EMPTY SPACE: A HAUNTING – M. John Harrison (2012)

Empty Space M John HarrisonI liked everything I’ve read by Harrison so far: Light, Nova Swing, the 2017 short story collection You Should Come With Me Now, and his latest 2020 novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. I liked it a lot. And I plan to read a whole lot more of Harrison too.

But I stopped reading Empty Space at 60% in. Not that it doesn’t have merit. The novel got glowing reviews on Speculiction and A Sky of Books and Movies. Paul Kincaid has called the entire trilogy “the most significant work of science fiction to have appeared so far this century” in the LA Review of Books. I can see why, but no – more on that later. On a sentence level, Harrison is a master, a poet. On a scene level, he manages to evoke much – technically he’s brilliant. The same goes for the emotional level: he is an expert in painting characters with only a wee bit of language.

But besides all that, I have come to realize the particular game Harrison plays in this particular novel simply does not interest me. For me, there was not enough story, and too much meta-puzzle.

Maybe I’ve overdosed on postmodern deconstruction at university? Then again, that was over 20 years ago. And I’m still interested in these matters. I’m still interested in the politics & epistemics & metaphysics & biology of representation and language. I agree with Harrison that we should be aware of the artificiality of our fictional entertainment. But I’m not sure if Empty Space works as a political-poetic manifesto.

I will look into some of these matters in the remainder of this text – not so much a traditional review, but an essay using interviews and reviews to ponder this particular branch of literature & art.

Harrison is the kind of writer that begets volumes of academic essays. And academics are gonna do what academics like to do. Smart people like complex stuff. That leads to essays with names as “‘The Geometry of Deterministic Chaos’: Fractal Structure and Recursivity in the Empty Space Trilogy”, “‘Sparks in Everything’ or ‘A Tearful Overnight Understanding’: Posthuman Becoming in the Empty Space Trilogy”, “‘Something That Looked Partly Like a Cat and Partly Like a Women’: Deliquescence, Hybridity and the Animal in the Empty Space Trilogy”, “The Misanthropic Principle”, “Flutter, Fracture and Froth: Event, Object and Act of Metaphor in M. John Harrison”, “‘Light Transforms All Things’: The Superposed Mundane-Sublime in M. John Harrison and Andrei Tarkovsky”.

Not that I want to hoist an anti-intellectual flag here, not at all – recurring readers of this blog can testify to that. I’m sure some of these essays are worth reading, and even of use if that’s the way you earn your bread & butter.

But lets be upfront here: it is a niche thing, for a niche audience. So if Kincaid truly means that the Empty Space trilogy is “the most significant work of science fiction to have appeared so far this century”, it is worth asking: who agrees? Not that many people, I’m afraid.

At the moment, Light – which was published in 2002 – has 5409 ratings on Goodreads. Nova Swing has 2069. Empty Space 931.

For comparison: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again has 1246 ratings. That book won the Goldsmith prize, an award issued by a research university in London, for fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” The Viriconium omnibus has 2426 ratings.

For comparison: Leviathan Wakes, published in 2011, has 226,176 ratings. Iain M. Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata – also 2012 – 22,164. Gibson’s Pattern Recognition 49,549. Dune 1,124,986. Anathem – not an easy book either – 68,952. Miéville’s Embassytown 30,096. Wolf Hall 193,916. My Year of Rest and Relaxation 219,836. Fifty Shades of Grey 2,323,890. Gone Girl 2,745,567. Dark Matter 360,088. Annihilation 192,023. DeLillo’s Zero K 10,742. Egan’s Schild’s Ladder 3427. Gardens of the Moon 105,832. The Fifth Season 213,400. Ancillary Justice 95,536. The Three-Body Problem 231,565. Robinson’s 2312 – 2012 as well – 19,002. And finally, Radiance by Carter Scholz, one of the best books ever, published in 2002: 45 ratings.


What’s Kincaid’s reasoning? Well, he throws in Walter Benjamin – always a telltale rhetorical device. “If Walter Benjamin is right that great writers either create a new form or destroy an old one, then M. John Harrison can be said to both create and destroy science fiction in this trilogy.”

