NOVA SWING – M. John Harrison (2006)

Nova Swing“For the detictive, he thought, nothing is ever only itself.”

There’s a provoking quote by Harrison floating around on the web, although the original post seems deleted:

“The writer – as opposed to the worldbuilder – must therefore rely on an audience which begins with the idea that reading is a game in itself. I don’t see this happening in worldbuilding fiction. When you read such obsessively-rationalised fiction you are not being invited to interpret, but to “see” and “share” a single world. As well as being based on a failure to understand the limitations of language as a communications tool (or indeed the limitations of a traditional idea of what communication can achieve), I think that kind of writing is patronising to the reader; and I’m surprised to find people talking about “actively reading” these texts when they seem to mean the very opposite of it. The issue is: do you receive – is it possible to receive – a fictional text as an operating manual? Or do you understand instead that your relationship with the very idea of text is already fraught with the most gameable difficulties & undependabilities? The latter seems to me to be the ludic point of reading: anything else rather resembles the – purely functional – act of following instructions on how to operate a vacuum cleaner.”

I guess it’s from the same post as this quote:

“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study.”

Obviously this is all taste, and not law. It’s also no clear cut dichotomy, as there’s some worldbuilding in Nova Swing too, like in all other Harrison books I’ve read and will read. But as a piece of polemic poetics, Harrison succeeds to point sharply at one end of a spectrum.

It also says something about the difficulties I encountered while reading Nova Swing – a book that taxes the reader in an above average way. I had to pay attention, and while things got easier throughout to a certain extent, the first part of the finale was dense again, filled with sentences and scenes to reread and ponder. Not surprising, as it is set in “a stretch of bad physics, a mean glowing strip of strange”, a part of the so-called Kefahuchi Tract that fell to the surface of the planet Saudade in 2444AD – an age in which humans have spread out in the galaxy using FTL technology.

At the same time, this book isn’t difficult qua plot at all – it’s straightforward as can be. As such it reminded me a bit of Gibson’s writing – heavy on mood & language, and the plot just a vehicle. Others have pointed at Ballard or Snow Crash. All that is true, but Harrison managed to write a pretty singular book, combining space opera, New Wave Fabulism, cyberpunk, the surreal and – above all for this volume of the Empty Space trilogy – noir.

The fairly slim plot doesn’t mean there’s no characters to love: like in much of Harrison’s other work we again meet a set of broken, lost people, and Harrison’s knack for psycho-social observation and human commentary is as sharp as ever in Nova Swing.

When I was little, she thought, I wanted nothing except to stop travelling. I wanted time for each new thing, each new feeling, to be held properly in suspension until it could be joined by the next. Given the chance I could easily hold all those beautiful things together. I could be like a box in which they would be held new forever. Instead, everything aged and changed. People too.

Harrison is a master of the quick sketch, managing to paint a full picture of a person in just a few lines.

“She lived here on her own,” he said. “She retreated.” He wasn’t sure how to expand on this. “With her it was drink, fuddled political principles, old emotional entanglements. Help only confused here.”

The central noir characters, a criminal and a cop, are both stereotype and unique. Vic Serotonin and Lens Aschemann reminded me a bit of Neil McCauley & Vincent Hanna from Michael Mann’s phenomenal Heat: both sides of the same coin.

While this is the second novel in a trilogy, it works perfectly well as a standalone, you don’t need to have read the brilliant Light first. And like Light, Nova Swing ends in a hopeful way – framing the former chapters as transitional, and not as a definitive cynical statement on humanity.

The book won both the Arthur C. Clarke and the PKD, and was nominated for the the BSFA, the Campbell and the Derleth – a British horror award. That’s quite an honors list, and there’s quite a lot of glowing reviews to be found. Instead of taking much longer of your time, I’d like to direct you to the reviews of Speculiction, Jeroen Admiraal and the New Puritan. That last one is especially helpful if you’re reading the book and need a way in – even though it has minor spoilers. If you’re the type of reader that would enjoy Harrison, you’re probably also the type of reader that doesn’t mind to do some research before buying or borrowing a book, and these 3 provide a good framework to set your expectations right.

I want to stress Harrison’s command of language – there’s some truly great lines and paragraphs in this book. Similarly, his imagination shines, quite starkly, even if it doesn’t take center stage. There’s enough science fictional ideas in this book to fill a book 2 or 3 times its size, and there’s a bodily horror that drops in a few times that marries sci-fi to the uncanny.

This was another successful Harrison for me – and like his latest The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, one that I will probably reread in the coming decade, just as I will reread Light. Now that I think of it, I guess I’ll enjoy Light even more now that I have a better grip on what Harrison tries to do with his books. I might even read Swing‘s last 50 pages again tonight – expect no update here however, it will be a private affair. Nova Swing is recommended, 4.5 stars – caveats below. I’ll read the final Kefahuchi book, Empty Space, sooner than later.

