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Disillusioned By The Actual:
M. John Harrison
interviewed by Patrick Hudson
"As a human project, science is in an unlikeable
phase at the moment. I don't like a science
which has invested itself in exploitation and
beachcombing, a corporate, entrepreneurial science
whose job is to find new things that can be sold"
M. John Harrison was born in 1945 and published his first SF story in New Worlds magazine in 1968. He came to be closely associated with the new wave writers of the New Worlds generation, and acted as the magazine's literary editor for several years. Harrison is most renowned for the landmark fantasy series, Viriconium, published between 1971 and 1983 - of which the last volume, In Viriconium, was nominated for the Guardian fiction prize - and his non-sf novel Climbers published in 1989, winner of the Boardman Tasker Memorial Award for writing about the mountain landscape and climbing. His last two novels were Course Of The Heart (1992) and Signs Of Life (1997), and he published a book of short stories, Travel Arrangements, in 2000. Harrison's latest novel, Light combines his SF and mainstream interests in a story of three entangled lives in the far future and the recent past. The following interview took place via email in November 2002.
M. John Harrison photo by P. Skellern

Light is being talked of (on the back cover, at least) as a 'return' to the genre: is that how you perceive it? Was Climbers a deliberate getting away from SF/fantasy and Light a deliberate return, or did things just work out that way?

Climbers was a deliberate stepping away. Light isn't really a return: it's a very mainstream work. The idea was, let's see what we can do with an SF vehicle from the perspective of having written Climbers, The Course Of The Heart and - especially - Travel Arrangements. How can we make a synthesis of all this different stuff? Also: what can space opera do for me? That is, what typical themes of mine would be best served by choosing this medium rather than another one? How can I tailor the medium to my specifications?
   Back in 1974 I had a growing sense that I had to 'escape' the genre. But what's happening nowadays is that, to service their need to speak, writers just take what they want. They don't feel trapped here or trapped there. They just write. If anyone wants to call Light a 'space opera' they can. But it isn't: it's a book about - among other things - how you can make the most appallingly bad decisions when you are very young, and become trapped by them, and yet still break away and have a life. It's a book about the fear of being alive. Also - very much - a book about how trying to avoid the matter of life is probably a mistake, because as a result you will end up living in a tank.

So, do you think there's something more to SF than the trappings - spaceships, aliens, virtual reality - that differentiate it from mainstream fiction? How far do you think the genre will stretch before it ceases to be science fiction?

I don't think there should be anything that differentiates SF from the so-called mainstream, or the mainstream from SF. I want - and I'm not alone in this by now - to write fiction. To write SF that is only SF is to short-change your readership as well as yourself.

What do you have in mind for the future? Are you writing more SF?

Depends, really, on what's going on down there in the less reachable parts of my skull! The early reaction to Light has been encouraging enough for me to go in that direction if I wanted to. But for the last year or so, quite independent of Light, I've been seeing an increase in interest from mainstream short story and nonfiction outlets, so I'm working in those directions too.

Light is a very deliberately constructed novel: aside from the plot considerations, the three strands had a lot of common symbolism. Could you give us an idea of what you were thinking? What is represented by black cats or by the role of sexual relationships?

It's interesting that you pick up on sex as one structural element, which of course it is. Most of these people have been wounded in their sex. Their sexual behaviour is a symbol of the bad choices they have made, all of which are to do with rejecting and/or running from life. Many of the major characters - Seria Mau and Michael Kearney for instance - evade sex or try to control it because they fear vulnerability. One of the major messages of Light is that life progresses through the unarmed, the vulnerable, the out-of-control, not through the armoured and assertive. As a result, Anna Kearney, for instance, has an immense gallantry.
   The black cat/ white cat thing is a little, constantly modifying symbol of quantum indeterminacy, which also makes a shadowy, stretchy, metaphysical link between the different narrative strands. Could it be, the author is asking, that Seria Mau and her brother are the white cat and the black cat from Kearney's lab? Well, he may be asking, but he's not answering. I love cats, especially oriental whites; and I also had fun with the literary and filmic references. There's Schrodinger, too, of course... On the Light part of my website we have a little black cat/white cat mouseover effect, just for fun.

Light displays a grasp of complex quantum physics and cosmology, but you are not generally considered a hard SF writer. How much research did you do? Were you inspired by the science, or did you fit the science to your fictional needs?

