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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works

  Science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions.

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M. John Harrison

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Standard Disclaimer:

This is a brief discussion of M. John Harrison and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Harrison.

This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Harrison: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)

I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Harrison tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Harrison worthy; in sum, to help you rank M. John Harrison (and the works by Harrison listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.

A Few Words About M. John Harrison

Some General Thoughts on M. John Harrison

Let me start by saying that you do not read a book by M. John Harrison: you surrender yourself to it. His are tales of power, and conviction.

Not long before starting the original of this essay (it has been augmented, but is still behind the times), I chanced to be reading some remarks by Gore Vidal about Italo Calvino, whose work Vidal first brought to serious attention in the U.S. Vidal concluded his essay with the remark that “Reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One.” (Calvino was much pleased when he read that.) I was at once minded of Harrison, for that quality, of the reader completing the writing—which is necessarily found in all fictive works of value—seems pre-eminently present in his work.

(Afterthought: the ideas in Calvino’s novelistic meditation on writing, If on a winter’s night a traveller, are helpful for appreciating Harrison’s oeuvre—David Mitchell has educed some of those ideas.)

Such a saying implies, rightly, that Harrison’s tales are not simple or straightforward. But they are not—as they should not be—matters of allegory, of the reader just needing to find the key, the this = that ; they are, one might say in a complimentary manner, the highest expression of the art of the coloring book. Harrison provides us with outlines: we color them in. But, as with even a child’s coloring book, it isn’t quite that simple: water is not red, the sky is not yellow—the maker’s skill lies in providing outlines whose shapes suggest, imply the wanted colors. The reader participates in the total making by selecting not an area of the spectrum but an exact shade.

Quite some long time after I wrote the paragraphs above, I chanced onto the quotation below, from Harrison himself; I found it gratifying.

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 fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

To say that Harrison’s books are not cheerful is litotes carried to an almost absurd extreme. They can seem, at times, to be purely nihilistic. The folk who populate his tales are fully realized: human beings, grainy, gritty. Some are heroic, not always in the classical ways, though sometimes those too; some are ineffectual, empty, zombies; not a few are wretches. All live in times when things drift sideways, when ennui pervades, when the most important thing seems to be getting through to day’s end, when entropy almost audibly sniggers, when everything seems trivial and nothing great.

In short, they are us; whatever we may feel about them, we can learn from them.

Here’s another later-added thought about Harrison, from his own lips (as captured in an oft-quoted interview in Locus): Harrison described his work as “a deliberate intention to illustrate human values by describing their absence.” Or, as someone else (maybe me? I forget…) has remarked, many of Harrison’s protagonists are “people-shaped holes in the universe”.

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The Committed Men

For a first novel, this was an impressive book. Set in a near-future world where things have fallen completely apart—possibly post-nuclear-war, though it could as well have been an environmental disaster: exactly what it was is immaterial to the tale. What’s left of humankind has tended to form small and weird little communities trying to still somehow maintain some shadow semblance of what was once normality; it is an hopeless, impossible task, but these sad folk seem unable to grasp that their world is gone forever, so they create pathetic (and often gruesome) parodies of it. But a few others, grasping that the change is the new norm, wander the world via its old, broken-up highways.

Whatever the cause was, it has left most survivors with skin cancers and their consequences. But a new breed—“smoothskins”—has emerged: mutants who can live in this new world; but mutants who are human but also somewhat reptilian. The novel concerns itself with a small band, the Committed Men of the title, who come together and travel the wasteland world to deliver a mutant infant born of a “normal” woman, to its own people. The ill-assorted group is united by a need to do something, to have some purpose. The tale follows their grim task, and the vicissitudes they encounter form a savage indictment of humanity.

The novel is almost unremittingly grim, but the men’s commitment is a suggestion of redeemability. As a first novel, it shows a few rough edges, notably a curious, unexplained character and some events near the end, about which I will say no more save that they suggest a tale thread that was never fleshed out, perhaps as not closely relevant to the main story line.

Make no mistake: this is a powerful piece of well-crafted tale-telling that shows us a good deal of what it means to be human (and it should be better known than it is).