To end this review, another lengthy quote, from R. Scott Bakker, who replied to the bit of Harrison I opened this review with, in a 2008 interview with Pat of Fantasy Hotlist:

“For Harrison, who is an avowed post-modernist, the reader should be continually confronted with the performative as opposed to the representational function of language. They should be reminded (apparently over and over and over) of the power of words to spin realities, to the point where the work becomes a multifarious, promiscuous, meaning event (albeit one that is too often generated by the most mechanical of po-mo tactics, elision). Forcing the reader to draw whole characters out of fragments, narrative arcs out of discordant events – to “fulfill their part of the bargain” – this is the true way to make the reader an active part of the process, and so a critically minded, enlightened citizen.

I don’t know whether to laugh or yawn anymore. For better or worse, readers without literature degrees tend to hate this stuff. They like coherent characters and stories and settings. So when you start screwing with “representational expectations” (in other words, unilaterally rewriting the “bargain”) by and large all you end up doing is preaching to the choir, writing for people with literature degrees, which is to say, for people who already share your values. In other words, you simply end up catering to their expectations. You become an “upscale” version of the very commercial entertainers you continually denigrate.”

We’re hardwired for this shit, which is why you see the same pattern repeating itself over and over in every sphere of cultural production. Every sphere has a self-styled elite who both identify and flatter themselves via their values, then criticize others for not sharing those values. “Our values are the values and you guys are losers because of this and this and this…”

This pattern bums me out because it swallows so much talent in our society and aims it inward. Harrison really is a prodigious talent, but he can’t seem to see his way past this post-modern crap. This is another universal human pattern: whatever your yardstick happens to be, nothing else seems to measure up – it quickly becomes the yardstick.

Don’t blame the cretinized masses for not reading your stuff. If you really are afraid, if you really are a writer with a social conscience, then go out and meet them. Write something that communicates to them, and not just to those who already share your values. Stop writing for “yourself,” or for the “page,” or for whatever clever euphemism you use to cover the fact that you’re simply a producer of a kind of a high-end cultural commodity.

Until you do, you’re just another entertainer. Which is okay, so long as you’re not pretending otherwise. Say, “I write for people like me, and I’m not all that interested in making a social difference.”

I guess Bakker is right too – although I’d hesitate to fully subscribe to the intentional tribunal of Harrison he paints at the end – I simply don’t have enough grip on Harrison to judge either way. But the bulk of Bakker’s argument stands – as I said, in the beginning: taste & polemics. It is clear later day Harrison will not appeal to everybody – although you do not need a literature degree at all, just an open mind and a palate that can handle the poetic, the uncertain and the undefined. Nova Swing is not the same postmodern affair Light was – and as such maybe the best entry level Harrison novel I’ve come across so far. That, or newbies could try one of his short story collections.

“The known is slicked on to everything like a kind of grease. You would do anything to avoid the things you already know.”

Nova Swing (Dominic Harman)

ps – I can’t say anything about how it compares to the Strugagksy’s Roadside Picnic, as I haven’t read that – but I did add it to my to buy-list. Update 6/2021: I’ve read Picnic now, and I talk a bit about how the two relate to each other in my review. Whether it is best to read Picnic first, or Nova Swing, I think you can’t go wrong either way – but more on that in the other review.

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58 responses to “NOVA SWING – M. John Harrison (2006)

  1. Hey great review and thanks for the link to my page!
    I loved this book. Perhaps not as much as Light, but Light is one of my favourite books of the 21st century so far. I’ll be starting Empty Space very soon, likely next month.

    Harrison’s and Bakker’s arguments… they both have something interesting to say, but I think that I agree more with Harrison in the end. Harrison does not want to acknowledge that worldbuilding is very popular for a reason. And that reason is probably escapism. Otherwise I agree with his arguments. As for Bakker… I really do not agree with what he is saying here: “if you really are a writer with a social conscience, then go out and meet them. Write something that communicates to them, and not just to those who already share your values.” If every writer were to do just that, then we would have a hundred Brandon Sandersons on our hands, writing 1000 page tomes of meticulously constructed magic systems. The horror. That is apparently what speaks to a large part of the fantasy audience.

    My ultimate reason for Harrison’s writing strategy is that it makes me feel much more. His books are emotional experiences for me that are much richer than most worldbuilding heavy series. There is a diversity of life and of emotions in his writing that I cannot easily find anywhere else. For me, his writing is not just about fragments of character building or discordant events of narrative, but about alluding to emotions that are hard to capture into words but do actually exist in real life. I feel them resonating in me.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, I think Harrison is deliberately tone deaf to a part of readership, like you say, escapism is important, and its also what I hinted at in my reply to Calmgrove a bit down. I think he wrote the post more from a technical author perspective than as a reader, and I think it’s meant as a polemic voicing of his own intent rather than something to dismiss the ideas of others not agreeing.