He ends his review with this:

In the three novels that make up the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, M. John Harrison has produced work that makes us excited about the limitless possibilities of science fiction, and at the same time makes us stop and wonder what science fiction is. The cycle of creation and destruction of the genre that runs through the entire trilogy reinvigorates the tiredness of old forms that the genre has hugged to itself for too long, and in the process allows science fiction to open out in strange and unexpected ways. Nothing else in science fiction has come close to matching it.

I agree Harrison has written three very imaginative books. But to me, the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy doesn’t create or destroy anything. As for creation – aside from the 3 books themselves – Harrision didn’t start a new genre, nor is his work a catalyst for some new iteration of the genre. If you look at contemporary SF, it seems as if Harrison has nothing to do with it. I’m sure a few outliers like China Miéville like reading him, but do you really think Miéville wouldn’t have found his voice without Harrison – let alone the trilogy Kincaid praises? Similarly, it doesn’t destroy a thing: it seems as if companies churn out more and more vapid science fiction each year – both on big screens as on paper.

Kincaid’s review is – while analytically great on the content of the books – pompous, and, more importantly, it gives way, way too much agency to books like these. It’s more a lament of wishful thinking than it is a literary analysis that is also sociologically sound. It’s the same myth that propelled Powers to write Bewilderment, the myth that individual books are important causal agents in the world.

Why does Kincaid believe Harrison is a SF messiah? Well, because he writes weird postmodern stuff.

Caroline Edwards – Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of London – puts it like this: “Harrison has delved into oneiric landscapes full of grotesque ambiguity and cracked perspectives. In examining the techniques of recursive intertextuality, ontological questioning and destabilisation of genre expectations (…)”.

The words are out: intertextuality, destabilisation of genre expectations, recursiveness, ontology.

How is this new, I ask? Didn’t Kincaid get the memo? Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, they are all dead. Only Frederic Jameson is alive – 88 years old and counting!

Matthew Cheney has some interesting things to say in his review for Strange Horizons in 2013. Let me quote it extensively:

It may be inadequate, though, to simply position Harrison as following a stolon of the main SF organism. His stance is strongly oppositional, and as such is meaningless without that which he opposes. These books are among the most staunchly SF-critical novels since Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (1972), Galaxies (1975), and Herovit’s World (1973). Though they utilize the scattered material of many genres, the foundation of the Kefahuchi Tract novels is interstellar science fiction. They do not merely offer an alternative to the dominant paradigm of such tales, they stand athwart the paradigm, yelling (at it, or us, or everything), “Stop!”

As much as they enjoy playing around with science fictional icons, relics, and vestments, the Kefahuchi Tract books in general, and Empty Space in particular, don’t actually seem to believe in science fiction.

At its core, science fiction is a genre of belief and SF writers specialize in producing belief in readers (or, as is more commonly said, they provoke the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief”). Thus, SF is the style of writing most shackled to notions of verisimilitude, most needing the reality effect. Hence the peculiar power of objects in science fiction: things metonymically create worlds in the reader’s mind. Any world (no matter how specific, no matter how narrow) is never the sum of its words, and so by imagining worlds through words, traditional SF is an anamorphic format, framing future histories through the light of present language, hoping to project a wide image across the reader’s brain screen.

But science fiction that seeks to elaborate worlds through words will always fall short. This is the failure inherent in the promise of SF, the fact that skewers the ideal. Reality eludes language, and even if it didn’t, it is simply more rich and strange than any novelist’s imagination. Traditional science fiction, like traditional mystery stories, answers that problem by taming reality and explaining strangeness away. Even the most expository science fiction story is, if written by someone who believes in the ultimate knowability of the universe, less complex than a mediocre history book. No text can contain all the implications of the present, never mind the future. And so planets become functionally little more than monocultural city-states, alien species become stand-ins for the writer’s unexamined assumptions of biological determinism, plants and animals are background items, technology is controlled by deliberation rather than chance, time is represented as linear, progress exists, conclusions conclude, and the thousand variations of personality, politics, and experience that you will find in one village of one thousand people are simplified to basic extremes. William Faulkner said that he wrote books about his “own little postage stamp of native soil” all the while knowing he “would never live long enough to exhaust it.” Interstellar science fiction seeks to write about territories larger by many orders of magnitude, and yet so often presents that territory as if it were smaller than a postage stamp, or at least less colorful.