The Viriconium Cycle

The Viriconium cycle comprises four books: the novels The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings; the novel or inter-related stories of In Viriconium (also published under the title The Floating Gods); and the story collection Viriconium Nights. There is a marked and progressive set of changes as the reader moves through the four.

The first, The Pastel City, can be taken as an extraordinarily well-wrought specimen of that class of bittersweet science-fiction tales about what Harrison here calls “the Evening Cultures” of humankind—those that come late in the history of the world and the race, when both are old, confused, tired…a class populated since, at the least, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. The bitter derives from the pervasive atmosphere in such tales of ending, of the morning and afternoon of life as but memories, of the same rue and futility as those of the old who feel their lives underlived yet slipping away as they watch; the sweet comes from the fact of actual living, of the reality of those human lives whose owners’ appetites and deeds participate meagerly if at all in the race’s larger melancholy.

We can get some idea of this initial vision of the place, and of Harrison’s initial style, from this:

He entered the city by its twelfth gate, the Gate of Nigg, and there was no gatekeeper to issue even the customary token challenge.

His habitually morose mood shifted to the somber as he took the great radial road Proton Circuit, paved with an ancient resilient material that absorbed the sound of his horse’s hooves.

About him rose the Pastel Towers, tall and gracefully shaped to mathematical curves, tinted pale blue or fuchsia or dove-gray. They reached up for hundreds of feet, cut with quaint and complex designs that some said were the highpoint of an inimitable art, thought by others to be representations of the actual geometrics of Time.

In this first venture at Viriconium, Harrison gives us an adequate but not striking plot and a well-wrought but not unique setting; but he also gives us rich characterizations and, above all, superb, jewel-perfect prose. He captures elegantly the late-autumn mood of the world he imagines:

A low white mist, hardly chest high, covered the Leedale, but the sky was clear and hard. The Name Stars burned with a chilly emerald fire: for millennia they had hung there, spelling two words in a forgotten language; now, only night-herders puzzled over their meaning.

His protagonists do the needful things, some surprises occur, the book comes to an end; this one comes to what might be called a conventional, almost a traditional "happy" ending, in that, for all the pain and losses, those who survive have hopes, and futures that may contain those hopes.

By the second book, though it seems to proceed directly from the first, saving only a lapse of some decades, we have already a different form of book, one grown geometrically in many ways. The Pastel City, though almost poetic in tone, seems grounded in a readily discernible reality. In A Storm of Wings, we retain a connection to that particular far-future science-fictional reality, but an aura of surrealism has set in; as one character insightfully relates, “the actual thin substance of the universe becomes more and more debatable, oneiric, hard to achieve, like the white figures that will not focus at the edge of vision…." This Viriconium is well along the way to being what it will become in the later books.

It is different in many ways. It is still the shell of the seat of a once-great empire of the Afternoon Cultures, but it has ceased to be some Flash-Gordon art-deco abstraction; it has gone from particularity to specificity, from a city to City, a curious amalgam of all the cities of humankind. It is now this:


Its achingly formal gardens and curious geometries, its streets that reek of squashed fruit and fish; its flowers like purple wounds on the lawns of the “Hermitage” at Trois-Vertes; its palace like a shell; how can one deal with it in words?


If you go and stand up in the foothills of Monar, you can see it hanging below you wrapped in a mantle of millennial calm. From the brow of Hollin Low Moor you may watch it fade into another night. Its histories make of the very air about it an amber, an entrapment. Light flares from the vivid tiered heights of Minnet-Saba, from the riverine curve of the Proton Circuit, the improbable towers and plazas of the Atteline Quarter; under a setting sun, banks of anemones and sol d’or planted about the graves…glow like triumphal stained glass; and someone far off in the still twilight is reading aloud a verse of Ansel Verdigris, the poet of the City.


It is a mythic Jerusalem, or Rome: The Eternal City. Its anchors to a definite place and time, clear enough in the first book, have stretched and weakened and curved. Now it is not really in any definite place in reality.