      I don’t think lots of Sandersons is what Bakker had in mind with his quote, I think it would be possible to write something that both appeals to people with other values and starts a dialogue at the same time – it is difficult obviously, but the need might be huge, as my answer to Bookstooge kind of illustrates. I don’t think Bakker meant that the communication should be about the same values – maybe the same formal taste, so that communication is more easily established.

      Obviously, taste isn’t only about form, and there are readers that are offended or at least annoyed by the inclusion of certain content that might be there to establish a dialogue on certain issues, like diversity characters. It’s tricky to do well, because characters like that might feel like token characters just to commercially cater to a part of the audience (and in some cases they certainly are there mainly because of commercial reasons). Withing SF, the entire Puppies affair only shows how poisoned & poisonous the Culture Wars have become, especially as the entire debacle surrounding the most recent US elections is just another iteration of the growing divisions (see Camestros Felapton’s blog for more on that).

      What you write about feelings is interesting. The way you describe it makes it so that I don’t necessarily think it is the result of his worldbuilding strategies, but more of the way he approaches characters and feelings. I think you could do both: have detailed worldbuilding and the Harrison approach to characters. But I guess you are right that characters that resonate emotionally aren’t easy to find in SF – and probably not in the broader field of general literature. For good ‘resonating’, the reader needs to do work too, it’s a 2 part system, and if one writes very specific, detailed characters, the number of possible readers that might resonate drops, as resonating needs a bit of leeway, there needs to be enough empty space to project your own stuff. In that sense Harrison is absolutely right.

      (I doubted if I should include these quotes in the review, but I’m glad I did, they have provided some interesting discussion and further thought already.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • These are interesting discussions, yes, and it is nice to be able to peek into the minds of the writers for a moment and see what they think about it.

        My comment on Harrison and how much his writing resonates emotionally, yes that is very much about characters and feelings instead of worldbuilding. But that is also what interests Harrison the most. The rest, the word building, is just surface material. That’s why he gives his characters and planets names like Vic Serotonin and Saudade. It’s not very serious or realistic, and I think he wants to communicate actively that it is not so important for the emotions that he wants to convey. I guess you could do both, to have the Harrison approach to characters and the detailed worldbuilding. But there is something about Harrison’s throwaway worldbuilding that only underscores his point, and I kinda like it as a meta statement on the use of SF elements.

        I guess that Bakker sensed a whiff of elitism in Harrison’s statement and reacted against that. The discussion is mostly about form in communicating a story. Not so much about social values.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes agreed 100% on the fact that his way of worldbuilding underscores a few things, and ultimately also helps the plot & the atmosphere. Especially the horror parts tend to benefit from this approach.

          Also agreed that Bakker probably takes it a bit too far when he takes it to the morals of social interaction with the readers, but to be 100% of that I would need to find the entire original post of Harrison – Bakker goes there on the account of “afraid”, and that’s from the last line of Harrison that I didn’t include in the part I quoted. This is the sentence: “This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’’s victim, & makes us very afraid. ”

          You can’t jump from that to social values, but on the other hand, Bookstooge’s reactions here clearly shows Bakker is dead on about literature that is perceived as elitist. And that’s funny, as Harrison seems to write with sympathy about non-elites – Sunken Land is his Brexit novel e.g., and there’s more lament about the broken social fabric that caused Brexit than there is elitist sentiment to be found like Hilary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”.


          • I’m not sure what Harrison is afraid of. I don’t think that he is afraid that no one will read is books. Maybe he is afraid that readers will think that language can give an objective representation of the world, while that is never the case?

            I also have trouble understanding what is so pretentious about Harrison’s writing. I mean, one can find his opinions pretentious but does that really shine through in his writing?

            Liked by 1 person

            • No idea either. I found some more of Harrison’s thoughts on the matter on his new blog, I quoted that below as a response to A. Fallon, it’s quite interesting.

              As for why it is pretentious: good question. I’ll ask Bookstooge if he can elaborate from his point of view when I answer his comment later tonight or tomorrow.


      • Really enjoyed this post and discussion. It’s interesting to hear those authors’ opposing views. You can’t completely dispense with worldbuilding. I guess Harrison was talking about an overindulgence in it. I’m not familiar with Bakker. Ironically, I checked some reviews of his most popular book on Goodreads and some reviewers were complaining about his lack of worldbuilding or explanations. What are your thoughts on worldbuilding?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks! Interesting that you dug that up about Bakker – I’ve only read one book of his fully, so I can’t really comment on that, except for that it clearly was not the full fledged Tolkienesque worldbuilding with invented languages and detailed genealogies indeed.

