M John Harrison (2007)
An interview with the author whose most well-know work, Viriconium, forms and important component of the ‘dying Earth’ sub-genre, one of the few places where fantasy and SF comfortably mingle. Harrison’s book, Nova Swing, had just won the Arthur C Clarke award when this piece was written. He’s fascinating man, once a very serious climber as well as a novelist, a subject he’s written on to great effect too. His books are complex, not perhaps suitable for light entertainment, but they are multi-layered puzzles possessed of a lyrical intensity that takes a long time to fade from memory. This article comes from Death Ray 3.
Winner of the latest Arthur C Clarke award, M John Harrison, is a complex man who writes complex books full of complex ideas. Tendencies that make him one of the UK’s most influential authors. He talks to Death Ray about the inauthenticity of mediated experience, the meaningfulness of awards, and fatal disassociation from reality.
M J Harrison is one of the most intriguing novelists to have sprung from the New Wave of the 1960s. His books deny the authenticity of a reality not experienced whole-heartedly – it is impossible to be a bystander in one’s own life, true self-realisation requires risk and has to have consequences. This message is explored further in his latest book, Nova Swing, which won him this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award.
Harrison’s work divides readers. He is an intense, challenging author. They are not adventure novels, but approach, from the opposite direction, similar questions about the self that Phillip K Dick entertained. Nova Swing is a pastiche of Noir fiction, set in Saudade (the word itself evokes Harrison’s complexity, being a Portuguese term for a hopeful nostalgia for past things that may yet come back). Saudade surrounds a disruption in space-time known as the Kefahuchi Tract, its presence a consequence of the events in the novel Light, where the rules of physics do not apply. Tourists come to gape at it, but in true Harrison form do not experience it. They also come out of it. It is into this intersection of realities – Reality/Unreality, Human/Alien, Male/Female that the book’s protagonist, Vic Serotonin, finds himself drawn when he agrees to help a woman in trouble…
The Arthur C Clarke is a great accolade, but for someone like Harrison, who stresses the need for ‘authentic action, it could be seen as an irrelevancy. An award is surely another part of those mediating layers (as is Death Ray), he is so critical of that separate real experience and the self.
“I’m thrilled to get it,” he counters. “A novel is product from the start. When you take one from a shelf you have already accepted its virtuality. It is actual human experience that needs protection. There’s nothing wrong with writing itself. Writing can always find a way to record or comment upon the real without refining it into a ‘story’, though that becomes harder when you are working in an already commodified arena. Nova Swing is, I hope, as well as being Noir and SF, a pretty savage deconstruction of both: not just an attempt to sell more of the same.”
Despite his roughing up of Noir, Harrison has fun with it, and he’s not alone. Many SF writers are attracted to the genre and reference it in their SF, citing the similarity between the two being the puzzle at the heart of the story (though of course, Harrison undercuts this too).
“Noir has been linked with fantasy and science fiction since the pulp days,” he explains. “I think of Leigh Brackett, for instance, as happy to write Martian fantasies as to collaborate on the script for The Big Sleep. Nova Swing has an active interface with that trash heritage. Noir enables you to make a sort of self-undercutting emotional dreamscape – a reality that’s clearly different for every character, yet generated by the obsessions and charisma of the central characters. I’m not sure whether the idea of trying to write a serious book using the most debased of pulp tropes was a worthwhile gamble, or just the evidence of a passion for trash that will ensure I’m never taken seriously again. Either way, I’ll probably do something else next time.”
Whatever he does, his words are sure to be relished by a whole crop of fans, many of whom are authors themselves. Ask pretty much any SF writer in the UK about their influences, and they’ll mention M John Harrison. For, while you are exercising your brain unpicking his perceptual conundrums, you’ll be dazzled by prose which borders on poetry. Harrison, it has to be said, has a streak of misanthropy, though one tempered by a cautious optimism, yet his apartness does not preclude him from responsibility to the next generation of writers.
“I try to elect my own responsibilities as a writer. That seems central to the very idea of being one in the first place,” he says. “Finding and maintaining your own voice is the goal. As a writer I expect to share my experience, but I don’t expect to have to negotiate its meaning. A politically approved experience is just as much a commodity as a commercialised one. In a way, that’s why politics as we know it has failed so completely to control the corporate fantasy. They’re two sides of the same coin.”
This kind of statement only adds to the feeling you get when reading Harrison’s work that he sees himself as a little disconnected from the flow of human life – acutely observing its innate complexity yet somewhat distinct from it. He is an ‘aware’ man, but does that come at a price – is it better to be aware than happy, or is it possible to be both?
“It’s true that I’ve never felt as if I fitted in anywhere – it’s a hangover from the class conditions that prevailed when I was young,” he admits, “and that in the early 1960s one of my favourite books was The Outsider. But I hope I’ve made a conscious and constructive use of that in my best fiction. Stories like ‘Signs of Life’ and ‘The Course of the Heart’ are predicated on the fatal dissociation of the observer; they’re about using your privilege as narrator to escape not just from life generally, but from your own life in particular. It’s true of all of us that we use the increasing virtualisation of the world to delay coming to conclusions with it. In Nova Swing – and I think some of my more recent short stories – the focus is shifting away from representing that and on to the attempt to re-occupy, to realise, a life.”
He points to the end of Nova Swing as an example, where the story switches away from Vic Serotonin onto the female characters, the neurotic spell of Noir broken, they are transformed from ‘dames’ back to women – the longing of their ‘saudade’ is vindicated.
“So yes,” he concludes, “I think you can be happy and at the same time aware: but only from the moment you understand and accept who you are. For me, for most people, that’s a lot easier said than done.”