Nothing hides an author better than a genre label. M. John Harrison is one of the very best living British writers, and a recent recipient of the Goldsmiths’ Prize (for “fiction that breaks the mould”) to prove it. He’s been producing unique, mould-breaking fiction for years, usually marketed as SF or fantasy, though his reputation has spread largely by word of mouth, tending to brand him as a “writer’s writer”, which is hardly fair; his books are dense but engaging, entertaining even when you’re left thinking, “What the hell was that?” and immediately start flicking back to key passages, trying to answer your own question. They’re like puzzles that have to be lived in for a while, labyrinths that need to be explored — slowly, perhaps even over years.
His origins go back a long way. In the ‘60s and ‘70s there was a thing called New Wave SF. The British version was a little different from its US cousin, in the same way that British punk was different: overtly political, casually cynical, keen to experiment with both form and content. I grew up on this stuff, though I was a little late to the party and read it mostly in the Best SF from New Worlds collections, where I found several of Harrison’s very early tales and… didn’t like them.
Sorry, but I didn’t. He was relatively young when he first appeared in print, so much of his growth as a writer has been public; and I, as a reader, was younger still, so can’t vouch for the validity of my opinions. But back then, those early pieces struck me as imitative — of Ballard, or the more literary bits of Moorcock. When I read The Pastel City, in fact, I assumed Harrison was trying to “do a Moorcock”, ie. write a fantasy novel in order to finance more literary ventures elsewhere. I don’t remember much about the book, though I liked the strange, decadent poetry scattered through it (“Rust in our eyes, we who had once soft faces…”), and the beautiful landscape descriptions. Landscape would become a Harrison speciality, and remains so to this day.
His essays, on the other hand, were fierce, astute and persuasive. Usually he’d take some revered figure from SFF (Tolkien, Heinlein), point out everything that was fake, spurious and second-hand about their work, then contrast it with something by a lesser-known author whom he, Harrison, admired (Mervyn Peake, Harvey Jacobs). These essays were little master-classes in writing. He’d highlight a work’s authentic moments, its carefully-caught dialogue and precise choice of words, and a host of other techniques none too common in the SF of the day. What he disliked, and disliked vehemently, was literature that pandered to its readers’ prejudices, and made them feel comfortable (I think one of the essays was actually called, “A Literature of Comfort”). Harrison certainly knew what he didn’t like, but his own creative path still seemed uncertain.
He cites the story “Running Down” as the point where he found his own voice. But to me, there were two other stories that completely knocked my head off, and presaged things to come.
One was the Jerry Cornelius story, “The Ash Circus”. Harrison’s use of Cornelius was subtly different from Moorcock’s, and his fragmented narrative skips easily through elements of thriller, SF and more contemplative story-telling. There is landscape, yes, and the lists of Fortean events which would become a recurring element in his fiction. Above all, though, there is a sense that the characters know what they’re doing, and why, even if the reader doesn’t. It’s this hint of the mysterious — of seeing only half a picture — that has persisted, and haunts so many of the recent tales in You Should Come With Me Now.
The other piece I liked was “The Causeway”, an SF story which doesn’t read like SF (we’re talking early ‘70s here, so what is and isn’t SF may have changed a fair bit since). The style is intensely realistic. The beach setting was perhaps inspired by Ballard, but it’s not a Ballardian beach — it’s windswept, dotted with marram grass, and decidedly English, meaning cold and inhospitable. As an adolescent I was inevitably drawn to the plight of the narrator, who seems to misread everyone (again: so much remains unseen, unknowable). He pursues a girl, only to have her fall for the local thug, who beats him up. But there’s no self-pity here, only a sense of people stumbling about, trying to find their way in a world they fail to understand. For some, there are ancient rituals which appear to offer purpose, but are inherently destructive. I’ve stolen from this story many times, one way and another, and I certainly don’t intend to point out where.
After that came the stories in The Ice Monkey, particularly “The New Rays”, another piece in which an unexplained, fantastic element intrudes into a dark, shabby realism. It has the feel of something set in the ‘50s or ‘30s rather than the present day. Harrison’s characters may lead drab half-lives, but there is a sense of something numinous, magical — wonderful or terrifying — just out of reach, and if they could only get to it, their lives might be changed. Yet the risks involved are huge. The Course of the Heart describes the after-effects of a magic ritual gone wrong; it’s also a lament for lost youth, lost dreams, and the kind of lives we all imagined we were going to live, but somehow didn’t. His work is haunted by such notions, yet defies mere allegory; it’s more subtle than that, and places demands on the reader: how do we interpret this? How does this relate to our own experience, our own, half-seen lives? Thus, I suspect, his books are different for everyone who reads them. They are personal and universal, both at once. Even the stunning space opera which began with Light is about people living in the shadow of phenomena they can’t comprehend, while the naturalistic Climbers follows a group of sportsmen seeking an experience out of the ordinary, somehow beyond their normal, mundane lives. The transcendent might be near, but it remains, tantalizingly, just out of reach — glimpsed, hinted at — gone, almost the moment it’s perceived.