Not too far away from the genre


by Guido Eekhaut

  Science fiction – and to a somewhat lesser degree fantasy – has traditionally been driven by the short story. Most sf-writers find their humble beginnings in magazines or, if they’re lucky, in anthologies. The fantastic setting, the ghost story, magic realism – all have originated from shorter material, from Kafka all the way to Borges. And this isn’t even a continental European tradition: the American pulps of the first half of the previous century mainly published stories or novelettes. In these last decades it seems that more writers almost immediately or exclusively produce novels – even Very Big Novels. Because, as publishers tell them, that is what the public wants. I’m sure they’re ill-advised, since the public that reads SF and fantasy (and any other non-naturalistic genre) still looks for the shorter read.

All this to say that the present reviewer is only too happy to review a collection of shorter work, and from a writer he has admired for a long time. For those who were already around in the late sixties (when the present reviewer was only an adolescent, but already a seasoned reader of SF), the name of M. John Harrison stands firmly with those other committed, intelligent writers who were part of – but seldom thought of themselves as – the New Wave. And already from the mid-seventies on – as the copyright page of this book humbly tells us – Harrison was writing those moody, sometimes sad, only-just-fantasy-like stories that won him much acclaim in the all too limited circle of the more engaged, demanding SF-fans. Later on he was writing his brilliant, dark, close-to-the-bone novels, some of which where no longer marketed as SF. Until recently when he ‘returned’ to a field he was never really part of, with Light, that sublime SF-novel, to show he masters the art of hard-SF like any other Alastair Reynolds or Greg Bear.

The present collection gives us a fair but not complete overview of his shorter fiction, up until the stories he wrote quite recently. For those who have bought his previous collections (like Travel Arrangements or The Ice Monkey, both from Gollancz) there is an inevitable amount of overlap, but that is just a fair price to pay. New editions of his (collected) novels are also again in print, which is a happy thing for a writer who would otherwise be unjustly forgotten.

Harrison’s characters – who are always at the very heart of his stories, even to the point where he neglects scientific plausibility, but who worries about that? – all seem moulded from the one and the same cast, probably a simulacrum of the writer himself. Luckily, we can state without further evidence, that none of this fiction is too autobiographical. But is it? One can never be sure. The quest for the godlike creature in Settling the World or for an elusive murderer in the Neon Heart Murders is certainly not part of any human life, but after that there is some doubt in the mind and the heart of the reader.

There is much pain and anguish in these stories, and they feel absolutely lived-in and lived-through. They have an authenticity seldom found in any sort of fantastic writing. Time and again we know we are firmly in Harrison-country, where he is willing to gamble not no the usual sense of wonder of the fantastic, but on the sense of the absolute familiar of realistic fiction.

One hopes, however, that very little of the characters in Harrison’s stories is derived from his actual experience and the actual world – unless it’s the rock-climbing part, a way of life actually very dear to Harrison. He has even written a novel around his experiences: Climbers. The loneliness of his characters is almost existential. It is a result of living in their specific urban conditions, where not even a job gives them stability. They’re unable to form true relationships, and the one’s they’re having are usually with bizarre, unstable people who are set upon a self-imposed self-destruction. All this may not push the reader to take on Harrison, but he has to be read on account of mood and atmosphere, the depth of his characterization and the uncommon twists in his plots.

But even then there is enough presence and virtuoso here to enchant even the most critical of readers. Harrison never bothers too much about taking the easy way out with his stories, and he doesn’t give his characters not much of a chance too. They have all been carved up – in an almost true sense – by life. “We all love a mysterious country,” one of them says in Egnaro. The mystery resides not in the exotic or the outlandish, but in seeing the everyday world in a dislocated way. And even if Harrison-country is familiar to us, especially those of us who know the geography of London, he does not hesitate to pull the rug from under our feet and show us that these certainties are, after all, mere conventions. That there is a mysterious country right under our noses, exciting for some, feared by many. That is the true stuff the fantastic ought to be made of.

The interesting thing about Harrison is that he seems to have moved away from the fantastic settings of most of his earlier books (specifically the Viriconium books) and is now occupying a terrain all to himself. This is what happened, although on another scale, with J.G.Ballard, another survivor of the New Wave. This move could easily be explained because of the growing popularity of the fantastic in the media, and the un-gendering of the genre into media-subcategories. What happened since the eighties is that the media industry, and specifically film and TV, has taken over a number of themes and story-lines which previously were solely explored by a genre that supposed itself to be ‘subversive’. Subversive in literature, because if you were seriously engaged in literature, you were not supposed to either read not write SF or fantasy. And sociologically subversive as well, because you could engage themes that were, as the Harlan Ellison anthology proved, ‘Dangerous Visions’.

But now? Are fantasy and SF Subversive? No longer. They’ve become part of a mainstream thinking and living – and we can even say we do live in a science fiction world. The dangerous visions of people like Mike Moorcock, Thomas Dish, J.G.Ballard, Harlan Ellison and so many others, have been gentrified. The doors of the world are flung open to SF and it’s ideas, but these ideas no longer have the sharp edge they once had. For some of the old-time adherents it is not uncommon to mutter: ‘let’s get SF back into the gutter where in belongs’.

Harrison has found another way out. He brought the gutter of SF with him, into the semi-mainstream. And when he still uses the discourse of the fantastic, of SF, he does it with caution.


M. John Harrison. Things that Never Happen. Gollancz, London, 2004. Paperback, 436 pages, ISBN 0575075937, £8.99



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