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review 2015-07-21 20:15
M. john Harrison's 'The Pastel City'
The Pastel City - M. John Harrison

Fantasy has always had its moralizers and its mischief-makers, those who use the symbolism of magic to create instructive fables, and those who use the strangeness of magic to tap into the more remote corners of the soul, and then obscure their transgressions behind the fantastical facade. Like Moorcock, Leiber, and Vance, Harrison is playful, he is rebellious.

Indeed, in his swift, pulpy approach, Harrison very much resembles those authors, but his voice sets him apart. There is a scintillation, a sophistication, a turn of phrase which shows a practiced hand, and unlike many fantasy authors, Harrison's voice is very consistent. He is aware of what he is doing, the effect he means to produce, and he generally succeeds.

Moorcock was fond of saying that he was a 'bad writer with big ideas', and the same can be said of many genre writers, from R.E. Howard on, but Harrison is not a bad writer, and it's enjoyable to see someone of his skill take up the torch--leaving no doubt why he was so successful in inspiring New Weird authors like Mieville and VanderMeer to tear into genre (with varying degrees of success).

He had already made a name for himself as an editor and ruthless critic working at Moorcock's New Worlds, often lamenting the shallow predictability of genre fiction (his critical work has been collected in Parietal Games ), and this is clearly a stab at trying to break out of that monotony--to practice what he had been preaching. It is rather less wild and experimental than his later works, but there is something very effective in the straightforward simplicity displayed here.

The most obviously groundbreaking aspect of the work is his setting (not, as Harrison would insist, his 'world'). He combines science fiction and fantasy tropes quite freely, but with much greater success than Leiber's clunky attempts, and much more overtly than Moorcock's nods to quantum physics in Elric. It acts as a reminder that despite all the purists trying to drive a definitive wedge between the genres, they are really doing the same thing: creating physical symbols through which to explore ideas (it's Clarke's Third Law again).

An easy example is Star Wars, a fantasy story about wizards, prophecy, spells, magic swords, funny animals, good vs. evil, and the monomyth which adopts science fiction only as an aesthetic, a 'look'. It isn't forward-looking, it's mythical, which is why the laser beams only shoot at a fixed point in front of the ship, like World War I biplanes. Nowadays, the concept of mixing fantasy and sci fi has trickled down into the public consciousness, showing up in cartoons like Adventure Time--and to a large part, we have Harrison to thank for that, because his version (complete with laser swords) came years before Star Wars, and also presents a much more nuanced view of the world.

On the surface, Harrison's rusted-out future world resembles Vance's, but it's much closer to fellow New Wave Britisher J.G. Ballard (or Le Guin): a fantastical headspace of extremes, when everything is dying and collapsing around you, and yet life goes on--dwindling, certainly, but fundamentally not very different from how it has always been. It’s a portrait of existential dread, our fear of being alone, our foolish habit of nostalgia, of seeing the past not as it was, but as a sort of promised land, a missed opportunity for our neurotic brain to cling to.

The dying world is the legacy of poets (at least, of the Victorians, who have the most influence on our modern notions of the poetic self), from Byron’s Darkness to Shelley’s The Last Man and the mythology of Blake--and of course arch-pilferer Eliot’s The Waste Land. Indeed, in this post-modern world, it’s become almost trite to riff on The Waste Land and it’s world built around the sad, intellectual man who regrets that all meaning has been stripped away, and he’s left to figure it out on his own.

However, fantasy has long been lagging behind, particularly highly-visible epic fantasy, like Tolkien’s, which behaves as if existentialism and skepticism never happened, instead inundating the reader in a top-down, authoritative voice full of message and allegory and obvious symbolism--though Tolkien himself often denied that this was the case, as a believer, to him the real world was a symbolic allegory.

The 'dying Earth' is the same old trick of fantasy, to take a state of mind and literalize it, to produce a setting that reflects it, and through which the author can explore it. It's like how in a Gothic novel, it rains when people are said, and lightning strikes as the villain observes the results of his cruelty.

Sure, it's also what a comics writer does when he puts the fate of the world at stake to increase the tension--but I won't say it's a bad trick, or a dirty one--it all depends on the magician who is using it. Are the a con artist, trying to win us over and sell us something, or are they a trickster like Houdini or James Randi, forcing us to confront the fact that we can so easily be fooled--indeed, that we may want to be fooled.

I find Harrison to be a trickster, an invoker of our better nature, if only because he realizes that the mind can be unsure--it can change--so, what happens to a world founded upon a changing mind? It's a question Harrison only touches on here, before diving in headlong in the next book, and finally getting a grasp on it in the third and fourth.

Unfortunately, one area where Harrison fails to meaningfully improve upon earlier genre outings is the portrayal of women. They are rarely present, and when they are, they tend to the weak and distant. We don't get inside their heads as we do the male characters, and so they do not really feel like complete characters, but objects of focus and motivators for the men around them. I mean, it's not like we're getting a trite Madonna/Whore love triangle, like Tolkien's, but moving from 'bad' to 'neutral' isn't much of an improvement, especially for a book written in the seventies--and the portrayals don't get much deeper in the later books.

