Posts Tagged ‘m john harrison’
I’m all for breaking down the artificial barricades that bedevil speculative fiction part of the frustration behind this post was that I didn’t think Gollancz were putting their money where their mouth was. Why did Graham Joyce have to go to Faber to publish TWOC just because it contains no fantastic elements? Why, when they are so justly proud of having M John Harrison on the books, does the extraordinary Climbers languish out of print? I doubt David Mitchell’s publishers would ever say to him, “sorry, mate, this is insufficiently mimetic, take it elsewhere”.
So I am absolutely delighted to see that Gollancz are re-issuing Climbers with a new introduction from Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane is a nature writer, chair of the judges for this year’s Booker Prize and he selected Harrison’s Empty Space as one of his books of the year. As it happens, I’ve just been reading Macfarlane’s latest book, The Old Ways. These ways are not mores but paths: “pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets, holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.” Like the work of Macfarlane’s late friend Roger Deakin, calling this nature writing seems too narrow; it is memoir and poetry and philosophy, a work of biogeography. Not unlike Climbers, in fact.
My review of Blood Red Road by Moira Young is up at Strange Horizons. It is a bad book. It is bad in familiar ways. It won an award. This makes me sad but it also makes me feel like I am banging my head against a wall:
In January, Blood Red Road won the 2011 Costa Children’s Book Award. The judges have helpfully provided a pithy citation with reveals their thinking: “It’s astonishing how, in her first novel, Moira Young has so successfully bound believable characters into a heart-stopping adventure. She kept us reading, and left us hungry for more. A really special book.” There is something of Chris Mullan’s infamous remark on his experience of judging last year’s Booker Prize that the novels “had to zip along” to this statement. Perhaps that is all a novel needs to achieve, perhaps such shoddily amateurish affair as Blood Red Road deserves awards for this. I’m not convinced. Please do give me heart-stopping adventure but to get my heart to actually skip a beat, the stakes need to be real, and that means the characters and the world are real.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over Benjamin Rosenbaum’s recent post on the wages of nostalgia which in turn links to Jeff VanderMeer’s rather older post on the triumph of competence. They are both entirely right that we should not settle for the merely competent but, reading genre fiction, it often seems that achieving such a state would be insanely aspirational. As a comparison, I have just finished reading The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht which strikes me as the very definition of competent. (See, for example, Dan Hartland’s review which accurately identifies the novel as toothless.) It does, however, display a level of competence rarely seen in genre fiction.
My complaint against Blood Red Road is that it is incompetent and that is such a basic criticism that it is depressing. So it is nice to be reminded that it is possible to aim higher and, not for the first time, such a reminder was provided by M John Harrison. As I was writing my review, he was publishing a credo that essentially says my diagnosis – that Young’s world needs to be made real – was misguided:
Don’t fauxthenticate. Don’t make a text that begs, “Believe in this, please believe in this.” Rationale is the sound of the stuffing falling out, the sound of the failure of imaginative intensity.
Harrison can write this because he has gone so far past competence that it disappeared into the distance long ago. There is no writer I would rather read on the subject of writing and his contribution to Foundation’s ‘Profession of Fiction’ series is the best thing I’ve ever read by an author about their own work. Originally published in Foundation 46, Autumn 1989, it was reprinted in The Profession of Science Fiction, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Edward James (and available from Palgrave as a Print On Demand book for a mere £66.00), and Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison, edited by Mark Bould and Michelle Reid (and potentially available from the SF Foundation for a tenth of that). So, to cheer me up and to remind me of the potential of both writing and writing about writing, here is his dissection of his own career from that essay:
1966-69: The Committed Men. Identify the illusions central to the genre. The clearest illusions we have are to do with “meaning” and “choice”, with self-determination, problem-solving. Sf draws illusions of this nature across our fears: of death, of the ordinariness of our lives, of the consequences of our actions. A fantasy-world is precisely one in which action has no consequences.
1968-78: The Pastel City, The Centauri Device, The Machine In Shaft Ten, A Storm Of Wings. Subvert these illusions, not for the sake of it, or for political or literary reasons, but because to do so might be to reveal – for a fraction of a second, to yourself as much as the reader – the world the fictional illusion denies. Clearly, stories of immortality reveal death at the heart of themselves, stories of communication inarticulacy, stories of vast space and intersteller flight oppression and earthboundness, and so on.
1976-88: “Egnaro”, Climbers. Recognise (all too slowly) that these two poles of the dialectic – the writing of fantasy/the subversion of fantasy – make a discourse. This is in itself a form of escape. A discourse can be solved. It is like a chess problem. The world cannot be solved, nor can any non-elf reflexive problem with a “leak to the world”.
1985 onwards: The Course Of The Heart. Paradox reigns. We can never escape the world. We cannot stop trying to escape the world.
John Mullan has been reading a lot of debut novelists recently. This has produced two things. Firstly, you get this TV programme about the 12 best new novelists. Secondly, this article about the state of British literary fiction. Early on we get this remark: “What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction.”