It is exactly that sort of science fiction that the Kefahuchi Tract novels don’t believe in. In the universe of these novels, all explanations are incomplete and temporary, if not, as is more likely, a delusion. (“Do any of you understand anything at all?” a character in Nova Swing asks, as if yelling at roomful of writers at a science fiction convention. “Why do you all act as if you know something when you don’t?”) Such metaphysics might seem terrifying—a universe that fates its citizens to ignorance must fate them to the ignorance of meaning, too—but Harrison, while acknowledging the inevitable terror, suggests instead realities of radical, pragmatic possibility. In Light we learned that every alien race “had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions.” This is a universe of complementarity, a universe where the type of question asked determines the type of answer given, and where multiple types of answers may lead to similar results. Or perhaps it is a universe in which all basic assumptions are equally wrong. Is this the logic of quantum physics or the logic of dreams?

There is a certain hubris in the confidence that asserts an ability to differentiate between dreams and reality—or if not hubris then egotism: the assertion of a knowable, continuous, immutable self. Nova Swing includes an epigraph from John Gray: “Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactment of conscious selves.”

(…)

The Kefahuchi Tract novels are science fiction without teleology, nostalgia without sentiment. The effect is, for readers used to strict causal structures and motivated psychologies and linear coherence, alienating. Nova Swing and Empty Space compound this effect the way the later books of Harrison’s Viriconium (1971-1985) series compounded the alienation effects hinted at and implied by the earlier books. As people and as readers we want our lives and stories to give us settled realities rather than chosen and constructed ones. We may read to enter imaginary worlds, but we have been trained to want those worlds to be coherent, because otherwise they don’t work as theories, and our star drives won’t take us to the land of comforting, or at least satisfying, conclusions.

While interesting, to me this also seems to miss the mark at times. Much – if not all of Cheney’s points – also go for regular literary fiction, and fiction in general. That was precisely the point of that whole list of postmodern Frenchmen I provide earlier. I don’t get this science fictional exceptionalism – true, there’s a matter of degree as far as the suspension of disbelief goes, but that’s about it. Psychological literary thrillers also fail if a writer doesn’t succeed in creating a world in the reader’s mind.

Why speak of “the failure inherent in the promise of SF”? Any sort of fiction “that seeks to elaborate worlds through words will always fall short” – again, it is the failure inherent in any kind of literature, as literature will always grapple with how to represent the world, and each attempt at representation is a construction, inherently problematic, incomplete, unstable, changing, up for an infinite amount of different readers’ interpretations.

I’m not saying Harrison doesn’t ask interesting questions. But are games with fictional dreams the answer to the uncertainty in other people’s fiction? And isn’t there a kind of hubris too in the idea that dreams might be the same as reality? Our consciousness is for the time being still a hard problem – as the phenomenon of reality itself – but let’s not pretend as if we don’t know the philosophical or ontological or literary difference between dreams and reality. Dreams shed light on the brain, not on the slipping Mystery of Reality.

Harrison talks a bit about all this in an 2015 interview on Twisted Tales.

It’s that aspect of the encounter with the sublime–which you would see as often in Kerouac as in Machen or Hildegard of Bingen–that interests me. The idea that if something ordinary sits at the heart of the mystical experience, then, equally, something profound lies at the heart of the ordinary. You can make that statement in either direction, of course, and frame the subsequent argument to your taste. Some mornings I’m a shade more interested in finding the profane at the heart of the sacred than I am the sacred at the heart of the profane. A certain restlessness around that is where I’d locate the ‘horror’ in my fiction, that’s where it has something in common with the horror tradition. But Lovecraft’s anxiety of the unknowable, his sense that it must always be undermining of the human, is of less interest to me. It seems frame-dependent. I’m very much in favour of inexplicability as an essential component of human experience. Aickman quotes Sacheverell Sitwell’s for his epigraph to Cold Hand in Mine: ‘In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation’.

I can’t fault that, but in the end, put in these terms, Harrison’s fiction just becomes another form of mimesis: the attempt at representation of mystery. It’s a valid subject matter, but I don’t think you can say something about the mystical nature of reality via a fictional book that has an agenda that is partly meta-fictional and in the end is just another cleverly conceived self-referential language puzzle.