I'm not a hard SF writer. Neither is Light a hard SF novel. Just as I took what I needed from the genre, I took what I needed from the science on offer. This doesn't mean I didn't do research. I like physics, to the extent that I can follow it. I like emergence theory and I've liked cosmology since the days of Fred Hoyle when I was a kiddie. I read widely. I went back to Kielpinski's original thesis, for instance, on paired ions, which is sort of the beginning of quantum computing. You can find it on the web. But I am more interested in the metaphors you can make with quantum theory, or emergence theory, than in the science itself. Fiction is fiction. You can't do science in a novel. Why try? The two projects are not compatible. Writing is about making use of the world in the service of the thing you are trying to say.
   At the same time, science is still the most fantastically exciting way of looking at the universe - almost as exciting and powerful as direct visceral experience. If you aren't brought to a standstill by the wonder of it all, you might as well be dead. I love Banks, McAuley, MacLeod, Al Reynolds, Steve Baxter, all those British hard space guys, because they still have a sense of wonder. I also love cosmologist Janna Levin's book How The Universe Got Its Spots, in which she counterpoints two love affairs - one with mathematical physics, the other with a new wave country musician. Levin's the perfect scientist for me. She lives in an East End loft and she's afraid of neither life nor the arts.
   As a human project, science is in an unlikeable phase at the moment. I don't like a science which has invested itself in exploitation and beachcombing, a corporate, entrepreneurial science whose job is to find new things that can be sold: so in Light I've said so. If we have a duty in the universe it's to crank up and shoot through, to some explosive understanding of things. Not to help the corporates repackage existence as a commodity.

I noticed several gestures towards your earlier work in Light: the Chambers pistols and setting date are familiar from The Centauri Device, while the Shrander is similar to the Mari from Viriconium. Were these deliberate echoes or is it part of some personal iconography that just comes out?

The Chambers gun is one of a couple of lightweight references to The Centauri Device. How could I not acknowledge that book, although it's my least favourite piece of mine?
   The Shrander is another matter. In my work the horse's head always means death and transformation. There is a maze of other themic references with attendant symbologies, going back as far as The Incalling in 1978, because that's how I work. All the themes in Light have been visited previously because those are the things I want to talk about. Most of an entire short story (The Horse Of Iron, etc.) is pulverised and distributed as the backstory of Michael Kearney, because that was the first piece in which I began to put some of the Light synthesis together. You can spot entradista themes from Egnaro. What's different is that Light has a positive ending. The knot of psychological and ideological concerns is beginning to loosen. Under the influence of a sort of authorial Shrander, the fiction is healing itself the way Anna Kearney heals herself.

Did you write Light with The Centauri Device in mind? Was it an attempt to re-explore the imagery of space opera in a more satisfactory way?

Light was a fresh start. I have very fond memories of reading space opera as a teenager. With Light, one of the things I wanted to do - as I said above - was to ask the question, "What typical themes of mine would be best served by choosing this medium rather than another one?" I did some modification to the basic space opera bodyplan. And I admired a couple of technical solutions from the work of Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod, notably the way the structure is resolved at the end of Feersum Endjinn and the use of 'completing analepsis' in The Stone Canal. But by the last chapter I was as captivated by the space opera tradition as I had been when I first read Slan or The Weapon Shops Of Isher (or for that matter Clarke's brilliant and beautiful early work - Childhood's End, The City And The Stars and so on).
   Light seems like a dark book, but that's because you can't have the one without the other: and it certainly doesn't end that way. It ends as every worthwhile adventure should, in a wild, open-hearted, utterly committed act of optimism. I threw the switch, and the light went on, and I found I had rather surprised myself. I might try and get in touch with that teenager again.

What were your early inspirations? Were you always a fan of fantasy and SF? What attracted you to the genre as a writer?

I liked anything bizarre, from being about four years old. I started on Dan Dare and worked up to the Absurdists. At 15 you could catch me with a pile of books that contained an Alfred Bester, a Samuel Beckett, a Charles Williams, the two or three available Ballards, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, some Keats, some Alan Ginsberg, maybe a Thorne Smith. I've always been pick 'n' mix: now it's a philosophy. Actually, it was a philosophy before I joined New Worlds. I had no way of articulating it in those days. I was just this shy, raw, undereducated, borderline personality disorder, rooting through bookshops and going, 'Shit. Wow. Look at this.'

What was your first introduction to New Worlds? Were you submitting stories elsewhere? How did you come to be appointed literary editor? What was life like in the New Worlds office? One gets the impression of a mad rock 'n' roll lifestyle (well, that's what I've always imagined, at least): is this true or was it a more studious atmosphere?

I don't think we could ever have been called studious. There was a certain amount of rock 'n' roll lifestyle, obviously, especially in the 1970s. My introduction to New Worlds was as a reader of the Compact issues of the magazine with the astounding Keith Roberts covers, in which all the most amazing new stuff by everyone from Ballard to David Masson appeared. I was adrenalised and astonished by it. Some years later, 1967, maybe early 1968, I'd published a handful of not-very-good stories and was living in a bedsitter in Tufnell Park, growing my hair. A guy called Graham Hall, now dead, a much more promising writer than I ever was, brought Michael Moorcock to see me. I barely knew what to say, I was so awed. I did my first review work for him a couple of months later. He liked that I was insanely angry about everything, so he made me one of the gunfighters at the Bar NW ranch. I was always the most hair-trigger of them because I was the newcomer and the Pistol Kid. I wanted range war, but all that was over by then.

