The New and Newer Worlds of M. John Harrison

Interview by Andy Darlington

(c) Andy Darlington

Previously unpublished: 1250 words

Michael Moorcock's assertion that M. John Harrison is "the best writer of so-called 'heroic fantasy' working today" is easily justified by the intense poetic imaginings of "A Storm of Wings", "In Viriconium", or "The Pastel City", yet it's a description the writer now feels ill at east with.

"I think it was a description that applied" he concedes carefully, "but which no longer applies. I was always trying to use Science Fiction for other purposes, and I've found after about fifteen years of trying to use it in that way, that it just won't be used. It's a continuing struggle between you and the inflexibility of the genre. Eventually it breaks your back, and you still haven't said anything except the things the genre will allow you to say. So - upon discovering the fruitlessness of the battle - I've decided to quit doing it. You can only say exactly what you want to say in some way you have devised yourself, not within a category". He pauses, to conclude emphatically "you just can't do it any other way!"

First manifestation of this re-alignment is "The Ice Monkey", (now available through Gollancz); a stunning collection of disturbing short stories he affably describes as 'unpleasant'. Here Harrison's densely intricate prose mutated Science Fictional ideas into the absurdist surrealism of "Settling the World" where 'God' constructs a 40-lane Motorway across England for His machines to transport giant human limbs for His mysterious purposes. While elsewhere Harrison subsumes elements of fantasy into the yearning symbolism of "Egnaro", a haunting imagined country on the rim of consciousness that might stand for childhood, lost innocence, unfulfilled ambition, or more. There's playful self-mockery too when Harrison sets the tale in a second-hand bookshop. Science Fiction, declares his bookseller, is "comfort and dreams. It rots your brains". But "give the customers what they want and take their money". The artful humour is compounded if you realise the fictional shop strongly deja vu's the bohemian sleaze of "Bookchain", the much-raided Manchester shop where the writer himself once worked!

It proves a first taste of "The Ice Monkey's" strong Northern flavour. One story first glimpsed in the light of day in the innovative Leeds experimental magazine "Interzone". Another is rescued from an anthology produced by the tempestuously eventful Manchester "Savoy Books" imprint. While slivers of local scenery abound. It's not difficult, while churning through July heatwave and the web of lanes leading to his current address high above Holmbridge, to recognise his "long salients of pasture-land flung down from the rougher grazing of the moor. The village strung out untidily along the upper flank of one of these; a line of grey stone houses and one farm". And like an event from his fiction, the door explodes inwards at my cautious knock to be replaced by a demonically grizzled head thrust out dwarfishly level with my thigh. It's only as I adjust to the fact that his cottage is built into an abrupt Pennine falling-away of the land, and that visitors must descend a short crawl of steps into its reception, that I can square this apparition with the bearded face grenning genially from the book-jackets. With perspectives corrected Mike Harrison cuts a much more accessible figure. Physically he radiates a compact controlled energy razored to a slightly guarded nervous edge. He wears black tracksuit bottoms and trainer shoes with exaggerated tread that hints at his devotion to Rock climbing - an activity he constantly alludes to and refers to in relation to his writing.

He hunches down over his bookshelves - mostly paperbacks - attempting to order magazine and anthology editions of his 15-year output as a writer, while a continual influx of cats flow through a half-open window punctuating our conversation. There seem to be dozens. He'll admit to no more than three. On the shelves I note William Burroughs, Mervyn Peake, yet remarkably little S.F. beyond dog-eared back issues of his own "New Worlds". Commenting on the omission I suggest that, like it or not, M. John Harrison is considered a Science Fiction writer - which might tend to discourage a mainstream audience. While his increasing sophistication might also alienate his bedrom S.F. readership.

"That happens during the transitional phase of any writer who tries to move out of the Science Fiction genre" he explains evenly. "But I've got two advantages. One is that the only following I ever had in S.F. was at the end of the market where readers are more flexible and are willing to deal with difficulties. The second thing is that I was - and still am - totally unknown in the mainstream. My latest two books have been published without any Science Fiction label on them. I don't really know how the readers are going to meet this, but mainstream critics have just taken them and read them on their merits. They've admitted, on occasions, to being puzzled, but all in all they've said 'well, we don't know how this works, or quite what it's doing, but it DOES work'. I would hope that mainstream readers would meet it in the same way. That they'll conclude 'we're not quite sure what this is, or what job it's trying to do, but it seems to do it remarkably well'. I think that's the best you can hope for during a transitional phase".

