Some of M. John Harrison’s books have aliens in and carry endorsements from China Miéville; others are alien-free and endorsed by Robert Macfarlane. He has fans who’ve read all the science fiction but not Climbers (1989), his semi-autobiographical masterpiece about rock climbing in the North of England, and fans who are effusive about Climbers but won’t go near the sci-fi. It’s not unusual for writers of sci-fi and fantasy to have a non-fantasy mode, but Harrison’s is almost fantasy’s opposite.
Climbers is celebrated for its fine-grained depictions of the landscapes of Northern England through the seasons. ‘For three days the valleys were full of freezing fog,’ the narrator, Mike, says of the Peak District in March.
From above you could see it lying pure white and motionless in the sun. Going down into it you found it grey, without comfort. A tree stood on the interface, bare and thorny. Inside, frost covered everything: before you had run a mile it had formed in your hair and beard, on the fibres of your clothes. Distances were shortened, sounds muffled. You went on in silence and the sheep lifted their heads to stare.
Climbers documents the micro-dialect of a community of climbers and faithfully describes the British road network and the decor of Northern cafés.
Yet the author of the line about beard-frost is also the author of Light (2002), the first volume in the byzantine Kefahuchi Tract trilogy: ‘A pod of K-ships – coms shrieking with fake traffic, decoys flaring off in several dimensions – flipped themselves down the Redline gravitational alley along a trajectory designed for maximum unpredictability.’ And: ‘X-rays briefly raised the temperature in local space to 25,000 degrees Kelvin, while the other particles blinded every kind of sensor, and temporary subspaces boiled away from the weapons-grade singularity as fractal dimensions.’ Light contains hologram porn shows, sentient tattoos, quantum computing, ‘tailors’ who kit their customers out with whole new bodies, and spaceships whose mechanical systems are fused with the biochemistry of their pilots. Some of its characters belong to an alien race known as the New Humans who invaded Earth in the mid-2100s and who, with their pale skin and red hair, are ‘indistinguishable from some kinds of Irish junkies’.
Harrison started publishing sci-fi in the mid-1960s, while he was still in his twenties. Towards the end of the decade he moved from Warwickshire to London, where he met Michael Moorcock, then the editor of the science fiction magazine New Worlds. Harrison took over from Moorcock soon afterwards, and remained at the helm until 1975, during which time New Worlds became associated with the experimental current in science fiction known as the New Wave. In 2002, Harrison summed up the New Wave’s aims in a self-deprecating reassessment of his novel The Centauri Device (1974), which succeeded, in his view, insofar as it ‘took the piss out of SF’s three main tenets: (1) the reader-identification character always drives the action; (2) the universe is knowable; (3) the universe is anthropocentrically structured & its riches are an appropriate prize for the colonialist people like us.’
A few of Harrison’s early stories are included in Settling the World, a compilation of highlights from his short fiction. ‘The Causeway’, from 1971, includes high-tech space flight and soggy Northern European landscapes, though both are treated more impressionistically than in his later writing. A spaceman called Crome arrives from a distant planet to find a land distinguished by ‘low hills, worn drumlins, coarse grass and bracken … prone to slow, drizzling rains’ and sparsely populated by simple peasants. He is fascinated by a huge causeway that connects two of the world’s continents – evidence that the capacity for formidable feats of engineering once existed on the planet – but is told by a native woman, to whom he has taken a shine: ‘We can’t be helped … Can’t you see we are ashamed?’ Here technology isn’t the unstoppable propulsive force portrayed in earlier science fiction – it’s something that can easily be lost. Our first encounter with an alien species may be one in which we feel acutely embarrassed by our decline.
‘The Machine in Shaft Ten’, published in New Worlds in 1972 under the pseudonym Joyce Churchill, takes a similarly bleak view of our place in the universe. A vast machine is discovered at the centre of the Earth: it absorbs our emotions and converts them into fuel for an alien civilisation. We thought our emotions were our own, but in reality we have been bred to produce them by superior creatures for whom they are nothing but an energy source. The man who discovers the machine eventually succeeds in blowing it up – the town of Retford is drowned ‘under a lake of lava’ – but feelings of liberation are mingled with a sense of existential anxiety. ‘The human race is now … entirely devoid of purpose … We have no meaning – and thus, thankfully, no more illusions – left to lose.’