Harrison continues in that same interview:

I’d like to pick up on the idea of refusing closure. Your stories are not conciliatory, sometimes even antagonistic – I’m thinking of some of the Viriconium stories. What does that offer you?
MJH: To begin with it was a bare-faced trolling of the f/sf reader, a way of seeming to offer what f/sf normally offers, then snatching it away by allowing the story to fall into a kind of absurdism. That was an act of metafiction, a criticism of the genre. From there, it became a way of exploring the refusal of closure as an act in itself–really, as a matter of technique; then of its potential as a political act. Now I’m interested in using it to look at individual emotional experience (which comes with an automatic political component anyway). When I began writing flash fiction and nonfiction on my blog in 2007, I realised that I could bring method and content together by making the fiction a kind of lost property department, or missing persons department, in stories of self-storage units or of people who make the decision to ‘become lost in their own life’. Around then I finally felt that I had shed the original trolling dynamic of the technique, and discovered a less limited, perhaps more positive purpose for it. Probably the best way to define what I’m doing now is to quote the piece I put up on my blog today–

‘The structure of the story, as it is engaged by the reader, should have a similar effect to that of discovering a selection of items in a container of unlabelled material from someone else’s life. The end of the story, instead of providing closure, tries to recreate the moment in which some fragments of evidence–which might not actually be evidence–flicker together to suggest the possibility of a pattern that might never have been there anyway. Glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias. The sense of briefly understanding or failing to understand emotional states that you might, anyway, have invented. The aim of the writer is not to become an exhibitor of found objects, but instead to not quite succeed in curating that which might or might not have been there in the first place. There is, obviously, a politics to that, and it always produces, by definition, a story of ghosts, if not an actual ghost story.’

(…)

In the KT trilogy, everything, from Shadow Boy to advertisement to human being, is made of information, and information is always slipping away into new combinations and meanings. It’s another way of asking the reader, ‘Is there anything on this page but letters? Is there anyone to read it who isn’t made of slippage?’ Then hauntology, of course: ‘that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive’. And there’s pure nostalgia–the haunting by an old photograph, or by a photograph not yet taken, a condition not yet reached, letters not yet written on pages. An old building is already a kind of haunting, an outcrop of the past into the present. As you say, ghosts or something like them are central to my stuff. I can’t say I believe in them per se, though. They’re grist to the mill, they facilitate certain kinds of fictional structures, which are in turn the best way of handling ontological or epistemological issues, the big question to myself as well as the reader: knock knock, is anyone there?

Maybe this explains why I liked You Should Come With Me Now and The Sunken Land that Begins the Rise Again a whole lot better than Empty Space. It seems as if the latter was the culmination of Harrison’s lifelong process of asking “Is there anything on this page but letters? Is there anyone to read it who isn’t made of slippage?”.

And again, I’m just not that interested in that question anymore. The answer to it seems kind of obvious, even though we like falling for the illusion letters provide; even if the letter industry has political implications. So I’m much more interested in the Harrison of today, the one that focusses on “glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias”.

Harrison is clearly a very self-conscious writer, thinking these things through, and through, and through. He elaborates again about the topics of this text in an interview with Derick Varn and Dinesh Raghavendra on Former People in 2016.

I’m interested that things might not be what they seem; Gnosticism, along with a lot of other systems of thought, has a longstanding metaphysic of things not being what they seem; it has experience with those kinds of paranoid ontologies and epistemologies. I’m interested in the unknowability of things in general and I love the physicists’ predictable once-a-generation pratfall into the hubris of, “Oh, we know everything now,” which always heralds a sudden increase in the difficulty of understanding the universe. The more you look, the more there is to look for, it would seem. I hasten to add that while I might be interested in Gnosticism, I’m not a Gnostic; for me, these are games with form and analogy, not proclamations of faith, and Gnosticism fits under the larger umbrella of Absurdism.

I guess the word “games” is the operative here. And it’s the same reason I liked the language in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but not the book itself. Games in art tend to be gimmicks, and gimmicks don’t get me to the heart of things.

