I 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.
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“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. Continue reading →
“Hard to know if it’s a neurosis or a survival characteristic.”
This is a tough nut to crack. You could say that I’m a Harrison fan – his latest short fiction collection You Should Come With Me Know was one of my favorite reads in 2017, and I liked the strange 2002 science fiction novel Light a lot. But aside the 15 pages of Doe Lea, I haven’t read anything else by him. The seminal Viriconium is on my TBR, as are the final 2 installments in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy began with Light. I also found a second hand copy of his 1971 debut The Committed Men – a new wave post-apocalyptic story set in the UK, and a copy of The Centauri Device, an “anti-space opera” that influenced Banks & Reynolds. I plan to read all of those, but at my current rate it will take me years. Anyhow, if you are a bit familiar with the titles I listed, you’ll notice Harrison has an impressive range – I know few speculative writers who have such a varied output.
It is 2020 today, and it is clear M. John Harrison has covered a lot of millage as a writer in the 50 years he’s been writing publicly. His first novel since 2012, The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is published by Gollancz – which has published only science fiction and fantasy since its ownership changed in 1998. It’s maybe fitting Harrison’s new novel reconnects it to the company’s origin as a publisher of “high quality literature” too. The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is not science fiction. Speculative fiction could do, maybe, but I’d hesitate to use that moniker. Aside from a label that determines a potential reader’s expectations, the question of genre might not be important, were it not that Harrison seems to try and subvert every genre he writes in. A “failed allegory” perhaps?
This novel is a portrait of a lonely man and a lonely woman, both in some kind of anxious midlife crisis, both experiencing “a triumph of disconnection”, laterally entangled in some vague, batshit conspiracy, firmly embedded in London & Shropshire landscapes, sprinkled with a few weird, wrenched elements – but rest assured: those elements never dominate the story.
Harrison – undoubtly “a high-functioning romantic” like Victoria – mentions quite a few painters, paintings or prints. Aside from capriccios by Felix Kelly, and prints from John Atkinson Grimshaw and Eric Ravilious, he explicitly names The Red Rook (1948) by Gertrude Abercrombie, Sea Idyll (1887) by Arnold Böcklin, The Colossi of Memmon, Thebes, One (1872) by Carl Friedrich Heinrich Werner and Solar Eclipse in Venice, 6 July 1842 by Ippolito Cafi. Continue reading →
You Should Come With Me Now features 42 short stories written between 2001 and 2015. About half of those are very short, about half a page, and previously appeared on M. John Harrison’s blog. Harrison calls the short items “flash fiction”, but the “prose poem” moniker would have worked just as well.
Having said that, categories aren’t of much use in this collection: this truly is genre defying prose. There are elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and the plain the weird. But ‘elements’ is indeed just that: mere elements – as the core of most of these stories are humans and human relations: for every ounce of speculativeness, there’s three ounces of something Raymond Carver would have been proud of too. So yes, what we have here is a 21st century Franz Kafka: fiction about the ordinary weirdness of being human, all too human, in a setting that’s at times a bit off, and at times perfectly normal.
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Damn: hard review to write.
China Miéville has said the following about Micheal John Harrison: “That M. John Harrison is not a Nobel laureate proves the bankruptcy of the literary establishment. Austere, unflinching and desperately moving, he is one of the very great writers alive today. And yes, he writes fantasy and sf, though of a form, scale and brilliance that it shames not only the rest of the field, but most modern fiction.”
Light is the first of three connected books – The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. It won the Triptree award, and its sequel Nova Swing won the Clarke and the PKD. The trilogy is also known as the Empty Space trilogy – Empty Space being the title of the last book, published in 2012. All three books are quite different, and Light can easily be read as a standalone novel.
Do I agree with Mièville? I’m not sure, and besides, I’ve only read this one book. But after reading Light, I’ll finish the entire trilogy. The same goes for The Centauri Device – a stand-alone space opera title published in 1974. I also bought Viriconium – a fantasy series of novels and stories started in 1972 and finished in 1985. So I’ll get back to you in a couple of years on that Nobel prize. In the meantime, let me try to convey the atmosphere of Light. Continue reading →