The Transcendent Mr. Harrison


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.

And still MORE stories…

Firstly, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Volume 12 is now out in all formats, containing a (small) story by me, and a whole load of amazing authors. leaving me mildly shocked to be in their company. Remember that, in the current climate, independent bookshops, like all small businesses, are finding it tough going. If you have one near you, please use it. If you don’t, I might suggest as an alternative to… um, you know who. For the Datlow, that’s

Secondly, a new story in Interzone, following my long piece in issue 287. “Cryptozoology” appears in issue 289, and it’s the story of a marriage… with monsters. “Like a collaboration between John Updike and Bernard Heuvelmans,” said no critic ever. It has a great illustration by Richard Wagner:

Plus, this rip-roaring cover by Warwick Fraser-Coombe:

Find that at — you might want to consider a subscription to Interzone and Black Static, both of which publish some extraordinary work.

New Stories

I’m delighted to say I have a new, long, long story coming out in Interzone #287 (May-June, 2020). If you thought your childhood was strange… this could make you think again.

We’re living through difficult times,  so don’t look for this in shops (assuming they’re open). There’s an online shop here: with lots of exciting stuff. Take a look!

It’s been a good year for me in terms of short fiction (or “shirt fiction” as I recently misspelled it for an author bio). “Watching”, which originally appeared in Black Static, has been selected for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Vol 12, due out in early autumn. There’s another piece due in a prestigious Lovecraft-themed anthology from PS Publishing, edited by Darrell Schweitzer (look for news at Then, yesterday, I sold a story to the venerable Space and Time magazine here in the US ( So that was nice.

Writing has its lean years, but it’s great when things hits home. A big thanks to all the editors involved, and I hope readers find something to entertain and amuse them. Cheers, everyone!

PS. Here’s the cover of Space and Time #137, now available at I’ve only seen an on-line PDF so far, which is not my preferred method of reading, but what I’ve seen looks great, and I loved the illustration for my story, “Dogs of Mars”.

In addition, since writing the above, I’ve sold another piece to Interzone — “Cryptozoology”, a journey through some of the weirder backwaters of the USA. Writers are notoriously bad judges of their own work, but I really think this is one of the best stories I’ve ever written. And again, a big thanks to the editors, designers, artists and writers who make these magazines special — and the readers, without whom none of them would exist at all.

IT’S ALIVE!!!! – or, the most frightful and horripilating return of Frankenstein’s Prescription

Let’s forget about “art” and “literature” for a moment, shall we?

Most books fail. They don’t make you rich, they don’t make you famous, and they certainly don’t make you pretty. But now and then, a book finds a champion, and that’s a very special thing indeed. Sometimes, it even turns out to be a champion with benefits — and before you conjure up  some lewd scenario for that, let me explain…

There’s a new edition of Frankenstein’s Prescription out. It’s paperback, beautifully done, with a deliciously creepy cover, and it’s available here:

What’s the history? Well, the original book’s a few years old now. I wrote it pretty much headlong, in the space of maybe five or six months, which is fast for me. It was a very difficult period. My Dad was dying, my life was falling apart, and I was quietly losing my marbles. (OK. Sometimes, not so quietly.) All of this, one way or another, went into the book. Where my marbles got to is another matter.

The book came out from Tartarus Press, a very fine publisher specialising in beautiful hardback editions of classic horror – Machen, Walpole, Sarban, Aickman – as well as a number of contemporary writers. The reviews were enough to turn my poor head, but, like I say, fame, fortune and improved good looks weren’t in the package.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised to get a message from Stephen Gallagher, author of some amazing novels, including The Bedlam Detective, The Real William James, and the classic Chimera; plus TV shows like Bugs, The Eleventh Hour, and Dr. Who. We kept up an occasional correspondence over the years and shared silly jokes on Twitter. Then, he told me that he’d started his own publishing imprint, and was interested in putting out a paperback of Frankenstein’s Prescription.