Born in 1945, M. John Harrison has always been a highly individualistic writer. In retrospect it seems odd to think of him as part of any group, yet he first became known as a late addition to the iconoclastic 60's 'New Wave' movement fiercely orbiting "New Worlds" magazine. As literary editor he helped analyse the ideological terrain already covered by its original writers - Moorcock, JG Ballard, Barrington J.Bayley, and Brian Aldiss. Harrison's essay "A Literature of Comfort" echoed and verbalised New Wave ideas, dismissing the majority of S.F.'s prior output as pure escapism. He aligned himself to the programme that had led New Worlds paradoxically to an unprecedented Arts Council grant, and an equally unprecedented pornography charge. Both firsts for what remained nominally a Science Fiction magazine! "New Worlds" challenged S.F. orthodoxy by deliberately setting out to disturb the cosy preconceptions of its readership with startling technical and thematic innovations taking as its models the stark urban disintergrations of William Burroughs. That is the atmosphere Harrison found himself working within.

He now readily acknowledges the element of "sawing through the bough you're sitting" implicit in New Wave. That by withdrawing the 'comfort and dreams' from S.F., the New Wave was also destroying its commercial appeal. But that intensity of attitude is consistent with his current attempts to achieve escape velocity from the last vestiges of the genre. An acceptance that, implicit in their patricide, was the challenge of creating a positive force to replace what they were eagerly tearing down. Even as his own first novels began to establish the individual authority of his voice - novels like "The Committed Men" and "The Centauri Device" - there was an accompanying need to evade group identity and build that new literature according to his own vision.

"It's the same with absurdism" he offers by way of explanation. "Once you've realised that the universe is meaningless you're then faced with the choice of either committing suicide or building something personal out of the wreckage. And I think personal is the key term. All of those New Wave writers had to revalue their work in personal terms. They could no longer think of themselves as Science Fiction writers. They could no longer think of themselves as image-breakers because the image was broken. The bough had come off the tree and they were falling fast. Their only choice was to revalue their fiction and their work in personal terms. To decide that from now on - I decide what's valuable. I feel that very strongly that from now on I'm on my own. My stories will be human. They will have the sympathy of single human beings for other single human beings".

"The Ice Monkey" charts that shift of emphasis. His descriptions of London are relentlessly bleak, a claustrophobically dense obsessively negative perception of entropy and decay. A pent-up prose of artful construction where even the months "set in like an infection" and the key words are 'thin', 'cold', 'sour', 'grey'. The previously unpublished vignette "The Quarry" becomes the catalyst of change. Its convalescing protagonist flees the deadness of the city to "the luxurious feeling of light, air, and distance" he finds in the wildness of Yorkshire, where haunting dreams of an elemental 'green woman' re-affirm the regenerative power of nature. It's here, beyond the collection's pivotal watershed that the adjectives become brighter, healthier, and the coasts of Egnaro are most nearly glimpsed. "I feel that some of the stories in the Ice Monkey are well on the way to being me - they are M. John Harrison. They're not Science Fiction, they're not any category, they're just the voice of M. John Harrison in the void".

"My next book will have absolutely nothing whatever to do with Science Fiction" he announces with emphatic finality. A huge grey cat has landed precariously on his knee and he delivers the ultimatum while ludicrously attempting to establish sight-lines around its bushily erect tail. "Of my last two books; 'In Viriconium' was a fantasy and could be looked at by critics as a generic fantasy. It wasn't but it could be looked at in that way. The stories here in 'The Ice Monkey' could be looked at as Horror stories. They're not, but they could be categoriesed that way if a critic was desperate to categorise them. But the next book won't be amenable to that kind of reading or that kind of criticism. It will simply be a novel!".

With the cat now pacified into supine self-indulgence, M. John begins to hazard guesses on the new, and newer worlds of his personal future. "I'm not even sure it's a novel to be honest." he confised, "It may be a book of New Journalism about Rock Climbing. It may be an uncomfortable combination of the two. Whatever it is, it will have moved completely out of any genre at all. The subject will be Rock Climbing - but it won't even be possible to consider it as part of a Rock Climbing genre. You see what I mean? The idea now is not simply to escape Science Fiction, or escape Horror, but to escape ALL genres, ALL categories...!"

I've no doubt that it anyone can make that vision work, it's M. John Harrison.

Interview by Andy Darlington