          As for that last question, wow, that’s a big one, I’ll try to answer that tomorrow.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Bakker’s worldbuilding for his Prince of Nothing series is a bit like Herbert’s Dune where not everything is explained right away and some of it is communicated through bits of philosophy. At the same time, it is like a photo negative of Tolkien’s world with Dune influences, where the Elves are fallen and alien and where the savior of the world is a master manipulator. Like Erikson, he trusts readers to figure out the world over the span of the books. It is not complicated and actually quite rich, pulling from Hebrew, Ancient Greek and Egyptian culture, among others. I thought he was very good with names and cultures. He just doesn’t want to spell it out.

          Liked by 2 people

        • Basically I don’t have a stance, as long as it is well-done. I think inner constistency is very important, but that’s a stance that lots of people have.

          Overall I do enjoy well-crafted worlds, but I have to say they often fail short, and maybe for the reasons Harrison gave. E.g. the worldbuilding in Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive is simply baloney, with only a veneer of depth and realism. On the other hand, I did enjoy Banks’ Culture a lot, but I’m a bit in doubt where to place that in the world building spectrum? Another interesting case is LOTR: I thought it didn’t really benefit from the artifical languages and those hobbit genealogies, although I do think its depth was admirable.

          I’ve thought about this question the last few days, but I came to the conclusion I don’t have that much definitive to say about it, it’s such a broad issue 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I despise both of these author’s books and yet I agree with various bit and bobs from the quotes you shared. Funny how that works that way 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you only read Light and The Darkness That Comes Before, right? I’d say Nova Swing isn’t disjointed at all, so it might work better for you. There’s also hardly any drugs aside from some alcohol, and less selfish characters. Might work better doesn’t mean you’ll like it though, this is not me saying you should try it.

      I guess parts of the Bakker quote indeed applies to you, as I saw in your review of Light that you feel Harrison is a “pretentious wanker”. I also see in the comments to the quote post that PDC seems to have a similar feeling, dubbing himself a “nobody” in response to Harrison. If I’m not mistaken you both are politically not part of the so-called ‘liberal elite’ in the US, and as it seems in mainstream media people not part of the liberals and stress other values are one the loosing side of history, and that ties into what Bakker describes. In that sense a “literary degree” is indeed a fairly good predictor of one’s political affiliation (even if you don’t need one for this book). I’m not trying to make you discuss politics here, I’m just trying to understand. I generally think this division into camps is harmful for society, so I’d rather see more dialogue and mutual understanding between people that have opinions that diverge on some matters. The fact that you agree with parts of both quotes only illustrates that: often our differences aren’t as big as we perceive them to be, and we humans have more in common than what divides us. (There’s a good theory of Jonathan Haidt on that, his TED-talk is worth watching.)

      Your review of The Darkness… is so short that I can’t offer any thoughts there, but I DNFed the second book, not because of its cold or brutal content, but because it was filed with repetition.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am replying to your comment in one tab and actually looking at your comment in antoher, so if I miss something, have mercy 😉

        You are correct. Both of those books put me off their respective authors until the end of time. As for Harrison, simply knowing that he is willing to write books like Light keeps me from trying anything else by him, even if it were more to my taste.

        Pretentious wankery has its place in writing. There are people who enjoy it, really and truly enjoy it. Just like there are people who enjoy eating monkey brains. I simply don’t think that SFF is the place for that, period. It’s like going through the drive through of McDonalds and seeing monkey brains on the menu. It isn’t that people don’t eat monkey brains, it is that it doesn’t fit with the rest of the menu. Throwing PW (short hand from now on for pretentious wankery) into an SFF setting doesn’t make the people who like PW become SFF fans. They still despise the genre and only read the book for the PW. Where as all the SFF fans who are of similar bent to me are disgusted by the PW and are reading the book because they were promised it was SFF.

        (I got lost from here.) What quote post and who is PDC?
        But I definitely would subscribe to your subsequent statement of having other values and that we’re on the downswing. Where Bakker and I would differ is that I knew this was going to happen. As a 7th Day Adventist Christian, we take the book of Revelations pretty seriously and it has some pretty scary things about the Last Days.

        Part of my own reactions is just how long the Literati have been smug buttfaces about SFF in the public arena. They don’t like it and instead of leaving it alone, they make snide remarks about it and the people who read it. And at some point you realize that leaving them alone doesn’t work and so people like Bakker say what they do. Plus, they also mix politics into it and so at some point there is going to be pushback. Being told that I’m a redneck, podunk, stupid, illiterate and generally ignorant useless specimen of humanity because I read books by Larry Correia and hold similar ethical and moral views as him doesn’t exactly engender me to give them the milk of human kindness.

        As for Bakker’s book. I’d probably dnf it today and give it a half star. Nihilism and rapine are not ideas and actions I want to read about.

        Hope this reply wasn’t too all over the place. It is hard switching back and forth 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • and I just saw you visited a quote post on Light and that Planetary Defense Commander commented. Now I get that part of your comment.
          ♪I once was looooost♪
          ♪but now am found♪

          Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for the elaborate reply – no sweat, perfectly coherent and not too over the place at all. I’ll try to answer somewhere later today or tomorrow.