Now, for those of you who want the deluxe hardback (and it really is a thing of beauty) or the e-book, those are still available from Tartarus at Take a look at their other stuff as well. You’ll find things you’ve heard of but never seen and things you’ve neither seen nor heard of, but want to know about – a perfect mix of old and new.

If, on the other hand, you prefer the paperback – go on. Treat yourself. I’m even going to give you the link again, because I’m generous like that:

and, if you’re not already familiar with it, check out Stephen’s work, much of it available on the same site.



It’s official. We are living in a post-truth world. I know, because I saw it on the internet. Or maybe it was on TV. Or someone said it in the pub last night. It doesn’t matter, anyway: in a post-truth world, one source of knowledge is as good as another. Better, really, since you get to pick the bits you like.

The truth, however, still exists. You may not know it, you may not understand it, but unless you live in an entirely solipsistic universe, it’s still out there, and will bite you on the butt if you ignore it. You may, for instance, declare the law of gravity a myth (or, in modern parlance, a piece of fake news put about by scientists, the aircraft industry, and the Isaac Newton Fan Club). But the fact is this: throw yourself off a building, and you will still make pavement pizza at the bottom. And that, as they say, is science.

A friend – a schoolteacher in Indiana – recently lamented that his school has decided not to replace their departing science teacher. It’s a financial decision, not an ideological one. Money’s short, and science is regarded as expendable. A working knowledge of the General Theory of Relativity is not required for daily life, when all is said and done.

But, as my friend pointed out – it’s not the facts of science that matter. It’s the methodology. This is what kids need to know about. They need to know that scientific principles are not simply made up on the spot, nor are they “true” because they’re set down in a book somewhere. In fact, they’re the result of massive, systematic observation (the more the better), testing and experiment, leading to the formulation and subsequent modification of hypotheses, which may then be extrapolated into general principles. This might not represent “the truth” in any ultimate or philosophical sense, but chances are, it’s a a lot more reliable than any of the alternatives. Don’t jump off that building, son. We have evidence to suggest what will happen if you do.

Now, I’m not a scientist, but I’ve been through the academic mill long enough to have some grasp of how things work. Knowledge builds on knowledge. If you’re writing an academic paper, in whatever discipline, any statement you make must be backed up by evidence. You cannot simply say, “The moon is made of green cheese.” You need to support that. And, thereby, you encounter both the strengths, and the weaknesses, of the system upon which much of human knowledge rests.

Clearly, you can’t personally go out and test every statement in your paper, so the convention is to reference other academic papers, which, if sought out by the reader, will demonstrate the truth of your assertion.

It’s not a perfect system. But it does mean that, with a little effort, the likely worth of any statement can be measured, and judged on its merits. Some cited sources are worth more than others. If you are determined to insist the moon is, indeed, some sort of miscolored dairy product, it’s a lot more credible to cite the official NASA report, rather than, say, Dr. Seuss. And don’t forget: people can then go to the NASA report, and check whether it says what you claim it says.

Sounds good, right? If the foundations are strong, the house is strong. Yes?

Well, mostly. But sometimes things go wrong, and it’s important to look out for that, too, just in case.

Contrary to the popular image (which SF has done its share to foster), academic researchers are not necessarily smarter, more diligent, nor (in some cases) more honest than people in other professions. They are also under immense pressure to publish, with the result that some papers sneak into print when they probably shouldn’t (and I confess, I may have had a hand in that myself. Sorry folks.)

