M. John Harrison & The Dignity of Pointlessness

Interview by Andy Darlington

(c) Andy Darlington

Originally published in "S.F. Spectrum No.8" - Dec 1985, UK - 2500 words

"The writer is a voice, nothing else" says M.J.Harrison. "As a writer it's only incumbent on you to be your own voice. To be it as well, and as interestingly as you possible can - so you suck the reader in, mangle him about, and spit him out at the other end feeling as if he's swum through a pool of vomit, or been shaken by a dog, or a mixture of the two!"

M.J.Harrison's prose is hermetically dense, construction is claustrophobically tight, words and phrases selected with the care and attention of an assassin choosing a blade or a poison. "The first thing that strikes you about anything by M.J.Harrison is sheer style" says 'SAVOY DREAMS'. And - while grown freom the forcing house of Science Fiction - he's always been one of its severest critics. As a reviewer for 'NEW WORLDS' in the late 60's he admits "my head became stuffed with the rubbish - and even though I hated most of it I was able, luckily to say so in print and try to change the quality of the stuff". Michael Moorcock published Harrison's "Baa Baa Blocksheep" in the november 1968 'NEW WORLDS/NEW WRITERS SPECIAL', while in America Harlan Ellison was sufficiently impressed to include him in 'AGAIN DANGEROUS VISIONS'. Then, evolving from the New Wave S.F. novels - 'THE COMMITTED MEN' (in 1969) and 'THE CENTAURI DEVICE', through the elaborate baroque fantasies of Viriconium - 'THE PASTEL CITY' and 'A STORM OF WINGS', his subsequent short story collections ('THE ICE MONKEY' and the August 1985 'VIRICONIUM NIGHTS') have taken him beyond clearly defined genre categories.

Michael John Harrison now lives in the West Yorkshire village of Holmbridge with his books and his cats ("all my cats are MAD!"). To him, genre writing is no longer any concern, fiction is now "just the operation of your technique on your sensibility. A writer's only duty is to operate truly on his own sensibility, his own viewpoint, with his technique. It's incumbent on him only to be technically good, and honest in terms of his sensibility and his viewpoint".

The directions and attitudes readers can expect from his future work becomes clearer in this taped conversation:-

ANDY DARLINGTON: You have a very dense prose style. Are you an obsessive correcter and re-writer?

M.J.HARRISON: Yes, I am an obsessive correcter. In the time between about mid-1975 and mid-77 I hardly published a single word because I corrected everything I wrote completely out of existence, and even now I find it very hard to produce completed work that satisfies me to the point that I allow it to be published. Recently I've been trying to get round this by taking a great deal more directly observed notes down. I leave them in the notebook or the journal for a long time, and when I go back to them, to use them for a piece of fiction, they seem to be perfectly decently written. This process defuses the urge to go on writing and re-writing them, and I can almost use the like packages and clip them into the text where I need them. In fact, the text tends to grow out of them - my notes over two or three months will suggest shape, and I will suddenly realise that I've been collecting notes in a certain direction, and 'bang', I have a short story. It cuts the writing time down at the actual point of sitting down to write a story - although, in fact, it means that I'm writing ALL the time, because I'm constantly sort of sitting down in Cafes or on Rock faces and scribbling in a note book - which can be embarrassing or difficult - especially on a Rock!

AD:The narrators in the 'ICE MONKEY' stories tend to be static, almost voyeuristic, describing the actions of a more interesting central character - Lyall in "Running Down" for example.

MJH:The narrators of the stories, yes.

AD:There's also a static element in some of the stories themselves - "The Ice Monkey" and "Incalling" seem to assume a confrontational attitude to writing; their lack of movement being almost the antithesis of conventional story construction, which largely depends on movement. Only the beauty of the prose saves it from dourness. 'PUNCH' magazine called it an "uncanny capacity to describe life where it has almost ceased to exist".