The most substantial achievements of Harrison’s New Worlds period were the ‘anti-space opera’ The Centauri Device, about an intergalactic drug dealer who can operate a sentient bomb, and the first novel in his four-book Viriconium sequence, The Pastel City (1971). Viriconium began as a standard sword-and-sorcery saga with a modern twist – ‘magic’ is technology that people no longer understand, left behind by a high-tech civilisation – but it grew New Wavier as the series developed. The Pastel City, about Lord tegeus-Cromis’s struggle to save his homeland from brain-stealing monsters, is written in a clear and direct style reminiscent of Robert Howard (the inventor of Conan the Barbarian): ‘Tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand dunes that lay between his tall home and the grey line of the surf.’ The second Viriconium novel, A Storm of Wings (1980), tells the story of another invasion – this time giant locusts – but in fancier prose and with a less linear narrative: the ‘heroes’ behave stupidly, or are shown to have selfish motives; there are chapters written from the perspective of the locusts, and bits where the storyline is moved along by what turns out to have been unreliable narration.
By the time Harrison came to write ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’, a short story published in the magazine Interzone in 1985, he had moved to the Peak District and begun work on Climbers. It was around then that he announced he had given up science fiction, and ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ enacts this break formally by putting Viriconium beyond the characters’ reach. The narrator and his neighbour look for a way into Viriconium from this world, seeking clues in news stories involving ‘a mental or – especially – geriatric home’. The narrator believes that an old man has found a portal in a café toilet and trails him around York trying to find it. But the search is fruitless and Viriconium, with its ‘Pastel Towers, tall and gracefully shaped to mathematical curves, tinted pale blue or fuchsia or dove-grey’, remains an imagined space, while the action of the story takes place against mundane specificities of the real world. The neighbour, Mr Ambrayses, is a sad and lonely figure seen ‘on a day trip bus to Matlock Bath, wearing one sheepskin mitten’, or ‘in Sainsbury’s with an empty metal basket in the crook of his arm, staring up and down the tinned meat aisle’. By contrast, Viriconium is envisioned as a place of clear light and symmetry where no one as messy or lost as Ambrayses could exist: ‘Photographic precision of outline under an empty blue sky is one of the most haunting features of the Viriconium landscape.’ ‘On occasion we all want to go there so badly that we will invent a clue,’ Ambrayses says. The story seems to imply that the longing for Viriconium, and for the style of writing that reflects it, stem from a desire to escape a real world that is overly sordid and complex.
The narrator of ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ represents the kind of character who turns up frequently in Harrison’s work. This person’s life is on pause. At one time he or she seemed destined for success, but their good fortune has dried up. They seem dissociated, staring out at an alien world they’re unable to engage with. Several of the characters in Climbers conform to this type. Mike has run away to the Peak District to escape a marriage he’s unable to end, and has difficulty communicating even with his friends. His climbing buddy, Sankey, got his degree from Cambridge but has spent his life unmarried in a cold cottage and a lowly job. Variations on this type also turn up in Light, Harrison’s post-Peak District return to sci-fi: Ed, a former hotshot spaceship pilot now spends his time and what’s left of his money on the drug-fuelled VR fantasies of the ‘twink tank’; Michael Kearney, a talented physicist, has given up on middle-class existence and become a serial killer, looking out bemusedly at a world of ‘mid-day joggers’ and ‘people talking into mobile phones’.
In ‘Land Locked’, the newest and weirdest story in Settling the World, the alienated outsiders are themselves aliens. One of them, Palinurus the Navigator, falls off ‘the boat’ and somehow makes it to shore. He has recurring dreams which replay his plunge – into water with ‘a meniscus full of petroleum rainbows and bobbing faecal matter’ populated by ‘whole dead animals with slick fur and no eyes’ – and spends his days driving along the coast from town to town, unsure whether he’s dead or not. Another character, a female, eats a cab driver, inheriting his navigational skills, and drives around ‘seeking out middle-class landscapes with simple founding assumptions’: ‘a glass of wine in the evening; a toddler on the patio in the failing light’. The story was written at more or less the same time as Harrison’s most recent novel, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. But where ‘Land Locked’ concerns the anomie of aquatic aliens among humans, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again describes the anomie of two humans in a world of aquatic aliens.
The Sunken Land – like much of Harrison’s work from the 1990s (most notably his novel The Course of the Heart) – mixes the gritty localism of Climbers with elements of the supernatural. Shaw, one of its two main characters, is another exemplary Harrisonian protagonist. Having been, at one point, ‘perfectly normal’, his life ‘lost shape’. ‘He would wake up to himself with utter clarity in – say – a crowded first-floor noodle bar at night, talking to people he didn’t know while he looked down into a street full of brand-new motorcycles. Then everything would slip away again, to be lived at one remove for a week or two.’ The other main character, Victoria, belongs to a family whose members are cursed with ‘immobilising anxiety and depression in the middle years’. A month or two after a brief, unfulfilling fling with Shaw she moves from London to her recently deceased mother’s house in Shropshire and writes to Shaw asking: ‘What were we ever going to do with our lives, people like you and me? We’re like a lot of hermit crabs in the same shell.’