Rather wonderfully, Sam Kelly responds in terms of Lq, Birdbolts and Moons:
Science fictions are peculiar things, a sheaf of complex curves plotted by an entire troop of drunken ramblers on a walk through L-dimensional bibliographic phase space. One set of dimensions (let’s call it Lq) we can describe as the quality of the book; part, but only part, of Lq is the reflexivity and self-conscious nature, the metatextuality, of the work. Mullan himself says, [Wolf Hall and Never Let Me Go] are both “literary” novels because they ask us to attend to the manner of their telling. We can, I hope, agree that no value of Lq can render a book “not science-fictional”. Sadly, neither Birdbolt nor Moon agree with us
M John Harrison also responds in typically pithy fashion (and with a brilliant post title):
Literary fiction as described here is the fiction of a generation which discovered “good” novels via B-format in 1980. It is a fiction so very clearly generic that when I read John Mullan’s description of it (complete with successful business model, strict boundary conditions and committed fanbase which won’t read anything else) as not genre fiction, I weep with laughter at the sheer depth of his self-deception.
Having announced a decade ago that the Hampstead novel had migrated to Hackney, I see that MJH has now tracked it down to Clapham. It is good to keep on top of these things.
For John Wyndham, as for most British science fiction writers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the plan was to tell a story so transparent a dog could follow it, then have your central characters fail to make the connections: the reader would always be ahead of the game, and thus feel comforted. In addition, since science fiction was an index of the American-ness of the coming world, it would be a mistake to write in anything resembling English. So the aim was to suggest hardboiled dialogue but dilute its wisecracking with long-winded British rhythms, and, if necessary, have the characters explain the slang to each other. By 1951, when he set about fulfilling his Plan for Chaos, Wyndham had been producing work in that style for approaching 30 years. It had booked him a place in obscurity.
I experienced queasy deja vu when I opened this recently rediscovered John Wyndham novel. The prose was cheap. The concepts were cheap. The paper was cheap. The glutinous wordplay in the title made me feel cheap for having read it. For a moment I might have been back reviewing cheap sf, 1969.
M John Harrison feels he is beating his head against a brick wall:
Good luck to Richard [Morgan] with his arguments for a realistically human view of humanity. I’ve been making them for many years & no one in f/sf has paid the slightest attention.
Harrison has achieved a lot in his career and yet he still finds himself having to make the same arguments he first made forty years ago. I can see why this is frustrating. The message is being heard in at least some quarters though.
OF Blog of the Fallen has more commentary here, including a long comment from Vacuous Wastrel:
I also think that, although I know you’re a Harrison fan, talking about him as a prophet in the desert cursed by his courage to a short and brutal life, killed by us the unthinking mob, might just possibly be slightly overdramatising, and over-idolising, the man and his importance. He’s not actually a martyr, he’s just not as unpopular as other people. Popularity is not a right, and its absence is no deprivation. His stoning to death by the public consists in him being substantially wealthier, more influential and more popular than most of those who hold less ‘prophetic’ opinions.
Going by what I’ve read said by both of them, I consider Papa Tolkien not only more successful and a better writer than Harrison, I also consider him a better, more admirable, more emulandory person. I’m quite happy with the side I’ve been born (or raised) on. What reason does anyone have to pay attention to Harrison’s hegemonic sociopolitical opinions (which is what the geek-hate ultimately is)?
The last sentence tips it over into comedy, and I’m not sure what “emulandory” means but without having any interest in martyrs or messiahs I know who I would prefer to emulate.
Never Let Me Go is an intensely British book, as is The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro was born in Japan and emigrated to Britain as a child and grew up there. I think these are books that could only be written by someone utterly steeped in a culture who has nevertheless always been something of an outsider in it. The donors in Never Let Me Go grumble and accept and go on in a scarily recognisable way.
Jo Walton’s recent comments on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go – seen via Crooked Timber – reminded me again how much it divides people. I thought this would be a good opportunity to re-post my Instant Fanzine Book Group post on the novel (there are additional comments on the original article).
With The Unconsoled Kazuo Ishiguro moved away from the period naturalism that made his name. In doing so he lost the critics. He also lost me. I was a great admirer of his wonderful early novels but for fickle reasons to do with thickness and reviews it sat on my shelf unread. He returned to period naturalism with When We Were Orphans which received good but muted notices and joined The Unconsoled on my unread pile. Now with Never Let Me Go he has moved more firmly away from this to produce a science fiction alt history. The book enjoyed an excellent critical reception, was shortlisted for the Booker and firmly re-established his name as a hot property. I’m not sure whether this attention was deserved however.
Never Let Me Go starts with a bald bit of infodumping:
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.
Kathy is telling the story of her life and the first third of the novel is given over to a description of Hailsham, the boarding school she grew up in. Since the students of the school are not your average student these differences have to be explained and the way in which Ishiguro does this is rather clumsy. A typical aside runs:
I should explain about the Exchanges we had at Hailsham.