Its problems have changed in like kind. The dangers of The Pastel City were tangible, comprehensible, things against which one takes arms. Now, the shadow descending on Viriconium is not a thing of any sort, it is an attitude, a feeling, a sensation—intangible, indefinite, yet terribly real:

It was as if Viriconium (the physical city, that is, the millennial artifact which sums up a thousand dead cultures) had suffered some sort of psychic storm, and forgotten itself. Its very molecules seemed to be creeping apart. “As you walk,” the dwarf tried to explain after a single clandestine excursion to the Artists’ Quarter, “the streets create themselves around you. When you have passed everything slips immediately back into chaos again….”

The tone, the atmosphere, is the stuffy, oppressive feeling that comes of a summer night when a thunderstorm is due and overdue, and the drenching downpour and thunder and lightning would be better than the miserable humid waiting. Perhaps the worst of it is that the danger is not external, outside and threatening to break in: it walks the streets of the City as the very citizens thereof. It is the Time of the Locust….

The Sign of the Locust is unlike any other religion invented in Viriconium. Its outward forms and observances—its liturgies and rituals, its theurgic or metaphysical speculations, its daily processionals—seem less an attempt by men to express an essentially human invention than the effort of some raw and independent Idea—a theopneustia, existing without recourse to brain or blood: a Muse or demiurge—to express itself. It wears its congregation like a disguise: we did not so much create the Sign of the Locust as invite it into ourselves, and now it dons us nightly like a cloak and domino to go abroad in the world.

…and sanity itself is slowly and insidiously rotting away. Against this barely perceived threat, some few of the City must act, and they do.

This—unlike The Pastel City—is not a tale in which much “happens” in the sense of dramatic action, despite the occasional clashes of swords (and the rare energy weapons). It is a tale of mind—of experiences, of perceptions, thoughts, philosophies; it is claustrophobia-inducing, grim, nihilistic. It is the next step in Harrison’s evolution of Viriconium the concept.

It is a rich book. Harrison now truly flexes his powers of prose-making; the book is well worth reading sheerly for the pleasures of the writing. Here is another random sample:

It is the hour of our old enemy, the Moon. Her fugitive reflections shiver on the water amid the cold unmeaning patterns of the wind. Above, her tense circle aches across the sky (imprisoned there within it, staring down, the pocked face of our mysterious crone, our companion of a million million years). Somewhere between midnight and dawn, in that hour when sick men topple from the high ledges of themselves and fall into the darkness; suddenly and with no warning; something can be seen to detach itself from the edge of that charmed circle and, through the terrible spaces surrounding, speed toward the Earth. It is only a tiny puff of vapor, a cloud of pollen blown across a single ray of light in some darkened, empty room—gone in the time it takes to blink, to rub the eyes and rearrange the waiting brain; but nothing like this has been seen for ten thousand years; and though all might seem unchanged, and the Moon hang never so white and hard over the rim of the cliffs, like a powdered face yearning from a vacant doorway, and the memory decide the eye has played it false—nothing will ever be the same again.

But the book is not just an ecstasy of prose poetry. It has plot, plot far more subtle, complex, and original than the acceptable but pedestrian plot of the first book. Moreover, Harrison’s portrayal of both setting and character, already impressive in that first book, here—like his prose—comes to a yet fuller flowering. And, needless to say, the book is also one of ideas—ideas that we, the readers, need to color in with our own experiences and understandings of life, for Harrison does not hand us thoughts, but rather provokes thought.

In the end, there are revelations sufficient to transform the events of the book into a sequence to which one can assign tangible enough “explanations” that the reader who insists on missing the thrust of the tale and instead asking “But what was really happening?” can be satisfied; but this is the last time in the sequence that Harrison will so pander. The “reality” of the events in the tales, like their meaning, will henceforth be indeterminate, things for their readers to color in as may accord with their tastes and sensibilities.

The sequence of change and growth in scope and power in the series proceeds, as I have said, geometrically. As A Storm of Wings was to The Pastel City, so In Viriconium is to Storm. With In Viriconium, Harrison makes explicit in a prefatory note what is happening and is to happen:

In the Viriconium stories I have favoured increasingly a thematic unity rather than one of time and space.