Shaw’s conspiracy theorist neighbour sends him to observe a court case in which the accused claims to see ‘green children’ in the toilet bowl when he urinates. ‘Except for their colour and their translucency, which was somewhere between that of an aphid and a boiled sweet, they seemed human.’ In Shropshire, the locals keep offering Victoria copies of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. Pearl, a local café owner whom she befriends, takes off her clothes, slides into the icy water of a large pond and disappears. Soon Pearl’s flat fills up with large aquariums that don’t seem to contain any fish. Her café reopens as a shop selling fish tanks in which ‘it was possible to identify forms that might be fishes … rather bigger and slower perhaps.’ On Barnes Common, Shaw witnesses a brawl, with the participants ‘clawing inexpertly at one another’s cheeks, which stretched like plasticine and came away in lumps’. Yet Victoria and Shaw fail to be drawn into the John Wyndham story playing out in the background of their lives. ‘Shaw was unable, somehow, to believe that anything bad was happening … [it was] hard to parse yet somehow perfectly ordinary – even humdrum – in its own terms.’
Shaw and Victoria can hardly be blamed for failing to notice – or at least to be alarmed by – the increasing presence of fish zombies, since fish zombies are entirely consistent with the texture of their lives. The Sunken Land evokes dampness so unrelentingly it makes you feel clammy. Water seeps into every scene. Shaw spends his days on the river in a houseboat-cum-office, where he has ‘a map of the world in which the oceans and the land had been coloured so that they reversed out, the continents looking like seas, the seas looking like continents’. He walks along the towpath in the rain, and drinks in riverside pubs illuminated by ‘waterlight’. The toilet in his flat is windowless, with ‘hard-water minerals around the taps’, a permanent ‘tidemark’ on the bath and a ‘fungal smell’. Victoria’s house by the River Severn has a garden that resembles a ‘woodland pool covered in flat green waterweed’, with waterlogged fields all around it; her friend lives on a ‘repeatedly flooded terrace’. Shaw’s mother’s room at a care home is hung with prints of ‘blurry, estuarine-seeming streets’. Even Shaw’s MacBook screen has been broken in such a way that it looks ‘fungal’.
In The Sunken World, water is more than a habitat or an atmosphere: it’s part of a general evocation of time’s passing. The present is shown sinking into the past while the past makes a habit of beaching itself on the present. A Victorian medicine bottle bobs to the surface of a puddle in the cemetery. The land around Victoria’s house is littered with flotsam left behind by the coal industry, which has now receded, washing away the wealth it created. Shaw, who is paid to sell books, performs an obsolete role in a dying industry, travelling to abandoned shops with backrooms full of unwanted stock trying to flog copies of his employer’s self-published volume. Meanwhile, in the care home, Shaw and his mother, who has dementia, go through old snaps from seaside holidays. Victoria roots through ‘a pile of photographs in paper wallets’ among her own mother’s possessions. Pearl talks Victoria through an album: ‘picture after picture, dim and faded, taken back in the 1970s’. These characters are all immersed in their own search for a version of Viriconium, trying to recover in the past a ‘photographic precision of outline’. In Shaw’s case at least, the process seems partly therapeutic, guiding him towards an exit from his impasse.
Whether he’s writing about holographic sex shows, or drywall and oven gloves, Harrison is a psychological novelist whose fascination with trauma, repression and memory remains constant throughout his work. ‘Space doesn’t seem to mean anything, and that means that time doesn’t mean anything,’ says Kearney, the serial killer physicist in Light – and yet time won’t leave him alone. He and several other characters in the novel are plagued by flashbacks to pubescent fantasies and traumatic childhood episodes; some of those characters, by getting the past into focus, are liberated into the next phases of their lives. Climbers – the great hinge in Harrison’s career – is a novel-length attempt to view the past so clearly you can see the beard-frost. Towards the end of the book, Mike, poring over a set of photographs, utters what could be taken as a metaphor both for the way that the progress of time allows the past to reveal its meaning, and for the process of writing Climbers itself: ‘The Polaroids I took the year Sankey died have developed with age. They tended to be overexposed, but details previously awash in light can now be discerned quite clearly … As if pigments could learn about what they represent, events understand themselves more accurately towards the end than the beginning.’