From the same interview:

If you want the unheimlich, you must have dissonance, although you have to be careful not to overdo it. Establish a context, then violate it quite sparingly. In weird fiction the strange is made to intrude on and threaten briefly the normal; but it’s equally important to threaten the strange with the normal. I get many of my effects by making sure of that two-way process. (If we’re to talk about more immersive fiction, ie fantasy or space opera, another benefit of this device is to create discontinuities, glitches in the so-called “logic” of the so-called “secondary world” which make it harder for the reader to suspend disbelief and escape into the fiction.)

Again – if I read fiction, I want to escape in it. I want my disbelief suspended. Not that I don’t want to learn things about the world and the mystery at the heart of it. Not that I don’t want my fiction to be critical. Not that I don’t want the Unheimliche. Not at all. It’s just that Harrison’s choice of strategy in Empty Space – the game of a referential & deliberately distorted mise-en-abyme – doesn’t work for the kind of reader I am.

That doesn’t mean I want to discard Harrison as an author. As I said in the beginning, I’ll read more of him. He’s too good at what he does to discard, and he’s a lucid, insightfull thinker. I leave you with some proof of that, two quotes from the Former People interview.

There’s a point at which futurism and fantasy become inextricable, rendering the distinction useless but clearly revealing their shared origins in wishful thinking. Where it’s possible to take the singularity seriously (that is, to separate it from its own boosterism and Aladdin’s Lamp fictions of itself) I think I’d apply to it Mark Dery’s excellent recent description of OculusRift, as “the brain’s dream of jettisoning the body. Also, the secession of the rich, into the virtual.” All our present evidence is that technological development costs a lot of money. The singularity is a utopia of capital. As the idea of unending economic growth proves itself to be not just wishful thinking but bad physics, progress towards the Rapture of the Nerds will stall except for rich individuals in rich nations.

&

How do you see science fiction developing in the next five years? I see an intensification of the growing right/left kulturkampf: it will be both exploited and diluted by the publishing industry, which in the last few years has been forced to become rather quicker on its feet about identifying commodifiable cultural shifts. What that will actually mean in terms of sci-fi books on shelves or e-readers, who can say? I also suspect that we’ll see less fiction of all kinds. Everyone will have published their novel and discovered they aren’t going to get rich–or even noticed–by writing. The industry, especially in its middleclass form, ie traditional, paper-published litfic, saw peak remuneration in the 1990s and peak social status dividends in the first ten years of the new century. For the global middle classes, writing a book will increasingly become the equivalent of Victorian accomplishment culture–everyone, if you recall, had to be able to sing a bit, play an instrument, ride a horse, paint watercolours, whatever. The dancing masters & music teachers scraped a living out of it.

Empty Space Harrison


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24 responses to “EMPTY SPACE: A HAUNTING – M. John Harrison (2012)

  1. I fully agree with the assessment that Harrison’s trilogy is not demolishing anything, at least not sociologically, and doesn’t seem to have any influence on the SF genre as it is written today by the likes of the Expanse authors. I think the review from Strange Horizons comes closest to looking at his work clearly. What’s interesting is that by the end of Empty Space, I did find some kind of patterns in the book and with that, a meaning that I interpreted from it, but it is a meaning that is perhaps created by my own brain, or perhaps it isn’t even possible to write a book that is 100 percent about slippage of meaning, not even by Harrison.

    Those last two quotes by Harrison are great, by the way.

    Too bad it didn’t work for you. But it could have been worse. It could have been about sugar-frosted nutsacks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Is there anything on this page but letters?”—Well, of course not. OBVIOUSLY not. What a silly question! “Is there anyone to read it who isn’t made of slippage?”—My god, what have they been feeding you, Mr Harrison?

    I’ve read the Kefahuchi things (I’m not persuaded that they are novels). I thought the fiction crude and the prose slapdash.

    Pale Fire, by the way, isn’t about the games. If you can work your way through them and find the hidden trapdoor, you fall through into a world of beauty and light and tenderness. It’s exhilarating. Two hints: the epigraph makes no sense as an epigraph to Nabokov’s novel, right? And who is this “you” on the first page?