I've often complained that many genre authors (like fellow dying-earther Gene Wolfe) give you two hundred pages of plot buried in four hundred pages of explanation, description, exposition, repetition, and redundancy--but I'm glad to say that in Harrison's case, he's happy to give us the two hundred and leave off the rest.

My List of Suggested Readings in Fantasy

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review 2015-07-21 18:19
Diary of A Murderess by M. Harrison
Diary of a Murderess: Gotham - M. Harrison

This short story has a place in my heart, because my sister is the author! I really loved it. It has Dexter feels and it's a quick read too! I was straight to the point, I really enjoyed that element of it. I also liked how it was written. The main character wasn't what I thought she'd be. But Gotham (bad guy) was. I wish it was longer! Check it out, won't be disappointed.

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text 2015-06-13 12:40
Worldbuilding: Harrison vs. Bakker

Wm. Timlin - The Seven Sisters

In my ongoing exploration of worldbuilding, I've gotten a great deal of inspiration from the observations of writers like Harrison, Le Guin, and Moorcock. Harrison's essays in particular helped me to put voice to my concerns about the worldbuilding obsession, my attempt to understand how it operates, and what purpose it serves. Yet, I've found relatively few writers able to write eloquently on worldbuilding's behalf, which is unfortunate, because it makes the issue feel one-sided. Of course, if it is as Harrison says, and the worldbuilding urge comes out of a desire for control, simplification, rote memorization, and authority, then it would make sense that individuals who are on the side of worldbuilding would not tend to be theorists, questioners, and underminers, searching for reasons.

 

I had heard that author R. Scott Bakker's response to Harrison (in this interview) was precisely the well-constructed, pro-worldbuilding manifesto I had been looking for--but unfortunately, far from presenting his own theory of the utility and purpose of worldbuilding, the response quickly devolves into a disappointing 'us vs. them' distraction, the tired old narrative of the Average Joe tilting at Ivory Towers, attacking Harrison's person and motives without ever presenting a clear refutation of his views.

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review 2015-02-03 20:31
Viriconium (Viriconium, #1-4) - M. John Harrison

The single greatest work of fantasy ever written. No discussion.

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review 2014-10-23 22:30
Doing the Kefahuchi Shuffle
Light - M. John Harrison

If given the choice between Science fiction and fantasy, 9 times out of 10 I'll go for Fantasy. It's hard to explain why; perhaps it's something to do with the aesthetic, but I suppose that's a discussion for another time.

 

However, sometimes I'll look up from decapitating another loathsome Orc, see the sci-fi guys flying spaceships and blasting aliens overhead, and I'll think to myself, 'Well now, that does look fun'. 

 

I picked up Light by M John Harrison because I liked the book cover. Yes, I'm aware of the idiom warning against such rash action, but it worked for me when I bought 'The Wind Itself', so I figured why not try again.

 

Light is a culture shock. Truly. In my last post I reviewed Way of Kings, and I described how the book threw a lot of overwhelming concepts and ideas at the reader off the bat, but then drip-fed answers artfully when it made perfect sense to the plot.

 

This is what Light does. But more so. Much more so. After finishing the book, I feel like I'm still completely baffled by some of the things the inhabitants take as the norm. Surgically altered humans, virtual reality addicts, advanced physics and ghostly sentient mathematical algorithms are used liberally without much in the way of explanation.

 

For me, this everyday weird bafflement took away somewhat from the overarching mystery of the plot a little. When everything is unknown, it's sometimes difficult to pick out which unknowns are important, and which are just set dressing.

 

The rest of the culture shock simply comes from humanity's outlook and attitude 300 years in the future. It reminded me in some ways of the excellent Snow Crash, with it's bleak vision of future-cool and out-of-control morality. The only thing more prevalent than death is sex.

 

The main mystery of the plot revolves around the 'Kefahuchi Tract', a space-time anomaly described as "a singularity without an event horizon". Many civilizations have been drawn to the Tract over the history of the universe, and all have broken upon it's mystery.

 

Enter our main characters, a down and out adventure seeker, a ship pilot who has chosen to be absorbed into the consciousness of her ship, and a serial-killing physicist in the year 1999. Oh, and a woolen-coat wearing, horse-skull headed alien entity known as 'The Shrander'.

 

We follow them as they meander and weave their way through the deluge of unknowns, until the conclusion of the book when we get a straight up explanation of which unknown is the one that matters. I felt it was a little clumsy.

 

This clumsiness extends to a lot of the exposition in the novel. I feel like the author has realized at certain points during the narrative that the reader has no idea what's happening, and simply can't go on any longer without knowing what's going on. He then almost grudgingly writes a couple of paragraphs explaining whats up. When he feels like it.

 

Light was never boring, I'll give it that. If you enjoy reading about science-jargon, casual sex and ancient alien mystery, it definitely provides, and I'd like to re-review this book after reading the entire Trilogy. Whenever that happens.

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