M. John Harrison, Settling the World: Selected Stories (Comma, 2020, 271pp, £9.99) and The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (Gollancz, 2020, 254pp, £8.99)

Reviewed by Paul March-Russell (Cardiff Metropolitan University)


In October 2018, a time that now seems as eerily familiar and as weirdly remote as any of the landscapes described by M. John Harrison, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author at my former university. He was about to start writing the final chapters of his latest novel and he was noticeably reticent about describing it. But he did remark that he wanted to produce a book that couldn’t be defined by any genre – it would simply be a book; no more, no less.

It’s a sentiment that could be applied to all of M. John Harrison’s work. And it’s a feeling that would have been familiar to Gustave Flaubert who, whilst writing Madame Bovary (1857), remarked that he wanted to produce a novel that would be defined solely by its style. Flaubert bequeathed a paradox to the modernist writers who followed in his wake – if writing is no more than style, and style is no more than the technical application of le mot juste, then the last thing a writer would want to be is stylish. Instead, style should be polished yet colourless, resistant to meaning anything other than what is, like the impervious cloth in The Man in the White Suit (1951). For Samuel Beckett’s Clov and Hamm, in Endgame (1958), their deepest anxiety is to ‘mean something’; for Roland Barthes, thinking of Alain Robbe-Grillet, writing aspires to a ‘degree zero’. Likewise Harrison. There are few better stylists in contemporary fiction, yet the lucidity of his prose is charged with a tension, the nagging doubt that, for all of its suggestiveness, it may mean nothing at all.

The evanescence of Harrison’s prose warns us not to be deceived by the mode in which we read. If it’s mimetic realism, it will be holed by the fantastic. If it’s the fantastic, it will be exploded by the all-too-real. No wonder then that an M. John Harrison story would seem to be a gift for speculative realism, in which all we can ever know is the unknowability of the object itself. But Harrison is smarter than that. For despite the fact that his characters inhabit an unknowable cosmos, they routinely behave as if all is knowable. Like one of Vladimir Nabokov’s self-deluded narrators, they act as if the universe is charged with meaning when instead it is charged with nothing but the transactions of quanta. ‘As science it is speculative. As a metaphor quite nice’, the narrator of Harrison’s ‘Science & the Arts’ (2003) comments, but it’s the ‘as if’ which fascinates Harrison – the ways in which his characters operate as if their lives had meaning, as if the indeterminacy of their relations amounted to a pattern, as if this was communicable. For Harrison, this is where the human comedy lies.

‘As if’, not ‘what if’, not the Wellsian question that came to typify sf. Instead, it embodies not only Harrison’s ambiguous position towards genre fiction more broadly (since, as Jacques Derrida avers, all writing is generic) but also the Harrison aesthetic. In grammar, ‘as if’ is a conjunction – it coordinates all the words within a clause – but in various forms of knowledge (historical, political, scientific, occult), it describes an alignment between two or more phenomena. Like his modernist predecessors, Harrison’s writing is paratactic – the ‘as if’ is silent but the impression is of all the elements being coordinated, such that equal weight is given to each. In other words, however incongruous the alignment, the conjunction implies a relationship between them. In modernist fiction, the puzzle was to decipher that relationship; for Harrison, the puzzle is the people themselves who, as in ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ (1985), desire ‘to go there so badly that [they] will invent a clue’.

Although Harrison began in the avant-garde coterie of New Worlds, reviewed and was interviewed (more than once) in Foundation, and graced the first issue of Interzone (‘The New Rays’, sadly not included in Settling the World), sf has no more claim upon him than any other genre. ‘New Weird’ may be name-checked but weird fiction is less a genre than a mode. Yet, as much as Harrison is attentive to the placement of words, so he is sensitive to the manner of address. For China Miéville, writing in the co-edited collection Red Planets (2009), science fiction is all about delivery. In the earliest stories collected in Settling the World (‘The Causeway’ [1971], ‘The Machine in Shaft Ten’ [1972] and the title story from 1975), Harrison’s address is not only closest to that of sf but also a perfect mimicry of world-weary agents, cogs within a technocratic bureaucracy that already appears to have been colonised by an alien presence. Beginning with ‘Running Down’ (1975), Harrison – having already discarded the Wellsian ‘what if’ – immersed his own sfnal trope of the ‘as if’. In ‘Settling the World’, he imagined the Earth as if it had been revisited by God. In ‘Running Down’, the world is not imagined as if it was determined by entropy, but is the sum of those forces, in which entropy does not act as a metaphor but constitutes the story’s reality. However random the alignment of events and effects appears to be, the reader is encouraged to think that it is no more than the manifestation of immutable laws into our perceptual world.