Viriconium was never intended to be the same place twice. New kings come and go, new philosophies spring up overnight. The very streets shift from story to story. All that remains, as the earth grows older and the fabric of reality ‘forgets’ what it is supposed to be, is a whisper of continuity: place names which seem familiar; characters we seem to have heard of before; the imperfect repetition of this or that significant event. The world is a muddled old woman, and what seemed clear to her yesterday she remembers today only as a glove and a ring, or a hand drawing aside a curtain.

Thus Ashlyme the portrait painter, whose story I have written down here, might as easily be the ancestor of Galen Hornwrack as his descendent, and the city in which he lives as much a precursor as a relic of the one described in A Storm of Wings and The Pastel City.

And In Viriconium is indeed the story of Ashlyme, if the confused and erratic events described can be called a “story.” (Mind, they are confused and erratic by careful design, not by any failing, and in that they of course mimic life and the poor wretches who live it.)

The Viriconium of In Viriconium has no longer even the faint connection of its series predecessors to any time or place recognizable to us. The titular floating gods are a mystery, the place is become a curiously melted-down-and-run-together puddle of all cities and all times; the folk who populate the City are weak, ineffectual, like children playing at adult life without knowing the rules.

All in all, by atmosphere, parallels, significances, allusions, and even a direct reference, we now cannot escape the sense of a close relation between this book at least—and most likely the very idea of Viriconium—and the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

Consider first The Hollow Men:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rat’s feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…

Such indeed are the folk who populate the Viriconium of In Viriconium. And, not inappropriately for consideration of Viriconium the idea, the poem famously concludes—

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Possibly even more germane is Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Viriconium: Viriconium, of the Evening Cultures….

What can these hollow people make of their dry, dusty lives? That is what Harrison asks, and answers. But what his answer may be harks back to the Vidal quotation I opened with: we, you and I, must color in the painting for it to be complete. Harrison is not a facile moralist with mind-numbing homilies to offer; he offers life in raw, sometimes bleeding chunks, and you and I must digest it as we can.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…

   —The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The parallels with and reflections of Eliot’s work abound in Viriconium. From The Waste Land:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards.

From In Viriconium :

She was sitting there on the floor with Fat Mam Etteilla, the fortune teller and cardsharp.

Although the “Viriconium” series is usually called “science fiction”, that label clearly derives from the first two books. No one reading In Viriconium can mistake it for anything but fantasy (a curious and perhaps unique mid-series transformation). Not that it matters: the point of speculative fiction—once called fantastic fiction—is, as I seemingly endlessly repeat, to allow the author to throw light on the human condition in ways not easily accomplished in mainstream fiction.

As Eliot’s Waste Land drew its inspiration directly from Jessie Weston’s interpretations of Arthurian legend, so in turn does In Viriconium depend, in at least one crucial way, on an aspect of the Arthur cycle, the episode of the Fisher King (a source of inspiration to many fantasy writers, such as C. S. Lewis). To say much more would be a spoiler, but Harrison has interpreted the crux of that business in a simple yet profoundly insightful way that turns the entire tale, seemingly desultory till that revelation, near the end, into a tightly wound spring that then explosively powers its significance into the reader’s consciousness.

With the short stories that make up Viriconium Nights, Harrison takes us yet further into that curiously distorted and distorting version of the place that he described in the prefatory note to the previous volume; he repeats that note in this book, with small but perhaps significant changes; notably, we now read:

Even the name of the city changes. The world is a muddled old woman, obsessed with the futility of action in the face of contingency and an absurd universe. What seemed clear to her yesterday she remembers today only by remaking it.….

That is an even more explicit and pervasive nihilistic gloom than we saw before (when “what seemed clear to her yesterday she remembers today only as a glove and a ring, or a hand drawing aside a curtain”).

The tales too, the eight stories in the book, seem pervasively nihilistic. I hesitate to offer any comment on them, or their significances, save to say that Harrison’s prose and ability to depict and to convey mood is as powerful as ever. This randomly struck quotation from one of the tales may—“may”, not “will”—tell us something:

Thus Crome lived in Urocronium, remembering, working, publishing. He sometimes spent an evening in the Bistro Californium or the Luitpold Café. Several of the Luitpold critics (notably Barzelletta Angst, who in L’Espace Cromien ignored entirely the conventional chronology—expressed in the idea of "recherché"—of Crome’s long poem Bream Into Man) tried to represent his works as a series of narrative images, glued together only by his artistic persona. Crome refuted them in a pamphlet. He was content.