Everything is direct to the reader and the text is constantly interupted by such asides. The one thing Ishiguro doesn’t explain is exactly what a carer is or what a donor is. This is partially to give the book a climatic revelation and partly because the concepts are decidedly ropy and best kept off stage for as long possible. As a novel of revelation, though, the book is a failure. We are never interested in this revelation and nor it seems is Ishiguro. The whole of Chapter Twenty Two is given over to a fill-in-the-blanks session that is not only ridiculously implausible but very crudely delivered:
“What was this Morningdale scandal you keep mentioning, Miss Emily?” I asked. “You’ll have to tell us, because we don’t know about it.”
As is now traditional Adam Roberts misrepresents the book to serve his point in his annual Clarke takedown. This not withstanding Roberts is bang on the money in his dissection of the novel’s main flaw. Allow me to condense his review:
That’s what’s missing in Ishiguro’s treatment: comedy. Wit. Irony. Or, indeed, human warmth of any kind… Moreover, everything happens in a weirdly dissociated climate of affluent seclusion; one amongst many elements lacking is any context for the experience of cloning as Ishiguro represents it… This isn’t to say it’s badly written, exactly; but only that it is so carefully written, its prose is so neurotic about putting a single foot wrong, that it becomes bloodless… The representation of banality need not itself be banal; and, indeed, SF has greater need than most genres of the understanding that most of life is trivial, that banality is a major force in life. But Ishiguro is so allergic to melodrama that he’s gone too far the other way: he’s purged his drama of any music at all, save (perhaps) a thin atonal melody playing very distantly in the background.
O brave new world that has such boring bastards in it. Kathy is more an observer of her life than a participant in it. Reading Ishiguro is always an exercise in reading between the lines but as we read between the lines of Kathy reading between the lines of her own life it is hard not to wonder if there is anything there. John Mullan suggests this is a novel “shaped by all that it leaves out” but does Ishiguro leave anything left to give it shape? As in The Remains Of The Day the desires of the character’s hearts are hidden and repressed but here there is no societal reason and character motivation is not so much mysterious as non-existant. Why does Kathy not attempt a relationship with Tommy? Why does she remain friends with a poisonous bitch like Ruth? So much is left unsaid that the love triangle is implausible and Ruth’s deathbed confession when it comes rings hollow.
Other critics have read this more charitably. Mullen goes so far as to suggest Ishiguro makes a virtue of both his and his characters’ lack of interest in their world. In his review M. John Harrison says:
It’s about the steady erosion of hope. It’s about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It’s about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won’t change a thing. Beneath Kathy’s flattened and lukewarm emotional landscape lies the pure volcanic turmoil, the unexpressed yet perfectly articulated, perfectly molten rage of the orphan.
I’ll admit I missed this “unexpressed” rage. I think in the end Harrison’s reading is actually more interesting than the novel. Ishiguro’s prose only really captures the voice of his protagonists as teens, not earlier or later, which is perhaps appropriate because his characters remain in a state of arrested development. I can see no justification to their placid, bovine nature though. This seems to be a novel about disengagement from the world. Ishiguro has created a world he has no interest in and has explicitly declined to render it plausibly. He has then populated it with characters who are divorced from humanity but are incurious about this fact. I fail to see the point of such a novel. Perhaps, as Harrison suggests, the novel’s purpose is simply to cause the reader to rebel against its sterility.
The Guardian Book Club
M John Harrison lists some interesting science fiction. Rather brilliantly he adds:
Some of these picks come with a caveat: I don’t much like either the metaphysics or the outcome of Flatliners, for instance, but I think the basic idea–killing yourself for fun–is so sound it makes up for a lot. To avoid revisionary items like “the first 20 minutes of Stargate but the rest is such shite”, I curbed this tendency.
Presumably something similar applies to Event Horizon. I should have bloody asked Harrison to contribute to the BSFA pamphlet I am putting together about science fiction writers on science fiction film . Somehow he slipped my mind.
Harrison also sneakily has Under The Skin by Michael Faber on this and his fantasy list. I must get round to reading both it and The Weight Of Numbers by Simon Ings.
It’s a huge misfortune, this will-o’-the-wisp attraction exercised by London on young men of brains. They come here to be degraded, or to perish, when their true sphere is a life of peaceful remoteness. The type of man capable of success in London is more or less callous and cynical. If I had the training of boys, I would teach them to think of London as the last place where life can be lived worthily.
George Gissing, New Grub Street, 1891
Somehow, without me really noticing, this month marked the end of a decade spent living in London. God knows how this happened. I promised myself when I moved here that it was only for ten years, tops, but now I imagine I will be here for the Olympics at least.
“London’s kind to the confident. Otherwise, what is there? Get on the tube in the morning and people stare straight into your face from less than one foot distance. That’s no way to live.”
M John Harrison, ‘The Good Detective’, 2007
I’ve had a west, north, south and east postcode. I’ve been bombed on my birthday. I’ve been sad and I’ve been happy and I’ve been in limbo. I guess I’ve changed a lot over this period but the only think that comes to mind when I think about how living in London has changed me is this:
I can now use chopsticks