          Liked by 1 person

        • It came up with Jeroen too, but it would be interesting why you feel Harrison is pretentious? I myself don’t think breaking the mold or writing books that aren’t meant to be 100% clear is pretentious. I agree it’s a matter of taste, and I have no problem with you not liking monkey brains 🙂

          I don’t agree however with your limiting definition of SFF – I get it that you have certain expectations and don’t like certain subsets of SFF (no problem with that, taste is taste), but SFF is such a broad genre, and there has been experimentation from the onset (Stapledon, Brunner, Vonnegut, even Tolkien, there must be lots of others that I don’t think of) that I don’t see why you would define the genre in a narrow, restrictive way.

          Oh I don’t think you and Bakker differ in the respect that Bakker didn’t know about the downsing: Bakker has been warning for bad times ahead for years (he even calls it the ‘semantic apocalypse’). His way of knowing this isn’t religion of course, that’s an important difference I agree, but it is an interesting coincidence that lots of scientists and philosophers actually would agree about the scariness ahead – even if they don’t believe in the Second Coming.

          I don’t agree that Literati don’t like SFF. Part of that is indeed maybe a different definition of SFF, but I don’t think either party has the right to claim the broad genre. Either way, there’s Literati enough that like regular old school SFF, etc.

          I do agree that some of the Literati can be smug, and can be condescending. That’s plain stupid and disrespectful, and so I understand the pushback as you say.

          I also think that you can’t keep politics out of literature. That’s a pipe dream. It’s clear Larry Correia doesn’t keep it out. By the way, you can’t expect writers to keep politics out of their writing, if you as a reader don’t keep politics out of your reading, if you understand what I want to say. (I think politics is a subset of morality.)

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I like that there is space for all manifestations along the worldbuilding spectrum. I remember the fuss made about the Pompidou Centre when it was built, the guts of the structure on the outside leaving the inside as pure as a smooth skin for displays. For some novels the worldbuilding is what it’s about, almost a character in the story, while for others it can only be a clothes hanger for the beautiful clothing, the hidden skeleton behind the observable surface action, passions and thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, indeed, I can’t agree more. What I do agree on with Harrison that however realistic & detailed & authoritative the worldbuilding seems, it never is complete, and if it looks like that to a reader, that is because of a mirage, an illusion of language, and the best authors recognize this and take it into account during their writing. On the other hand: it can be mightily fun as a reader to naively fall for the spell.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll read Light, you got me interested. As for this discussion, to me it’s just perfromance on both sides: nothing more than a bout of very dignified literary mud-flinging and cocky posturing. Both authors put themselves on the opposite ends of a continuum, denying that there’s actually quite a lot of the middle ground. Preaching to their respective choirs, I suspect.

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    • Yes, agreed to a certain extent, but see my reply to Jeroen (and Bookstooge too), because I think the quotes do offer a good platform to launch discussion from. Especially on emotion and characters Harrison might be on to something. (but again, see my reply to Jeroen for that.)

      As I said, I’m not fully convinced it’s only cocky posturing, but rather the polemic start of debate. I can’t imagine Harrison (nor Bakker) to not acknowledge in real life there is lots of middle ground.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I read the discussion under your post; I might be just less inclined to forgiveness this time around 😉 When I see arguments ad personam to me it’s a mark of a polemic not intended to find middle ground but to win at all costs – or at least to present clearly for their own audience the “us vs them” mentality. Plus, I know nothing about Harrison, but enough about Bakker to notice that he’s exceedingly full of himself 😜
        And don’t get me wrong, the obsessive worldbuilding a la Sanderson puts me off; I like literary experiments and more than anything I love
        to see the writers engage in a conversation with the readers – but denigrating the merits of worldbuilding in general makes no sense to me at all – it is too a valuable thought experiment in its own right.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Haha, interesting, I don’t find that much ad personam in Bakker, nor in Harrison. But I agree these are both writers with a clearly articulated, strong ego – but part of that may be their profession: voicing opinions in a strong, well-written way.

          I’m not sure if Bakker is full of himself though: he has a few confident opinions and voices them self-assuredly, but I’ve learned not to mistake that for personal arrogance or accuse people like that – ad personam, if I’m allowed to say that – as full of themselves.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hahaha, touche! 😁
            Maybe I’m just as full of myself as Bakker, then 🤣
            I feel I should explain this comment, though: whenever I read Bakker’s opinion pieces I feel that he delivers his opinions as facts and is prone to denigrate everyone who thinks otherwise. I’d say this qualifies as arrogance, because I’m convinced someone with his literary capabilities can control his language to quite a high extent. He has a very combative style of communication – as in the above excerpt, where he basically accuses Harrison of being a coward or at least of lying to himself and living in delusion. Which does tie quite nicely with Bakker’s ideas regarding self-awareness, manipulation, and human tendency for delusion (with the exception of Chosen few, obviously)… 😉