In these tales we see just what Harrison has alerted us to expect: Viriconium as never the same place twice, even the name of the place changing, the very streets shifting from story to story, only a whisper of continuity—place names which seem familiar; characters we seem to have heard of before; the imperfect repetition of this or that significant event. These tales are those imperfect repetitions, sometimes of one another, sometimes of events in the previous books of the cycle. (The longest of these tales, the title-giving “In Viriconium”, is a condensed and strangely variant replay of virtually the whole of In Viriconium.) The significances of the specific and the particular repetitions we must each glean for ourselves.

Perhaps it is fitting to wind up this discussion of the complex Viriconium cycle with another quotation from Eliot, this time from an essay, and possibly much to the instant point of understanding Harrison’s workings and purposes in that cycle:

“Poetry is of course not to be defined by its uses…It may effect revolutions in sensibility such as are periodically needed; may help to break up the conventional modes of perception and valuation which are perpetually forming, and make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.”

   —T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

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The Centauri Device

This, a pretty much pure “science-fiction” work, is a relatively early book by Harrison. Though it is nonetheless a work of substance and merit, his youth shows in it, in several ways.

The book uses the Arab-Israeli conflict, here extended far into the future and expanded to a galactic scale, as a metaphor representing the blind clashes of powers, governments, rules and rulers, that sweep up, willy-nilly, innocent bystanders and—especially if those innocents are the weak—unwittingly and, worse, uncaringly crush them in the wheels and gears of political machines and machinations. The theme is not a profound one, however profound the emotions it rightly engenders; and it is those feelings that Harrison here works on and with. One can get the sense—I did—that the book is one long, loud scream of outraged sympathetic pain.

The protagonist, space Captain John Truck, is a loser born and bred: weak and weak-willed, addicted to everything addictive he has ever been able to afford, and some things he truly cannot, such as a way of so-called life. But Truck is not a piece of garbage—he is a human being, with cares, hopes, and even concerns, something the political powers cannot grasp.

By an accident of birth, Truck is something vital to those powers. The book is in large the tale of how the two opposing forces try to obtain this thing (for they will not see him, a miserable lowlife, as human), by cajolery, threat, temptation, force, or whatever else might work. They are contemptuous of Truck, yet each side must woo him lest the other get him. Each paints its opponent for Truck in shades of black—and both are right.

The apocalyptic end of the book resolves little. It is a sort of jejune wish-fulfillment ending, Harrison doing in his book what I suppose he (and I and maybe you) would like to be able to do in reality. And there is a half-way encouraging “happy ending” tag, cautiously and rightly summed by the last sentence of the tale (this is not a spoiler) “Each reader must judge for himself.”

Had Harrison written this one book then died untimely, he would be remembered as the author of a book naive yet of some power, that promised much greater things to come.

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The Course of the Heart

Some notes on this should be forthcoming here Real Soon Now. One reviewer described it as "the best least-known novel of the 1990s", and I reckon she was probably correct.

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Signs of Life

This is a hard book to read. It is painful: searingly, deeply painful. Whether the protagonist—or the reader—grows from that pain depends, I suppose, on the reader.

The setting is contemporary. Standard form requires labelling the tale "science fiction", though the science-fictional element appears only toward the end, and briefly, and is, as science, nothing radical. But to the tale, it is essential—I want to say "utterly essential", but the dictionary, and good sense, won’t let me. (Owing to my no-spoiler approach, I regrettably can’t say anything about what that element is.)

This book strikes me almost as a cross between something by Jonathan Carroll and Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams. The protagonist is neither immoral nor even—at least in his self-image—amoral. But his self-image is not a closely examined one.

I said, ‘But nuclear waste….’

He shook his head wearily.

‘Where did you think this kind of stuff went?’

‘But for God’s sake, Choe. Fucking uranium — we never dumped anything like that.’

‘I think you live on another planet,’ he said.