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    • The question about readers being made of slippage is interesting in the sense that thinking about what makes personhood, how consciousness works, etc., are interesting questions. So I’m less harsh on that than you.

      I think Nova Swing is clearly a novel. Empty Space is the farthest off, as I said to Jeroen above, I guess I should have approached it as short stories. I agree that the overall story/stories are kinda crude, but to me it’s clear that Harrison only uses it to do other things.

      I don’t think the prose is slapdash, on the contrary. Why do you think so?

      As for Pale Fire: finding a hidden trapdoor is a game for me. So you would do me a service in just giving your take on the two hints, and expose the hidden trapdoor, and I’d consider reading it again. I was in awe of certain scenes and sentences, so I’m curious about that light & tenderness.

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  3. Two quotations seemed particularly apposite me – although (in the first instance) maybe not in the way the author intended?

    ‘The Kefahuchi Tract books in general, and Empty Space in particular, don’t actually seem to believe in science fiction.’

    Cheney seems to think this is a good thing, but you could also interpret it as being the trilogy’s defining flaw. This isn’t so much SF as post-modernist SF. I should add that this is what I liked about the trilogy. I hadn’t read any Science Fiction in decades and Empty Space: A Haunting marked my return to that genre.* How SF had progressed (or so I thought) drew additional resonance from how I’d read the Virconium sequence years before, and found it kind of underwhelming. I couldn’t get over how Harrison had improved. So it’s very hard for me to divorce the book’s real merits from its significance to me – although I don’t think I’m quite as unconditionally impressed as I was.

    The second quote is from Harrison himself –

    ‘The idea that if something ordinary sits at the heart of the mystical experience, then, equally, something profound lies at the heart of the ordinary.’

    I think this is juxtaposition is the essence of what makes the books work – how the strange, coldly remote world of the distant future is contrasted with the mundane and the familiar and how the two turn out to be intertwined.

    * I read the books out of sequence (I’m not even sure I was aware there was a trilogy when I bought Empty Space: A Haunting, nor am I sure it really made a difference).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I agree, with your first remark: if you don’t believe in SF, why read or write it in the first place? But I agree that being critical or self-aware about the genre can be a good thing too. I wonder what had happened if I had read Empty Space first. I guess Nova Swing is the most normal of the three, so that’s not the book to look at here. Maybe I’m just too different of a reader than 5.5 years ago, when I read Light. It felt fresh and imaginative, to the extent that I tolerated the rest of what Harrison tried to do. It also was the first book of his that I read, so maybe I’ve become tired of his mechanic over the years. Don’t know. Hard to parse. We’ll see when he publishes a new book, or when I read Viriconium.
      As for the mundane/profound dichotomy, I agree too, but I think it goes even a bit further than that: in reality there is no dichotomy to begin with. They don’t sit in eachothers heart, they are the same thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with you that Harrison’s work doesn’t “destroy” SF or literature, particularly given its existence as a mass-produced commodity—albeit one less successful than, say, China Mieville’s last book. To an extent I think that Harrison believes that his SF “destroys”, insofar as he has long positioned himself as a critic of the assumptions and tired cliches of literary SF. But again, and as you say, he simply doesn’t destroy SF, if this is what such “destruction” entails. Rather, I conceive of Harrison as a remainder or residue of the real trajectory of destruction that surfaced in SF in the 1940s and 50s and become relatively self-conscious with the New Wave in the 1960s: a “destruction” that was an effect of SF’s creation as both a distinct genre and its various attempts to police and defend this distinction. Various writers started to interrogate this before the New Wave (Bester, Kornbluth, Pohl and Dick come to mind, but by no means exhausts the list). The New Wavers tried to cohere this around a manifesto for a “new” SF. But there lies the rub and the problem. The “destruction” implicit in SF as a distinct totality within the broader social-cultural scene itself calls into question not only SF, but literature and the arts more generally, vis-à-vis their role in everyday life. This, at least, is the thesis of the situationists. In brief: you can’t fight alienation with alienated means. Or more specifically per the critique of Harrison: one cannot destroy literature by means of literature.

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    • What book of Mieville do you mean? I’m guessing not his 2022 non-fiction book on the communist manifesto?

      Harrison talks his origins in the SF tradition a bit in the beginning of that Former People interview, well worth reading.