            Liked by 1 person

            • I understand what you say, but as you write, you “feel”, so it’s partly in the eye of the beholder. E.g. I don’t think at all he accuses Harrison of being a coward, or lying, or even living in an illusion. He only writes that Harrison doesn’t acknowledge he is an entertainer too. I can understand your added interpretations of the words based on the other stuff you’ve read from Bakker, sure, but it’s all interpretation, and again, I can understand he comes across as arrogant or denigrating, but I wouldn’t go as far and claim he “is” that, if you get what I mean.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Well, I used “feel” on purpose, to showcase the difference between writing opinions and facts 😛
                As for Bakker’s stuff, we have to agree to disagree on its interpretation: I just read it again, utilizing some of the content analysis techniques, and I maintain my stance. This sentence verbatim accuses Harrison of living in illusion/self-constructed lie: “Every sphere has a self-styled elite who both identify and flatter themselves via their values, then criticize others for not sharing those values.[…] Harrison really is a prodigious talent, but he can’t seem to see his way past this post-modern crap.” and “Stop writing for “yourself,” or for the “page,” or for whatever clever euphemism you use to cover the fact that you’re simply a producer of a kind of a high-end cultural commodity.” I can give more examples for the things I’ve accused Bakker of doing, even from this little excerpt you quoted 😉
                As for the last part, I agree: to be consistent with my own values I shouldn’t have written that Bakker “is” anything; I should’ve written that Bakker’s writing “is,” but I thought that was clear from my previous comment. Btw, to be clear, whatever I think about Bakker as a human being I try to separate from what I think about his ideas, or writing abilities – on the contrary: I think he has an enviable mastery over words, and as such should be held to a higher standard in how and what he writes. Based on these assumptions on his abilities, I also assume that he perfectly well knows his style is combative and aggressive, and does it on purpose. While he accuses Harrison of catering to his own limited group of fans, I have the impression that’s his own strategy, too.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I really don’t see illusions in that first part, just not being consequent. Second sentence could be interpreted that way indeed, I stand corrected.

                Also agreed 100% his style is combative and aggressive, probably on purpose yes, and indeed, the way he writes is for the very few that can master his high register vocabulary (I’m talking about his non-fiction here).

                Liked by 1 person

              • His command of English is really enviable 😀

                Liked by 1 person

  5. I actually commented on Harrison’s blog on another blog, which is how I came by the link to the original article – which is still on Harrison’s website (I have no idea why he calls himself Uncle Zip).

    Despite being a big fan of Harrison’s oeuvre, I was critical of his stance. Excessive detail is bad world-building, not proof that world-building is bad in and of itself. But Bakker’s counter argument is equally suspect. He’s just projecting his assumptions onto Harrison. Plus everybody from Mozart to Abba (or if you prefer Harrison to Sanderson) is in the business of creating a product; the difference is in the quality of the product. And in SF – specifically fantasy – the standard at the moment is extremely low; mostly generic sub-Tolkien hokum about evil sorcerers with armies, blokes-in-cloaks etc, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes to all of that, I couldn’t have said it better.

      As for the quality of product being the only difference, there is an important caveat: intention is a part of it too. Some artists that aren’t trying to make products that sell, or products that are beautiful, or popular, or what have you. There is a difference between l’art pour l’art and art as a product for commercial reasons. Obviously that’s not a clear cut dichotomy, there’s some overlap etc, but different sets of quality parameters apply to both ends of that spectrum.

      That link you provided is dead, I found that too. Harrison’s new blog is here:

      I’ve searched that for worldbuilding, and came up with this link, in which he seems to react to the controversy:

      This is it in full:
      “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.”


      • At first sight, I seem to agree with that by the way, it’s more or less what you described as “generic sub-Tolkien hokum”.


      • Ok interesting new quote by Harrison. (And wasn’t Uncle Zip a character from Light? The genetics guy with the accordion?) Anyway.

        The term worldbuilding is starting to lead its own life now. Instead of a term for the bring to life of a world in fiction, it is becoming synonymous with a specific practice in epic fantasy series, and/or space opera perhaps. He’s basically saying that a lot of epic fantasy is a mile wide and an inch deep, and that habits in worldbuilding allows writers to become lazy and follow an instruction manual to slap their worlds together, using a skeleton of basic tropes and elements from stolen cultures and using a lot of worlds to cram that skeleton full of fluff.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. ‘There is a difference between l’art pour l’art and art as a product for commercial reasons. Obviously that’s not a clear cut dichotomy, there’s some overlap etc, but different sets of quality parameters apply to both ends of that spectrum.’

    Totally. I should add that I’ve become a lot more aware of the ‘overlap’ as I grow older!