This is not a book about events: it is a book about people. It is about reaching out, touching, missing; falling, rising; accepting, denying; it is about giving, and about taking, in many ways and forms. It is about honesty and dishonesty: with others, with oneself.

There are three chief characters in it: Mick Rose, the first-person narrator; Choe (rhymes with Joey) Ashton, his sometime acquaintance, business partner, and possibly friend; and Isobel Avens, who becomes Mick’s lover at the book’s start. These people, and others, help and hurt one another in a complex dance that flows from who they are, yet also shapes who they are. It is life lived fast and hard, very hard.

It is also life described by a writer in complete control of his material, esthetically and intellectually. His trademark sharp-edged prose makes each least scene, each least event, so real that reading about it seems like remembering something that really happened—like experiencing one of those surprise full-sensory memory replays patients sometimes get when neurosurgeons poke little wires around in their brains. But however much we feel these people’s pleasures and pains, those are only the foreground. There are, ultimately, reasons for what happens to them, good and bad. It is up to us to squint through that brightly colored sensory (and sensuous) foreground to the hard, grey backdrop matrix of cause and effect, and of implied commentary, lying behind it, easy for the careless to miss.

Implied commentary: as always with Harrison, it is up to us, the readers, to fill in the precise significances. However self-aware his characters often seem, if we are paying attention to what Harrison is doing, we know more about them than they know about themselves—Harrison has constructed them to be what they are, so that they may play out his purposes, which it is up to us to discover; and we can—if without certainty—do we look. So, is this tale just a superb word-painting of some taut lives? Is it a cautionary tale? Does it uncover and display universals? Is it redemptive? All that is up to you. Really.

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The “Light” Trilogy (aka The Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy

Light is an ambitious and complex novel that balances two narrative threads, one in the contemporary present and one in the centuries-hence future. The book has, as one would expect, many excellences, and it was generally received with high favor. I have to admit, though, that I do not think it his premier work.

As always with Harrison, the thing is a joy to read for the sheer sharp quality of the prose. And, as is common with Harrison, the chief characters are, um, not paragons. And the underlying plot, the actual "what is going on here?" is also characteristically cryptic. None of those things, however, are negatives: they are part of what makes Harrison himself.

The tale is, as any good tale is, about many things, but I suppose the paramount is redemption: what is redemption in a non-theological sense? How is it achieved? Can it be achieved? Along with such considerations are keen glances cast from a remarkable variety of angles into the quality and qualities of modern life and the human condition, plus some ruminations on quantum reality.

I have classed Harrison overall as a four-star author, and I toy often with the idea of the maximum five stars (held back mainly, I suppose, by a reluctance to so designate any writer still working); but I reckon this book, on its own, I’d give (a still highly respectable) three stars. My reluctance derives in the main from a feeling that not all the parts mesh as they should. It is not the twinned narratives: that duality is an essential feature of the tale’s structure. It is hard to say much more without breaking into spoiler territory, but let me try. There is an element in the tale, a strong element, that seems to be an evolution of ideas seen in Harrison’s short story "The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It" crossed with a motif from In Viriconium (a motif that recurs in Harrison’s work), but it seems to have been introduced into this novel more by calculation, by an auctorial desire to have that peculiar element manifest itself in the tale, than by natural evolution of the ideas and circumstances of the tale. That may be a completely false reading of the actuality, but it is how it struck me.

All for all, though, this book is masterly tale-telling.

I need to write up the two succesor novels (Nova Swing and Empty Space) in the trilogy; as always, Real Soon Now.

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The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

As soon as I read it—it’s on my coffee table as I type—I’ll insert some comments here.

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The Short Stories

“Short stories are neither lightweight nor time-passers. They are pieces of engineering, built to deliver. There’s always been something dull about the industry’s insistence that writing is a form of powerlifting & the novel is its bench press.”

— M. John Harrison, Ambiente Hotel, c. mid-2020

Harrison’s short fiction evolved quickly. Much of his early work, dating from as far back as 1968, appeared in his first published collection The Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories (1975). Even the least of those tales is solidly crafted and has an emotional punch; but yet, this early in his career, we already find the remarkable prose quality that will characterize his career, and by the time we get to “Running Down” (still in that same book), we can see the style that led Iain M. Banks to describe Harrison as “a Zen master of prose”: it is a narrative power that seems to etch whatever Harrison is describing into our consciousness with laser-like sharpness and clarity.