      How would you summarize that manifesto for new SF? I’m not well versed enough in the genre’s history.

      I wonder about SF being distinct: isn’t that the case for other genres too? I agree that genres as distinct & seperate entities are problematic, but I don’t see how SF is anything other than just another example. (Could be that I misinterpret what you try to say, I’m sorry if that’s the case.)

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  5. The last book of Mieville’s I read was his one on the Russian Revolution. I dare say that it and the latest one on the Manifesto would still sell more than anything by Harrison. I might add I am certainly not one who attributes much value to commercial success, apart, that is, from the questionable ability to shift units (that are made and shifted by others apart from the author…).
    I should be careful to attribute to much coherence to the New Wave. Insofar as it was “organised”, it was nowhere as formal as, say, the surrealist group around Andre Breton. Nonetheless, certain “members” were not above grandly stating what the New Wave was and was not (Ballard and Moorcock come to mind). In essence, they reacted against the Gernsback-Campbell idea and practice of SF, and even foreshadowed the end of SF (something, apparently, Harrison hasn’t given up on?). Though this “end” was largely conceived in the sense of the superfluity of SF as a distinct category (Judith Merril, Brian Aldiss and Harlan Ellison come to mind on this point).
    I agree that SF is not that much different from other “partial totalities” (to use a term favoured by Henri Lefebvre and drawn from the influence of Hegel). Nonetheless, SF writers–and perhaps even more so fans–have been very concerned about establishing the boundaries and limits of SF. One of the more crazy upshots of this is when certain fans want their cake and eat it too: they speak of the “boundless” nature of SF in the same breath as they hail to distinct significance and even superiority of SF vis-a-vis other forms of literature and the arts.
    My interest is in SF’s ambivalence re: distinction. It is and is not distinct. But where it is distinct, where it marks out its difference, here we can find its drive to destruction and supersession–something Lefebvre would say is immanent to any “partial totality”.

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    • Thanks, interesting remarks.

      There will never be an end to SF, and while certain of its features will creep into literary fiction and other genres, as a distinct category it will keep on existing, as marketing needs categories to move product.

      I’m not sure about SF fans as gatekeepers/promoters: again, isn’t that true for other genres as well, especially those with distinct subcultures?

      Could you make that final sentence more concrete? Why would difference be coupled with a drive to destroy?

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s brave of you to say “there will never be an end to SF”, or “never” to anything for that matter! Of course there will be an end to SF much like there was a beginning. And even though we argue long and hard about what exactly this beginning was and when, SF, like all things, will and must end… one day!
        I certainly agree that SF isn’t exclusive in its gatekeeping, but gatekeeping has been such a marker of SF since at least the time of Gernsback’s Amaszing Stories in 1926, I would hazard to say SF has been particularly productive with regards to gatekeepers.
        Per my first paragraph on “never”, the drive to destruction or negation simply is immanent to all things, living or otherwise. I’d include “super individual” social historical forms in this class of things that move toward their own destruction. Capitalism tends to either deny this or disguise it, but destruction comes. As Debord once remarked, it’s just a question of how you relate to it.
        Still, there is a specificity to the destruction SF faces, related to its existence as a product of this social and historical moment. A longer discussion I’ll only gesture at for the time being.

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        • My guess is that as long as human culture keeps on existing, there will be some form of fiction that speculates about the future, unless we get back to debilitating levels of deprivation, but I agree that everything is final, and all else – what exactly is SF – boils down to semantics.

          If you ever feel like elaborating on the specificity to the destruction our current form of SF faces, I’d be very interested in reading that.

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          • Paul Connelly

            I could see our current form of SF dying of exhaustion, as its futures keep failing to resemble anything that actually happens. If you remember the old Geritol advertisements that used to promote the concoction as a cure for “tired blood”, SF needs a “tired trope” cure.

            Even the newer whizbangs are not coming close to anything that will ever be a reality. What some people will call “AI” may cause widespread havoc, like all other bad computer programming, but the “AI singularity” will never occur. Nanotechnology will never be doing the miraculous things SF predicts. All of our data, including selfies and sexts, may get uploaded to the “metaverse”, but nobody’s personality will get transferred from their brain to a computer where they can live forever (until the next power outage, that is).