    Firstly, money. It surprising how big a role money has played in a lot of seminal work – e.g. like him or loathe him, but Gibson was commissioned to write the Neuromancer trilogy. I don’t know if it would have been written otherwise.

    Secondly, talent, or the absence of it. I used to think those authors who churned out endless fantasy trilogies were cynical hacks. I now suspect many of them are working to the limit of their abilities. Would suddenly acquiring creative integrity improve their ‘product’ in any discernible way? I’m not so sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Didn’t know that of Gibson, interesting fact, but it doesn’t really matter artistically, writers have to eat too, and lost of art is/was ordered: the Sistine Chapel was commissioned too. But you are absolutely right, we don’t have to be naive and think money doesn’t play a role in art-for-art.

      Ha, that talent remark. I’m pretty sure the answer is no. Talent is crucial: watching people with creative integrity but no talent is often more painful than watching people without integrity but with talent.


      • >Gibson was commissioned to write the Neuromancer trilogy

        Is there a source for that? Wikipedia and Gibson’s blog would suggest that his contract with the publisher was subject to some changes (but Gibson himself doesn’t seem to recall the exact sequence of events). I certainly don’t think Neuromancer itself was a commissioned work.

        To hijack this comment thread a bit: I definitely recommend reading The Roadside Picnic when you get the chance, as well as The Snail on the Slope (there is a fairly new translation published by Chicago Review Press). I still find it hard to believe when Jeff VanderMeer claims he hasn’t read either before writing his Southern Reach trilogy and doesn’t see any particular similarities.

        As for Nova Swing, I liked it more than Light, where a few things irked me: insistent repetitions of the phrase “empty space” and cat motifs/symbolism, the ubiquitous serial killer trope, somewhat neat-seeming psychological/narrative arcs for the characters. I suspect, however, that a closer reading would reveal a lot of this to be some sort of Harrison’s meta-literary games that I was too lazy to unravel this time around.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I ordered a new (as opposed to the Gollanz) translation of Roadside Picnic a few days ago, I’m curious. I tried Hard To Be A God a few years ago, but after 20 pages gave up – still not sure if that was me, the book, or the translation.

          I’ve only read Annihilation, and that kinda turned me off VanderMeer – too gimmicky for my taste at the time. Maybe I should reconsider, but none of the works he published since has appealed to me.

          I didn’t talk about it in the review, but I think I liked Nova Swing more too – although I would maybe change my mind if I read Light now, with more Harrison under my belt, Light was the first book of his I read. Anyhow, I didn’t care for the cats either, even if they would be a meta-literary game, as I generally also don’t really care for meta games in art, and I guess even more so in literature – reading is mainly a leisure activity for me, and that means I’m a lazy reader.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Very true!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Weird. I just finished reading ‘An Infinite Summer’ last night. Be interested to hear what you make of it!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. IMO the choice to add the R. Scott Bakker quote to this review was quite perceptive. This really is a resolutely post-modern novel. It’s film noir meets “Roadside Picnic”, and mostly reads like a game of “spot the references!”
    I would say the premise of the novel is quite clever, but also a kind of intellectual dead-end. You essentially have an anomaly which epitomizes post-modernity itself. It’s a whirlpool of fragments, the past chopped up and cut-copy-pasted ad infinitum. Characters are constantly entering this eternal past, hoping to get their next fix (“Today I’ll be Marilyn Monroe!”), but the overwhelming feeling they’re left with is a kind of anhedonia and cultural exhaustion.
    My response to this kind of “postmodern” art is always “okay, so what’s next?” You’ve identified a kind of existential malaise, and dead-endedness, but why wallow in it? Why not show the way out? (look at what KSR does to cyberpunk and similar material in “The Gold Coast”/”Pacific Edge”).
    Another common problem with cyberpunk: it posits a far future, highly advanced, highly different world on one hand, but is always making reference to 1940s-50s noir and detective fiction on the other. The archetypes and tropes offered (the dangerous dames, the cops, the hookers, the bartenders, the street urchins etc), and the writing styles used (muscular, staccato prose meets a kind of poetic nihilism), don’t feel like believable future worlds, but the post-war era dressed up with special effects.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the novel works on multiple levels, as I’m not well read enough to spot references, I didn’t spot any, to be honest, and I still enjoyed it a lot. (I haven’t read Roadside Picnic yet, nor seen Stalker.)

      You’re right about the intellectual dead-end, but at the same time, I don’t think Harrison is in the game of writing for the intellectual side of things (even though he clearly intellectualizes about literature).

      I think “postmodern” as a label is both an easy shorthand, and useless at the same time. I don’t think there needs to be something next, if you get what I mean. The novel is about mood and language for me, not about some artistic teleology.

      The wallowing question is a good one, but mostly a matter of temperament & character I guess. I don’t think Harrison is interested in teaching his audience a way out – he probably isn’t interested in one himself, or doesn’t see one. I’m pretty sure he feels (much) more existential malaise on a personal level than KSR does.