It’s also a system which is profoundly self-reflective. “This is true because Dr. So-and-so says it is.” Once an error creeps in, it can persist, perhaps for decades, until someone eventually thinks, “That doesn’t make sense,” and decides to investigate. Check out Robert Bakker’s book, The Dinosaur Heresies (1986), which chronicles our long-held misconceptions about these fascinating creatures – and how the modern view of them, as active, warm-blooded, bird-type animals, was finally accepted. It was not a eureka moment, nor a pre-conceived conclusion towards which Bakker and others worked, but the result of years of collected data, comparative anatomy, and constant re-assessment of existing hypotheses. The system can be a little slow, sometimes. It can get clogged. And, like any tool, it’s only as good as the people using it. But it has its checks and balances, and poor or wrong-headed work can always be weeded out.

Sometimes, even by an idiot like me.

At one stage in my life I had to read a lot of academic papers, the bulk of them previously unpublished, and with no pre-existing stamp of approval. What did I learn? Mostly, I learned systematic and critical thinking. The subject matter might have been unfamiliar, but the medium was such that I could quickly recognize the clues as to whether a piece was likely to be sound, or whether I should treat it with suspicion. This wasn’t a matter of opinion – “I like this” – but a series of clear points denoting strengths and weaknesses, the most vital of which was the referencing.

Now, as I’ve indicated above, referencing isn’t always a guarantee of reliability. But nothing, absolutely nothing, is worse than no referencing at all, or referencing from unreliable sources. If someone tells you, “The Martians are attacking!” you want to know where the information comes from. If the answer is “Orson Welles,” there’s a chance the story’s not entirely trustworthy. On the other hand, one or more dependable sources, and you should probably be heading for your nearest bomb shelter.

So I learned, always, to check the referencing, both the sources, and the way they were used in the text.

I learned that any bold, unreferenced statement was probably a bluff, designed to catch my interest, though usually, it put me on my guard. (“Autobiography is a relatively recent form of literature…” began one piece. Prove, I thought, running through a list of very un-recent autobiographies, just off the top of my head.) I learned to be wary of statistics, especially percentages that added up to more than 100. (Yep. That happened.) I learned to ensure the paper’s findings, the part most likely to be cited by future writers, were actually backed up by the evidence presented, in both quantity and quality, and also, that findings had not been skewed by obvious errors, misinterpretation, or any kind of bias (even one I might agree with). I learned that any argument which fails to deal with possible counter-arguments (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) is more likely polemic, and needs to say so at the start.

And I learned, too, that there is good, solid work being done, often without fanfare or acclaim, often of interest only to a tiny group of specialists. Seldom spectacular, perhaps, in its bit-by-bit accretion of knowledge; but this is the real deal, on which future research will build.

And out of school?

In our post-truth world, there’s information everywhere, and most of it’s like workplace gossip; it may be true, or it may not, but if you’re smart, you’ll stop and think before repeating it, regardless whether it’s a meme, a tweet, or some article from yet another site that claims to be a news outlet. All that critical thinking outlined above should be applied to our daily window on “reality”, or else we drown in so-called “facts” – or become so cynical as to dismiss them all. Neither of which is good.

So think about sources. Think about evidence. Compare what you see on one site to what you’ve seen elsewhere. Compare it to your own experience. Ask questions: Who’s telling me this? What’s their angle? What’s their authority? Were they reliable in the past? Are they pushing a particular agenda? Is there any way they might gain personally from what they’re saying? And where has the information come from in the first place?


It’s not just for scientists, you know.


(This piece originally appeared on the HarperVoyager website – –  as part of their 2017 Science Fair. Take a look at some of the other pieces posted. There’s some great stuff here, by people who know what they’re talking about – and they cite their sources. Mostly, anyway.)




Christmas Shopping… (or, Go On – You Know You Want To)

Here’s the blurb I just put up on John Scalzi’s Whatever website, which suggests a whole stack of great books for your loved ones, friends, casual acquaintances and complete strangers. Thanks, John, for the opportunity to do this!