            And we already know the 1920s and earlier tropes are unscientific. Interstellar space travel will not happen. Interplanetary space travel will never result in long-term viable human societies on any other world. Time travel: nope. Human immortality: nope. Post-scarcity utopias will not be allowed because the people in control don’t want that, they like seeing the “useless eaters” suffer. Maybe some of the less melodramatic dystopias (like Parable of the Sower) may edge close to our probable future, but melodrama sells, so you don’t find many.

            Futuristic fiction occasionally predicts some piece of technology fairly closely, but it rarely predicts the actual use that technology will be put to, its expense (including energy requirements), and how it will be regarded by the general public. Most often it’s just wrong. At some point readers are going to bring this dead parrot back to the store for a refund.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, that’s an impressive list and some really interesting points. But at the same time, new hopes will undoubtedly emerge as science keeps on evolving, and as such speculative fiction about the future will keep on existing. Not all scifi is about technology for that matter, and the chance for some form of a dystopian future will never be zero – on the contrary, it seems as if it only increased the last decade or so.

              Another thing to consider is that the realism of certain scifi tropes are not necessary to enjoy it. I myself have never thought that time travel would be practically possible someday, yet I do enjoy some time travel stories. More or less the same goes for interstellar space travel – KSR’s Aurora convinced me it is impossible – but nonetheless, I keep enjoying some space opera. I think Fantasy as a genre kinda hints at this thought more broadly: we all know dragons don’t exist and neither do elves, yet we enjoy Tolkien.

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              • Paul Connelly

                Yes, there is still a lot of enjoyment to be found in space opera that’s well-written, and even in retro “planetary romances” where dead civilizations left constructed canals on a Leigh Brackett version of Mars, etc. This is just a tip-off that we’re reading fantasy, with the mindset we bring to fantasy, and that almost all of what is marketed as “science fiction” now would be more honestly described as “technology fantasy”. But do we really need the next thousand books about “galactic empires” with instantaneous communication and non-relativistic space travel times and 53rd century versions of the battles of Trafalgar or Midway? Why not just re-read Aubrey and Maturin?

                I hope you’re right about science evolving in a way that leads to more realistic (seeming) premises for SF. As a social phenomenon it appears to have acquired all the perverse incentives that bedevil other types of organized social endeavors after a long enough period of existence. The range of fiction that can be written about hunting for imaginary tiny particles or developing placebo-equivalent medications for socially constructed illnesses is probably pretty narrow.

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              • Ha, that final sentence made me laugh out loud. You’re absolutely right of course – the range of possible future science indeed seems narrow. But we can’t deny the possibility for some future paradigm shifting discoveries, and especially on brains lots of ground seems left to be uncovered. So I don’t know about A.I. – seems we are still in the very early stages of developing.

                Either way, most SF indeed is techno-fantasy, and I’m generally indeed tired of political machinations or battles in galactic empires – Arkady Martin comes to mind, but it looks like people still gobble stuff like that up, winning the Hugo twice with books that are totally unoriginal.

                You remind me to start Aubrey & Maturin – I’ve had the first volume on my pile for years. But we’ll see when – I just stopped Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light after 150 pages, it just didn’t grab my attention anymore while I absolutely loved the first 2 books. So I don’t feel like historical fiction atm, but I’m sure I’ll get to it someday.

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              • Paul Connelly

                The first Aubrey-Maturin book is fine, but it’s more a warm-up for the overall series. From the second, Post Captain, to the thirteenth, The Thirteen Gun Salute, there is a continuing plot arc and developments in relationships that each of the protagonists have. I think O’Brien is also comparing two arms of modern war-fighting: military (Aubrey being the brave, robust man of action who turns into a bumbler outside his “wooden world”) and intelligence (Maturin being a cold-blooded killer for his ideology underneath the dotty proto-scientist exterior that he presents). Very worth trying.

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  6. Nothing about this review has changed my view that M. Harrison is the type of guy to get astoundingly mad when people have fun in a way he doesn’t personally enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You could very well be right. At times he comes across as pretty self-righteous on his blog. Not really in interviews, but on his blog I’ve been puzzled by some posts.

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