the m john harrison blog

Tag: the postmodernised landscape

in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.


from empty space to stanage edge

I’ve got two slots at Edge Lit in July, it seems. For the GoH “speech” I’ll read a new story & maybe answer questions about the forthcoming short story collection & the novel in progress. For the other one, an item on writing landscape, I’ll probably do something like this–

Landscape in fiction is never just background, or you’re wasting your opportunities. Let the landscape do as much of the work of informing the reader of your intentions as possible. Entangle your ideas & meanings with the setting. Fold them into one another.

Empty Space: the Funene Golden Hour, a landscape derived from photography of the Namib coast. Ad-image pseudo-sublime. What is the difference between awe & oh wow? The reification of an aesthetic judgement, a play on the use of the term “landscape porn”. Woven into the trilogy’s general position on neoLiberal postindustrial spectacle–the transformation of real sites into sites of public art, ie leisure heritage.

Climbers: “The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.” But also, the gritsone edges as a kinaesthetic abacus on which you “tell” your life. To what degree–& in how many lives–has Stanage served that purpose–emotional touchstone or pivot, hermitage, site of psycho-addiction sought out at points in your life, abandoned at others–but also the sense that the gritstone landscape can in some unforgiving way abandon you & you may never be allowed to go back…

Come prepared to ask: What’s the difference, then, between a real landscape & a fictional one? & its various obvious corollaries.

voices in the hills

Attempts to deliver outside as inside, to convert the landscape into a kind of built environment and our interactions with it into a confusion of messages and mission statements. Interest groups that deliver the outdoors to us are not the outdoors itself but by mediating the experience they turn it from an interaction with the outdoors into an interaction with them. Structural intrusions into the landscape market limiting messages about how it can be used. Loosely-associated entertainments draw a family demographic, playing into the hands of direct commercial exploitation. Landscape as backdrop, as ever. Signage & architecture intrude, multiply and move steadily towards the spectacular. 2050, the thing has become the picture of the thing, the plan for the thing: “Wind, stones, light trapped in the fast cold air along the hillside. Edwardian sunrise. We leave the bunkhouse hopeful, return tired from a day of voices in the hills, the hard winter crossing of the Interpretation Room of the Ogwen Visitor Centre.”


I’m waiting for the time when the Roman Wroxeter Heritage Site falls into ruin and far-postmodern generations place its replica Roman villa (2010) on a historical par with the remains of the second century municipal baths, so that the Heritage experience becomes in itself heritage, as authentic as the real thing. It’s the future of Heritage to replace the past. Meanwhile, I heard someone complain recently that the cooling towers of the about-to-be-decommissioned Ironbridge B power station “spoil” the Ironbridge World Heritage Site. And what, exactly, we ask ourselves, is the heritage of Ironbridge Gorge? Why, it’s the decommissioned remains of a couple of hundred years of industrial spoliation; that’s what brings the punter in. There are some cheap ironies here if anyone’s interested in conserving them.

the story today

Dear BBC, I know that the story is the story. But do you have to structure every story around the story that it’s a story, & advise me that you’re storying the story, EVEN WHEN IT’S JUST THE FUCKING WEATHER? I’m fucking storied up to here with the fucking story. Really. I just want to know if it’s going to rain. I do not want to know that it’s going to be “a story of rain”. I do not want the story of the rain. I want to know if it’s going to rain or not. Anything else is meaningless nonsense to me in this context. Rain or no rain? Be careful how you answer this. Because you are a weather forecaster. Get it?

Today’s story has been one of bollocks all over the British Isles, with more bollocks, I’m afraid to say, to come.

post industrial zones

Dubious & formalised, as in Bilbao’s ex-docks or Sheffield reinvented as an apres-steel boutique: from industry to heritage industry. Wreckage needs to be real. It needs to be free. The central, inevitable & useful thing about a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond is that it’s a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond. Anything else is so pathetic: cleaned up, saved from itself (separated from the entropic processes it was always part of) & fit for a place on the mantelpiece in a nice front room. That teaches us something about the sublime in general: ie, really, it’s the Black Spot, the beginning of the end. So try & avoid capturing, recapturing or–especially– “celebrating” it. The urge to convey the authentic glee & terror of the post industrial wasteland is the beginning of the processes of romanticisation, postmodernisation & domestication. From the raw horror of a working blast furnace, through the uncanny of that much rust, to the kitsch. We need to live in the ruins; forget them; then live through them all over again, as whatever the landscape makes of them. Anything else is the media souvenir.

mapping the obvious

SF Signal celebrated the mapping of invented landscapes by asking, “Which fantasy maps are your favourites ?” I enjoyed Matthew Cheney’s contribution. Most invented landscapes are so dull they wouldn’t detain you for a second from a 24 hour barefoot trudge between abandoned Welsh slate workings in the rain, carrying your ex-partner’s oil-fired Aga on your back (halfway through which you’ll discover that instead of OS OL17 you’ve inadvertently packed the groundplan to Harvey Nicholls’ perfume department).

safe from this constant obscene revelation of things

The best outcome here would be a few more glimpses then nothing. The sooner the pursuit is abandoned to loonies & internet obsessives the better; that way the mystery can slip behind its own bad reputation & vanish. Was there ever an orang pendek ? It won’t be possible to know. Only some kitschy meme will remain.

head back

It was hot. My legs hurt from the day before. The first couple of miles were like Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. Every time someone passed me I was angrier than before but as soon as I got up onto the ridge I felt calm again. I looked out over the lake. There was enough of a breeze to feel cool, not enough to need a coat. Lucky because I hadn’t brought one. I cut an apple into quarters with my old Puma knife & watched someone being helicoptered off one of the popular tracks on the north side. Heart attack. Sprained ankle. Lost their iPhone. After five minutes the helicopter clattered past the length of a back garden away & at the same level as my eyes, oily & machine-looking like a yellow bulldozer suspended in clear air. It banked away north east, the despatcher staring out blankly in my direction, seeing nothing but an afternoon’s work. Scores of people crowded on to the summit like bristles on a brush. They were holding up their phones, taking the pictures, looking for a signal. I could go up there but I didn’t have to, so I ate the apple, wiped the knife & went down instead & spent the rest of the afternoon lying in the grass listening to the stream. My head was back on.


If Cowboys & Aliens has one tenth the genius of this (which I will never forgive myself for leaving off the interesting sf list), it will be quite good. But I bet it hasn’t.

Catching up on: To Die For, Lucy Siegle’s eye-opener on the fast fashion industry, in which people admit to throwing away their used socks & underpants because it’s “cheaper” than washing them.

Also Fire Season, Philip Connors’ contemporary firewatching classic: not quite Desolation Angels, but a man unafraid to write this

    One indisputable charm of being a lookout is the sanction it offers to be shed of the the social imperative of productivity, to slip away from the group hug of a digital culture enthralled with social networking, the hive mind, and efficiency defined as connectedness. I often think of a line from Arno Leopold: “Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.”

into the present climate, where it will be received as at best misanthropic (when did the rejection of materialism become synonymous with the rejection of some basic level of humanity ? Answer, during the Thatcher period) & at worst a criminally elitist attack on everybody else, deserves to be read.