Hi! I’m Tim Lees, author of the Field Ops books from HarperVoyager. Ever wonder what we’ll do when fossil fuels run out? Well, I can tell you. We’ll have a bunch of guys who race around the world digging up ancient gods to change into electric power. Chris Copeland is one of them. Follow him from Iraq to Budapest, from Vegas to Chicago, as he hunts down some truly terrifying entities – primal beings from the dawn of time – fends off the machinations of his colleagues, tries to get back with his girlfriend, and, like the rest of us, moans about his job. After all – one wrong step, and it’s the apocalypse. That tends to be a little stressful, sometimes…

The books can be read in sequence or as stand-alones. Check out The God Hunter, Devil in the Wires and Steal the Lightning.




All my life I thought I was CGI, but it turns out I’m stop-motion after all.

Twilight of the Gods (again)

I’ve reached the uncomfortable age when my heroes are dying faster than I accumulated them. A couple of weeks back, it was Brian Aldiss, a fine and inspirational writer who could use the material of traditional pulp SF in ways that made you question everything about your life, your world, and the numerous, all-too-unsubstantiated notions by which we live. He also produced one of the best literary novels of the latter part of the 20th century in Forgotten Life, a book too often overlooked (it had the misfortune to be published within days of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which grabbed all the literary headlines, and a few of the more general ones, too).

And this week, it was Walter Becker, one half (with Donald Fagen) of Steely Dan.

I’ve loved Steely Dan for years. There’s the irresistible (to me) jazz inflection in their tunes and arrangements, the literary and enigmatic lyrics, the SF influences, and – their speciality – the catchy, upbeat, poppy melodies masking sinister, decadent lyrics (check out “Jamie Runaway” or “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”). Becker and Fagen have both had successful solo careers and made fine solo albums (Fagen being the more accomplished), but somehow they were never quite so good apart as they were together. At some point, that chemistry was needed, whether to add a new idea, or hold one back, or shape a line just a little… differently. And now that’s gone. I’m glad I got to see the band in their recent incarnation. I’m glad I have their albums to listen to. But it’s sad to think that such a vital and unique force is no more.

Thanks, Walter.

Thanks, Brian.

The world’s a better place that you were here.


Che Ti Dice La Patria?


Britain has suffered its third terrorist incident in as many months. Horrendous as this might be in itself, it is likewise disturbing to watch those unaffected trying to make political capital of the attacks, or use them as distraction from issues nearer home. There is the usual extremist, they’re-wrong-and-we’re-right approach, typified by a racist blogger (he’d debate the adjective) who recently stated, “The problem is Islam” – completely disregarding the fact that, a few days previously, a white supremacist in Portland stabbed three men, killing two and injuring a third (said supremacist having been interrupted while menacing a couple of young girls). The problem is not “Islam” or “Christianity” or “immigration” or “diversity” or anything like that. The problem is people, and the fact that some people, regardless of their origins or beliefs, are shits. That’s it. Maybe they’re born shits, maybe they become shits because they think it will give them a sense of self-worth, or superiority, or respect in the eyes of others. Whatever. And if they think that skin colour or religion or politics gives them the right to cause trouble, they’ll do it. On top of that, a social and political climate that fosters opposition and hatred will encourage them, and that’s the kind of climate we’re in now. It’s very handy for some people, especially those in politics, to have an enemy “out there” from whom they can then promise to “save” us.

I left England in 2011. I don’t get back as often as I’d like, and when I do, it’s usually for fleeting visits. So my impressions of the place are cursory, to say the least. I was last there in March this year (2017) and visited two cities, Manchester and Birmingham, for just a few hours each. Not long enough to learn about anything, really, was it?

Manchester’s my home town. It’s got a rough side, which I was once familiar with – perhaps too much so. It’s also a student town, and like any student town, it’s always had a high number of beggars (students being more inclined to give, I suppose). Some of these were people who had slipped through the cracks in the mental health system, some were con artists, some alcoholics, some people who had fallen on hard times, some lost souls for whom begging provided, ironically, a sense of place in society, and a bit of much-needed human interaction. That was in the old days.

