halo. Excuse me, this can only be an element of cultural self-dramatisation, even in times like ours.” His smile meant he was prepared to forgive that. “But if there is a new species,” he said, “perhaps it’s up there in those quarantine hulks.”

Fat Antoyne said he didn’t get it.

Renoko smiled. “You get it,” he said.

Leaked navigational nanoware or eleven-dimensional imaging code slips up someone’s anus at night and discovers it can run on a protein substrate. In a similar way, ads, memes, diseases and algorithms escape into the wild. They can run on your neurons, they can run inside your cells. They perform a default conversion. Suddenly the cops are out with the loudhailers, “Stay inside! Stay Indoors!” but it’s too late: on your street, in your house, everything collapses suddenly into an unplanned slurry of nanotech, half-tailored viruses and human fats–your husband, your two little girls in their identical dresses, you. “Entire planetary populations,” Renoko said, “are converting to this stuff. Is it an end-state ?” He threw up his little hands. “No one knows! Is it a new medium ? No one is willing to say! It’s as beautiful as water in strong sunlight, yet it stinks like rendered fat, and can absorb an adult human being in forty seconds. The hulks are full of it, the quarantine orbit is full of hulks. Men like you keep it safe.”

Obsolete pipeliners that worked the Carling Line, decommissioned Alcubiere warps the size of planetisimals, anything with a thick hull, especially if it’s easy to reinforce further: Fat Antoyne had a sudden clear image of those pocked relics in the interplanetary darkness–used-up ships mysterious with the dim crawling lights of beacons and particle dogs, pinwheeling around on near-chaotic operator-controlled trajectories.

He shook his drink and watched it settle.

“Not me,” he said. “I got a six month contract to move some of it around, that’s all.”

From Empty Space.

u1604
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