Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 by M. John Harrison

Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, by M. John Harrison (Comma Press, 2020) 

Reviewed by Gwilym Eades

Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 (Comma Press)

Reading a book by Harrison is invariably, and this despite the highly variable nature of his output (horror, sci-fi, fantasy), like wandering through a landscape with no map. Or, if there is a map, it’s an Escher-like one, the circular waterfall endlessly recycling back into itself, ever elegant, and fringed with weird and wonderful vegetation and architecture. Or map-like objects; or symbols; or systems that constantly jump out of themselves and elude their own logic; or elude their own ‘logics,’ for they are multiple, ever-multiplying. 

A face is a map, a photograph part of an array in a system of objects that becomes a map; bodies ‘map’ into each other desultorily and then with vigour. If there is a philosophy that inheres in this remarkably coherent body of work, represented in Settling the World through a selection of short stories (at least one of which is derived from a larger work, namely Viriconium), perhaps it’s most closely allied with the base materialism of Bataille, and all that flows from that kind of commitment to constant and unrelenting transgression of limits of all kinds: transgression of boundaries between genres; of body/bodies, in collision; of thought itself. 

Surprising (to me) are the affiliations I see here with H.G. Wells’s haunted short stories, a continuity I had not expected to find between ‘original’ scientific romance (pre-pulp/Golden Age) and New Wave fantastics. This affiliation with Wells makes apparent just how English a writer Harrison is, evidenced by a constant nostalgia for summers past, evoked in their residual dusts in grey drizzling winters; it makes apparent too a certain London-centrism, especially in “The Incalling”, where Eastern (European) mysticism and magic become autochthonised to the Lower Camden/King’s Cross borderlands. Wells’s “The Door in the Wall” transmogrifies here into a mirror in a pub (“A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”). Everywhere, people are dying in different ways, fading into beautiful negatives of themselves next to weed-filled lots itemised, named and outlined in descriptive passages of luminous beauty, always-already faded photographs torn from magazines and books, bodies fetishized, traded, stacked and torn, thrown together and consulted in every conceivable way. Books cause madness, yet we are in one, therefore we are insane, like various friends of these protagonists: cultists, geniuses, climbers, the self-deluded.

In some mystic, agnostic equation, there is a link between degradation and the fantastic: here is the grim, dark, sea of the possible. No Marxian dialectic could hold for long the degraded landscape of particulars, the sea of shards waiting to cut the feet of the inevitable transgressor: the system-builders’ blood flows freely in such a sacrificial setting. The pre-injured, inured, will survive these cuttings, arranged like mocking, flowering, mirror-shards for the sick, the becoming-sick, and the sickness unto death that ends many a tale told here. These are simple observations of the overlays that hold sway across the maps that comprise Settling the World.

The sun looks down on all things equally, unblinking, and knows it will die; it, and all things, therefore, become negatives of themselves in time and thought. This is the overarching cognitive estrangement operating, at work, labouring behind the scenes, behind the clouds of these stories. The various novums that crop up, when they do, are all variations layered into the soil of that master-estrangement of being from itself and others. We behold the community of those without community; they are abject who inhabit these stories. The Climber himself is the one who holds the only possible hope: that of moving beyond himself to become one with the landscape. There is no novum there, in the climbing, it knows only itself, being and becoming on ice and rock (though “The Ice Monkey” too, ends in death and disfigurement).

“Cicisbeo,” a story about a husband, Tim, who spends a very long time converting a loft, could have been written by Philip Roth or Tom Waits: but that unlikely combination is all Harrison. It is also very late-style Harrison, and we see the evolution of his style through this selection. There is a maturity, but also a self-conscious concern and critique of the idea itself and its implications for expectations of the bourgeois male. The homeless, the hopeless, are still there, even centre stage, but the ability to keep at arm’s length comes to the fore. The surrealism of tunnels in the sky is long-lasting and that image will not soon fade like a sunset behind the air traffic circling Heathrow.

It is literary respectability that could lump him in with Roth, an assertion that those who might rather lump with Ballard or Self will find perverse. What set Harrison off from Roth (other than a range of very obvious differences), are the various mystical hypotheses the purpose of which it is the story’s job to test. That the earth is a giant emotion-processing and harvesting unit is one such hypothesis. That the world consists primarily, or even entirely, of empty space is another. Is reification of the moment wrong, or even avoidable? The iGhetti of “The Crisis” tests this one with a spatial null hypothesis. It happened here, at this time, for a reason, and that reason is that specifically we lived there and then, all of us, homeless or not, bad choices and more bad choices.

They resembled stalks of flesh, weak rhubarb, which appeared and evolved very quickly from nothing, like the tentacles which seem to bulge out of nowhere when you burn a piece of mercuric sulphocyanate. You would see them for a fraction of a second just at the city skyline behind the buildings, just under the cloudbase, evolving very fast like stopframe film of something organic growing, then running out of energy, then growing again. They seemed like neither a thing nor a picture of a thing: they seemed to be extruded from a space that wasn’t quite in the world. The sirens would go off, all across the city from Borough to Camden. The artillery would fire and recoil, fire and recoil. The iGhetti would pulse and grow against the lighted clouds. Then they were gone again for another day.