The thing I’ve noticed most over the last two or three years, though, is not just the huge increase in homelessness, but the change in the nature of it, and the kind of people finding themselves out on the street. Most are young, or youngish. They’re probably the ones hit hardest by benefit caps and austerity politics. But I have never, even here in the US, seen quite the conditions I saw in Manchester last March. It was… depressing, to say the least.

Now, OK, the weather wasn’t great, and Manchester’s not the prettiest of places when it rains. But as I worked my way past the lines of people begging – many sat on cardboard or on wooden pallets to avoid the chill of sitting on the ground – it was clear they weren’t simply trying to scrounge up a few quid, or get through a bad patch in their lives. Nor were they the traditional “tramps” that, say, Orwell encountered.

For a start, these guys were on it for the long haul. I see this in Chicago – people who’ve realised they’re in trouble and spent their last few bucks on a big coat and a rucksack, hoping to survive outside. In Britain, it seems to have gone beyond that. In the doorways of closed-down shops, in out-of-the-way corners of the city, you’ll find little stacks of blankets – and luggage. Not just rucksacks or plastic bags, but suitcases – sometimes even a set of them, as people who no longer have homes desperately try to cling to the possessions they still own. I think that was one of the saddest, most heartbreaking aspects of the whole experience.

(Let’s get something straight. When you’re poor, possessions are important. It’s not a case of being materialistic. You know how hard it’s been to come by what you have, and you’ll probably never, ever be able to afford any of it again. So you hang onto it, as long as you can.)

There are tents by the river. Again, that’s new. These are people learning to survive in a bleak, new world, in which homelessness is something which is likely to happen to you, and for which you need to be prepared, the same as illness or joblessness. And all of this has happened since I left.

Now, I’m from Manchester. I’m cynical. I’m not a person who feels compelled to give to beggars, and I’ve no patience with anyone trying to con money out of me by pretending they’re sleeping rough. But these people needed it, I’m damn sure, and for one of the few times in my life, I felt I had to give.

Depressing, like I say.

Things perked up a bit in Affleck’s Palace, with its countless little shops, and the indie entrepreneurial spirit the city’s known for; likewise, meeting an old friend for lunch, a musician and promoter, brought a little life to the occasion. But I couldn’t help remembering my father’s boast while I was growing up: “No-one goes hungry in this country.” Still true? I doubt it.

I love Manchester. I love Manchester, and I hate whatever led to the recent bomb atrocity there, and the mind-set that it takes to do such things. But there’s also a creeping decay in the place, an erosion of what were once seen as essential British values. Friends tell me you can see this elsewhere, in every major city. Why? Well, as the old saying has it, a fish rots from the head down. Unfortunately, it’s the people at the tail who have to bear the stink.

And moving on…

I don’t know Birmingham. I spent a drunken night there years ago, but otherwise it’s been a place for changing trains or buses en route further south. It seems now I should probably have stuck around.

Again, I was meeting an old friend, and the occasion proved surprisingly pleasant. Now, Birmingham is interesting in the light of current political debates. It has a mixed ethnic population, many non-whites, and a high percentage of Muslims (you know – those people who are all supposed to be terrorists). This is the place Fox News pundit Steven Emerson described as a “totally Muslim” city that “non-Muslims simply don’t go in,” which of course is plainly idiotic. There are certainly lots of Muslims. We even spent an hour in a very nice Syrian cafe, opposite the cathedral. And everyone we met, Muslim or otherwise, was courteous, polite and helpful. It was a real pleasure to visit.

No doubt Birmingham has its share of idiots, like anywhere else. But we didn’t meet them. Do you think we just got lucky?

“Che Ti Dice La Patria?” is a story by Ernest Hemingway, recounting a brief visit to Mussolini’s Italy. After a number of unpleasant encounters, the narrator concludes, “[n]aturally, in such a short trip, we had no opportunity to see how things were with the country or the people.”

My case exactly.