Heat vibrated from the greenstone walls of the new cottages at Skelwith Bridge, and the waterfall was muted. A peculiar diffused light hung over the fellsides, browning the haunted fern; Elterwater and Chapel were quiet, deserted; the sky was like brass. I had some conversation with a hard-eyed pony in the paddock by the Co-op forecourt when I stopped to drink a tin of mineral water; but none with the proprietor, who was languid even among the cool of his breakfast cereals and string.

That paragraph is many things of excellence, one of them being a fine lesson in eloquent punctuation.

Harrison’s stories, like his longer works, do not answer questions: they ask questions. Or, perhaps closer to the truth, they suggest questions to us. Harrison himself writes about a 1975 short story of his, “This is the first story of mine in which the question is more important than any possible answer I could have given,” but I think he may err, in that arguably many even of his earlier stories are of that sort.

In their often-cryptic, sutra-like manner, Harrison’s short tales (in this respect like the later Viriconium works) seem more akin to poetry than to ordinary prose, and Eliot’s remarks on poetry quoted above seem especially descriptive of Harrison’s oeuvre.

Not all of Harrison’s short fiction is speculative—some is clearly “mainstream”—but even the speculative tends for the most part (with a very few notable exceptions) to be anchored in the here-and-now, to be things that happen to people that are not far from you or me. Even when, as occasionally happens (especially in the earlier work) the events take a bizarre turn, the people are recognizable, contemporary; as I said at the outset, they are us.

One can have all of Harrison’s short fiction in just three volumes: The Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories; Things That Never Happen; and You Should Come with Me Now.

I hate to end up having said so little about Harrison’s shorter works—but really, what can one say save that it is all fine work, first-rate work, work that will endure, and go read it.

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What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
         —The Waste Land

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Other M. John Harrison Resources

M. John Harrison Resources on the Web

Harrison has his own blog, the wonderful and idiosyncratic Ambiente Hotel. At the Fantastic Metropolis site, there is a fine and insightful appreciation of Harrison’s oeuvre, by Rhys Hughes, called Climbing To Viriconium. And of course there is a lengthy page on Harrison at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

John Coulthart, at his blog {feuilleton}, has a fine, lengthy discussion of the Viriconium cycle, springing from a discussion of designing covers for Harrison’s books.

And Wikipedia actually does a pretty fair job of describing Harrison and his works; it’s worth the read.

Then, there are several interviews with Harrison on line, including those at: The Guardian; Strange Horizons; Infinity Plus; the SF Site; and Locus Magazine. All are—unlike most such things—thoroughly illuminating, because Harrison answers questions much as he writes: with a rigorous intelligence and a tight focus on the job at hand.

In a peculiarly interesting turnaround, on one page, Harrison ranks his “Top 10” favorite books, thus offering a peek into into his head. I cannot resist quoting one entry:

7. The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams

A novel which constantly transgresses the line between Dennis Wheatley and Plato. Charles Williams was a member of the quasi-Rosicrucian “Order of the Golden Dawn”, founder members of which included Aleister Crowley and WB Yeats. Once you’ve read Williams you won’t need to read C. S. Lewis, which is a relief.

It could scarce be better put.

There are more interviews, and countless one-off individual book reviews: Google Is Your Friend.

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M. John Harrison Resources in Print

Harrison has written what he calls an “anti-memoir”, titled Wish I Was Here. Obviously, this is now the primary resource.

Next off, there is M. John Harrison: Critical Essays, a collection of just what the title says, by a number of different authors. It is the book Harrison mentions on his site.

Another book’s title Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison is also self-descriptive: some works by Harrison (who is an excellent literary critic) and some works about Harrison and his fiction. I regret that I find the about parts much, much less interesting (boring lit-crit theory) than the by parts.

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Notable Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books by M. John Harrison *****

(Harrison also co-authored, with Jane Johnson, a series of four books as by “Gabriel King”, which see.)

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