      I agree fully with your last remark about cyberpunk & the future, but I don’t think Harrison is interested in writing realistically about the future – he’s more about writing realistically about the present via a fictional future.

      Your comment is timely: I just finished The Drowned World an hour ago (similar existential dead-end) and was thinking what to pick next from my shelves: The Gold Coast it is. Looking forward to that – Harrison, Priest, Ballard, maybe I’ve read too much British gloom in a row.


  10. I’d be interested in seeing your “Drowned World” review. Lots of great imagery in the novel – the iguanas in the skyscraper boardrooms etc – but I don’t remember how it ended, or what the point was. Some kind of fight on a boat over a woman, if I remember correctly (I have vague recollections of two white guys fighting, a power generator and a sinking catamaran?).

    My recollection is Ballard’s “The Crystal World” being a much stronger take on similar material; again we get amazing imagery, and a great premise (plundering the natural world for resources, and the world literally hardening into diamonds in response), but this time the ending is stronger. Very “Heart of Darkness”.

    I’ve had Ballard’s rather slim “The Burning World” on my shelf for a while now; I think you’ve inspired me to read that next (actually, your positive review on “Wolf Hall” has inspired me to read that next, but that looks like heavy work.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll probably start writing it today, hopefully it will be up this weekend.

      Agreed on the imagery, and the plot seemed secundary: more or less is was about mental devolution/regression. The main character wants to stay in the jungle/lagoons, and there’s some fighting with a kind of pirate scavaging crew.

      I’m not sure if I’ll read The Crystal World – I’ve read good things about it indeed, like it being stronger than Drowned World – but I’m not sure I’m interested reading another take on a more or less similar concept, even if it is stronger. I might go for The Atrocity Exhibition if I want another Ballard, but ultimately, based on the 2 titles I’ve read so far (the other being an early short story collection) I don’t think it’s an author I want to read a whole lot more.

      Wolf Hall is a treat, don’t sleep on it. The writing takes some time to get used to, but once it clicks, it’s a ride. I should start the third book, I know it will be a great read, but I’m dreading the time investment it will take to get through its 1000 pages.


  11. Yeah, I saw you put Wolf Hall on one of your Best Of lists. I’ve been putting off reading it because, though I’m fond of historical fiction, I’m not too fond of the Game of Thrones, historical-fiction-as-an-excuse-to-wallow-in-blood-and-guts! subgenre, which I always assumed Wolf Hall was. But your review of Wolf Hall makes it sound different; I’ll start reading it next weekend.

    The Gold Coast I’ve read three times. It’s one of my favorite novels and in my top five KSR novels. I like the relaxed, wandering, meditative tone of it, and though the abrupt present- tense prose took a while for me to get used to – in an interview, KSR says he was influenced by Fred Jameson to use such a style (capitalism as a constant now, a blip-time aesthetic which bulldozes the past and the history etc) – it now works for me.

    I also like how the three novels constantly echo one another (a fire in “Gold Coast” appears in the other novels, Jim’s dad’s boss’ secretary in “Gold Coast” becomes Jim’s lover in “Pacific Edge”, the same land deals have different outcomes across the trilogy etc). It’s not perfect, but there’s nothing else quite like it, and taken as a whole the trilogy really redefines the utopian subgenre, and works as a nice counter to some late 80s fiction (IMO its aged better than the cyberpunk world’s of 1980s William Gibson, and the early “end of history!” works of Bret Easton Ellis).

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s funny how serendipitous it’s here lately, because I started reading Wolf Hall because KSR named it as one of his favorite books/series ever (together with Aubrey-Maturin). Wolf Hall is a long way from blood & fantasy historical fiction indeed, do let me know what you thought of it when you’ve finished it…

      I’m about 120 pages into Gold Coast right now, liking it a lot, very interesting what you write about Jameson, thanks, I’ve already noticed some meta-stuff about the present tense in the book itself already.

      The only echo I’ve noticed so far is the excavation both The Wild Shore and Gold Coast have in common as an opening scene – my memory isn’t optimal, and it has been almost a year since I’ve read Wild Shore. Loving the concept indeed, I’m curious for Pacific Edge too.

      I’m not sure if you’ve read my review of ‘Radiance’ by Carter Scholz (a buddy of KSR), but in retrospect that novel thematically is clearly in dept to The Gold Coast, even though it surpasses it easily on that account. If you haven’t read it, and if you like Gold Coast so much, I think it’s absolutely mandatory reading:

      (I should reread Neuromancer someday, that didn’t go down very well the first time I read it, but I think I had the wrong mindset at that time. Never read any Ellis, but it never appealed to me in the first place because it looked like something to set in the now, not timeless enough, too much focused on fleeting trends.)


    • (Really, I cannot stress enough how much I liked Radiance.)


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