With ‘The Incalling’ (1978), this potentially paranoiac way of reading becomes the stuff of Harrison’s fiction. Despite his scepticism, the narrator is drawn into the occult practices that his client believes will stave off his cancer. By the end, the narrator is unsure of whether his experience is a dream or reality. There is more than a fair share of Keatsian negative capability here, but it is mediated through Harrison’s late modernist sensibility, in which his art does not lend insight into reality but illuminates its enigma. For Harrison’s ‘incalling’, we might substitute Timothy Clark’s usage of ‘enclosure’, writing in the Oxford Literary Review in 2004, ‘of having reached a limit or a border but without being able to formulate what might be beyond it’. As Harrison writes in his ‘Profession of Science Fiction’ feature in 1989 (Foundation 40): ‘A book – its meaning – is not what the light discovers. What is interesting in any book, or picture, or film, is the light itself’. Harrison proceeds to use the Woolfian phrase ‘moment of being’, that is, the instant when the light touches an object and we perceive how that object is illuminated. Here then lies not only the human comedy of Harrison’s fiction but also its singularity: how do we make peace with ourselves, living in a world which is unknowable, beyond the borders of what art and light can illuminate?

It’s a question that Harrison has returned to repeatedly, which Settling the World – decidedly not a ‘best of’ – does a good job in representing. The stories are not presented chronologically, so we are not encouraged to trace the writer’s development, but instead we perceive how themes recur, and how Harrison’s writing has become increasingly refined and embedded. The effect of reading the collection from start to finish is one of accretion rather than accumulation: Harrison’s fiction builds up like the sediment of the geological strata that fascinates his characters in ‘Running Down’, ‘The Ice Monkey’ (1980) and his novel Climbers (1989). For the record, the selection consists of three stories from Harrison’s debut collection, The Machine in Shaft Ten (1975), three from The Ice Monkey (1983), one from Viriconium Nights (1984), four from Travel Arrangements (2000), three from You Should Come With Me Now (2017), and three previously uncollected stories, the most recent from 2020. Of those, seven have also appeared in Harrison’s previous selection, Things that Never Happen (2002). Since the latter is now out of print, it’s perhaps a shame that stories such as ‘Egnaro’ (1981), ‘Old Women’ (1984) or ‘Gifco’ (1992) weren’t included, but Settling the World succeeds in offering a shape to Harrison’s career. There’s a pleasure also in spotting words and phrases, such as ‘empty space’, which will work their way into Harrison’s longer fictions.

Settling the World therefore complements Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, which in November 2020 won the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction. After the juggling of space opera, psychological horror and mundane realism in the Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy (2002-12), Harrison’s novel seems to return to the unspoken traumas of The Course of the Heart (1992) and Signs of Life (1997). But the fascination with landscape evokes Harrison’s earlier fiction and, in truth, all of these texts – including his most recent short stories – are preoccupied with the eerie, the spectral and the preternatural. There might be a tendency to see The Sunken Land as the culmination of a life’s work, but as stories such as ‘Land Locked’ (2020) suggest, this would be a premature assessment. Instead, as with the short fiction, the novel forms part of a continual process of refinement.

Like Light (2002) and Empty Space (2012), the novel splits into parallel storylines which may be connected only by an occult explanation. Shaw and Victoria have an on-off sexual relationship. Recuperating from some form of breakdown, Shaw drifts into the role of courier for the mysterious Tim, who operates a conspiratorial website. Victoria meanwhile heads off to the Midlands to renovate her deceased mother’s house, only to be drawn into a friendship with the equally mysterious Pearl and a local community obsessed with Charles Kingsley’s post-Darwinian tale of reincarnation, The Water Babies (1864). (It may be worth noting that J.G. Ballard considered Kingsley’s scientific fairy-tale to be ‘one of the most unpleasant works of fiction’ he had ever read, and possibly a profound influence on his early imagination.) The link between their storylines seems to be the supposition of a still-existing evolutionary stage, half-human, half-aquatic. Yet, since this may be a fantasy, a consensual hallucination, a psychic epidemic or mere conspiracy theory, it is impossible to say what is the cause of the increasingly violent events that draw Shaw and Victoria in. As such, it’s hard to describe The Sunken Land as either sf or fantasy, and the strangeness of the narrative is insufficiently explained by calling it weird fiction. Because, despite the tales of grief, trauma and bereavement, it is also a deeply political book. As Shaw criss-crosses the country on unexplained errands for Tim, and Victoria delves further into the Midlands community, so we get a sense of a country ill-at-ease with itself, discontent with the present, and invoking consoling fantasies of reincarnation, of rebirth. Between Empty Space and The Sunken Land, the Brexit referendum lies like a fault-line. Like stories such as ‘The Crisis’ (2017), which could be read as a post-austerity tale, this novel can also be read in its own strange way as a commentary upon the half-imagined communities stirred up by political follies. And, if that sounds heavy, note that Harrison’s exquisite prose is leavened by a wonderfully sardonic line in black humour.

So, what did you do during the pandemic, Daddy? I read M. John Harrison through a glass darkly.