What attracted you to the Jerry Cornelius character? Michael Moorcock has said yours are the best stories to use the character: did you feel a special connection with Cornelius?

I think we all felt a special connection to Cornelius in those days.

How do you think that the SF/fantasy genre has changed since you began? Are these changes for the worse or for the better? Which writers do you like the look of today?

I don't think it's changed a lot except in terms of quantity. The bookshops don't have room for it all any more. I read anyone who electrifies me or seems to be doing something I don't understand. Kelly Link, Joel Lane, China Mieville. I like the new UK hard space stuff, as I've said: but I also fear for it. The vultures are already gathering. With the decline of fantasy they're looking for the next category they can corporatise. A medium which is at present represented by the most idiosyncratic writers - writers whose differences are more important than their similarities - will soon be reduced to a single commodity, just as fantasy was.
   For fantasy, that process of reduction began in the US in the 1970s. In 2002, sure enough, we already have studies pretending to taxonomise the new hard SF, written by US critics whose academic credibility has been seriously compromised by their links to commerce. Their agenda is to simplify, redefine, reduce, control. Within a year or two, expect the hard SF equivalent of the three-decker fantasy to appear. After that, kiss the fun goodbye. (If you're a writer of this stuff, jump ship now. Or pray it never leaves these fertile shores.)

Do you think there is a clear difference between American and British SF and fantasy? Do you think there's much communication between the two, or are MacLeod, Banks and Mielville writing something fundamentally different from, say, David Brin, Dan Simmons and George R.R. Martin?

I couldn't suggest much in the way of common ground between Brin and MacLeod, or Brin and Mieville. If a book is the bill of goods it is trying to sell, then there are primary ideological differences between most British fiction and most US fiction, whether it's SF or chick-lit. I incline to think that we're doing something completely different to the Americans - although, thankfully, none of us is exactly certain what it is. The longer a movement stays labile the better. I think one of the major differences is the welcome we're getting outside SF.

What was the inspiration for The Pastel City? Is it a dream-reflection of a real place or something that came totally from your imagination? Which writers do you feel contributed to your vision of Viriconium?

Who knows? You don't just make these cities out of your unconscious: they somehow represent that unconscious. Not to say its mechanisms. Every book you ever read is down there, every linguistic event you ever took part in, and - much more importantly - everything you ever felt, too. It's a very organic place, smelly, illuminated by sudden flashes of light, full of loud noises, voices which may or may not be your own. It's very fecund. It's a rich source of blood-poisoning, bad proteins and random genetic exchange. When you zip all these floating bits of liver and kidney together, they stop resembling the internal organ they started out as. All writing is like that. I welcome it.

I noticed that in the recent fantasy masterworks edition of Viriconium the stories are not presented in the order they were written. Did you have a hand in the way the stories were presented? Was there any particular idea behind the 'remix'?

One of the ideas of Viriconium - although obviously it couldn't be articulated that way in those days - was that the world it presents is in a constant state of self-remix (much like the unconscious, see above). That's made quite plain in a couple of places. Viriconium mimicked the processes by which it was written. It also enabled me to undermine progressively the normative fantasy of the 1970s and early 1980s, starting with the fairly middle-of-the-road (The Pastel City) and arriving at the heavily deconstructed (The Luck In The Head).
   The order of reading in the Masterworks edition was the one I chose on the day. If you prefer another order, be my guest. I would certainly do it differently another time. One way to look at it might be that Viriconium is like a pack of Tarot cards. Shuffle. Deal. Tell your fortune. The only story that should have a fixed position - either at the beginning or end - is A Young Man's Journey.

You wrote a large amount of criticism in the New Worlds era, and you're now a noted critic for the TLS, among others. How does criticism inform your writing? To what degree does your 'critical brain' take part in the writing process?

For me, writing is a series of convulsive skirmishes in which the conscious fights the unconscious for control of the piece. The 'critical brain' is a top-end asset of the conscious - a big gun. Despite that, honours are usually even. Curiously enough that war is fought even in a piece of criticism. My response to other people's books is massively intuitive and revisionary. In the end, I guess you'd have to say - rather blandly - that inspiration generates the what of a piece; the analytic side decides the how. But that doesn't get over the dynamical nature of the process. You never find a balance between those two forces, or if you do you're stone cold dead. The idea is not to get a cosy ride. Why would you want that?

Books by M. John Harrison:
The Centauri Device (1975),  Climbers (1989),  The Committed Men (1989),
The Course Of The Heart (1992),  The Floating Gods (1983),
The Ice Monkey (coll, 1988),  In Viriconium (1982),  Light (2002),
The Luck In The Head (1991),  The Machine In Shaft Ten (coll, 1975),
The Pastel City (1974),  Signs Of Life (1997),  A Storm Of Wings (1980),
Travel Arrangements (coll, 2000),  Viriconium Nights (coll, 1984).

forthcoming titles: The Kephahuchi Discontinuity,  Things That Never Happen
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