The Crisis

The rigour with which each story (or perhaps all stories) simultaneously test these master hypotheses is what draws them together, like a bundling string of such craft and strength in the making that the words never just flake away glittering into the nostalgic summer light as you half expect them to do. “Like some location beyond the reach of SatNav” (from “The Crisis”): that would be a good description of just about any of these stories, of much of Harrison’s work over a long career. 

If, with Delany, we think of science fiction as a condition of language, there is no better epitome of this than Harrison’s body of Fantastika – the language, with Lacan, is the thing with which we think these knots of being called speculative fiction, mapped through names to particular times and places. Camden and Ben Nevis loom equally large, for example, in these tellings, as examples of ‘empty space,’ paradoxically inhabited by beings dwelling only in motion, in lines passing in and through and out. Similarly, with Delany, we can note the economic imperatives that drive and define these stories, and that become perhaps more fully Marxian, less anarchic, in the mature later works from You Should Come With Me Now, published in 2017 (also with Comma Press). 

When we examine the title (Settling the World), we ask, if the world is settled, then the mind is also settled and, therefore, the question becomes one of how to decolonise the mind. Given the various stories’ concerns, the wordplay of the title is beyond doubt: the world is both settled like sediment that must somehow be stirred up again, and settled by oppressive powers. So how to stir it up? The method invoked is the cognition effect: the insistence on strange versions of our world that nevertheless hold together, that are somehow so cohesive that they give us a place from which to stand to observe our own world (cf. Freedman, 2000 and Mieville, 2009). Yet Harrison’s writing does not try to offer moments of revelation, moments when the veil of ideology is drawn away and we clearly see the world and ourselves as we really are. No, the best we can hope for is an inflection or modulation of the uncertainty we move in. Ideology is also an effect of the writerly / readerly contract, and it is its own kind of cognition effect. In other words, the utopian function of the cognition effect requires a kind of mutuality, almost an affection between reader and writer. 

Harrison certainly has his admirers, there is no doubt about this, and some in very eminent positions: Le Guin and Mieville have both written viral blurbs that regularly appear on new titles. But as for the cognition effect of the production of utopian sensibility through mutuality for the masses: what can be said of this phenomenon, if it can be said to exist at all? Canonisation is one thing, and as evidence we can refer not only to the scattering of literary awards, most recently the Goldsmiths Prize and a BSFA longlisting for The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, and to the Le Guin / Mieville blurbs, but also to increasing mention of Harrison’s works in science fiction studies. Even here though there are gaps and silences with which to deal. Roberts (2006) really only mentions Harrison in passing; as do Bould and Mieville (2009). The more recent discussion of New Wave in the 2019 The Cambridge History of Science Fiction (Canavan and Link, 2019) notes the importance of a single short story (“Running Down”) almost as though this will remain as Harrison’s legacy for the future; however, his importance in the pivot towards literary respectability, and his association with Michael Moorcock’s publishing endeavours are noted and are, indeed, an important ‘lubricant’ for the enactment of that successful pivot away from pulp-SF. 

The first Harrison book I read was Light, in part because the Twitter SF crowd was talking about it, soon after it was included in Gollancz’s Masterworks series. My impression since that first experience has not changed drastically. There is an evenness of the aesthetic and its underlying philosophy throughout the works I’ve sampled, something insistent and sustained that can be felt even in the present selection, which spans almost half a century of output. What early stories and, for example, Light, have in common is a certain ‘jumpiness’ in perception, of a gaze that is constantly roving, looking for something to light up the room, the scene, the landscape. We follow Harrison’s gaze even as it shifts around, picking things up, examining them, and then dropping them back into the gleaming congeries of post/modernity. Even in space piles of things seem to dominate, as though the universe is full rather than empty (and against Harrison’s own ‘empty space’ hypothesis mentioned above). 

Intelligences far greater than our own have been beachcombing the Kefahuchi tract, for example, and retreated billions of years before humanity was even a twinkle in the DNA of the lowest single-celled organism. They were busy building cities in those lost billions, and those cities were abandoned and weathered for our consumption. Had Harrison not come along, we never would’ve seen these vastnesses, these bracing estrangements that, drug-like, I hoovered up when I read both Light and Settling the World. The novum of Light revolved around social implications of quantum uncertainty, and introduced a new kind of thinking about time, entanglement, and relationships. The nano-second became an eternity as ‘the mathematics’ came into its own, a being with thought, intention, and emotion. Battles are fought and won or lost before even a fraction of a second has ticked by. The Escher-like quality of these stories is heightened in such moments because just when you think something has happened, you either realise it hasn’t, or that it was insignificant and pales in comparison to the scale of something else.  

The scale issue is paramount here, in Light, and in these stories, at both temporal and spatial levels. We are apparently made insignificant by the size of things going on around us, visible and invisible. Harrison’s stories are a mapping of the unmapped and invisible things, the things we cannot see, that are latent, and now made free through their naming, their interactions, through the uncovering power of words. Therefore, Harrison’s work is a kind of counter-mapping of the invisible, a re-gazing of everything, a negative strip burning into existence as entropy running its course, as the heat is expended, and as empty space re-asserts its dominance.

References

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. 2000. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Canavan, Gerry and Link, Eric Carl. 2019. Eds. The Cambridge History of Science Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Mieville, China. 2009. “Afterword: Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory” in Bould, Mark and Mieville, China (eds). Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 

Roberts, Adam. 2006. The History of Science Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Copyright Gwilym Eades 2021. All rights reserved.

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