MJH: That's fascinating. I think you might be right. I was thinking about J.G.Ballard the other day, the French Nouvelle Vague, and the anti-novellists of the post-war and early 50's. And I was thinking - "why is it I don't like that stuff anymore?". And it's because it's so STATIC. It's because they've tried to freeze each instant instead of allowing the movement of each instant into the next instant to come through. And surely - that's the only thing fiction can DO. It's up to paintings to freeze time... but then, of course, they were highly influenced by painters rather than writers. You may very well be right. I'd want to think about it and argue about it a bit. But taken in conjunction with what I've been thinking about Ballard and the Nouvelle Vague, that's very possible - because I was very influenced by the French New Wave, by the Absurdists, and by Ballard when I was 20-21. These things get into your head and stay there - perhaps in an area of your method that you cease to question or even consider, it's just something that you DO> You may very well be right - I'm not saying you are, because I haven't thought about it; but if it IS the case, I would see that collection ('THE ICE MONKEY') as transitional in an attempt to move out of that, and into something much more flexible. I've got 3 or 4 new pieces, which have not yet been published, in which I think the movement is back. The movement is there.

AD:If I can quote from the book's title story - "none of us, after all, understand our motives". To what extent does that apple to the construction of your stories - to what extent are the ideas they project premeditated? To a degree you've already suggested that they emerge intuitively, built up without conscious direction from fragmentary notes.

MJH:No. What I would like the stories to do (and I think there are one or two successful ones in there that do it) is to encapsulate a particular human problem that interested me at the time. Mostly in those stories it's the inability of one person to communicate with another - which is why "none of us understand our own motives", because the implication is "... let alone other people's!". We don't understand why WE do things let alone why other people around us do things. And yet we still have to interact with them. We have to try and get some sort of result in the real world. Mostly those stories - "The Ice Monkey"particularly, for instance - are about people who are failing to communicate with one another, who are failing to understand their own motives let alone the other person's motives, and who are being observed (usually) by a very distanced narrator. He CLAIMS to understand nobody's motives, but in fact - by telling the story - he's pointing the reader's attention at certain things. Things that say "well look, this is not the done thing. This wasn't a very nice thing to do". He steadily builds up evidence so that the reader is quite certain where the moral right lies. It's an old technique; the Edwardians did it - the use of an apparently distanced narrator who, in his very refusal to comment on other people's actions, is damning them just as surely, as it were. Colin Greenland said in a 'TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT' review of 'THE ICE MONKEY' that the narrator "limps around the creater after the disaster showing you the ruins and saying 'god knows why we do these things to ourselves'" - but he knows damn well. He's as complicit as the characters in the stories. And so is the reader, I might say. We all know - although at one level we none of us know why we do things, at another level we are all quite aware of why we do things. We know exactly what we want and most of it isn't very acceptable in moral terms, in personal relationships.

AD:All fiction is artifice, and within the writer there has to be an element of the entertainer too. This can run from the polar extremes of pure escapism produced by market caterers, to the honestly crafted work of the creative writer. How do you decide where exactly you draw the line, where you achieve the balance between the two?

MJH:Yeah. There are technical problems to resolve as well. At the 'honesty' end of the spectrum there are technical reasons why it's not possible. Many writers spend their entire lives trying to decide whether it's possible to be a camera, to be absolutely truthful. That, in itself, is a problem of self-honesty, and of technique, which you've gotta crack, before you can then go on to your problem - which is then how far do you let the reader in?

AD:You mean the degree of subjective interpretation?

MJH::Well, yes - we talk about honesty, but what do we mean? Is it possible to replicate the world? It isn't. We know now that even cameras aren't honest. The camera CAN lie. It selects. Now, because of that - if you add THAT into your equation - it's even more difficult to be honest. Because you've got technical difficulties in being honest. You've got your own personal and subjective difficulties in being honest. You tint everything you look at with your own personality. Then finally you've got this business of how much of an entertainer you're going to be. That's an astonishing amount of forces ranged against honesty, they're enormous! What do we do? To go right back to an earlier point of yours, you have to produce a kind of mobility to get the reader to read at all. If your vision is static then you're in trouble to start with! Mine isn't static particularly - but the difficulty of the REAL Nouvelle Vague performer is that he is boring as far as the ordinary reader is concerned. Now, I've been fascinated for 2 or 3 years by the relationship between what you would call reportage - camera-like photography of the environment, and fiction. I mean, to me, I haven't actually come to any conclusions. I'm still working on it. It's astonishing - it's something that a Science Fiction writer never has to bother about.

AD:One of the premises of New Wave S.F. was to escape escapism. That Science Fiction should relate to the real world. Doesn't that, by implication, involve a political element?

MJH:No. Only in modern terms. I don't know whether you know it, but you can still relate to the world as an individual. You don't HAVE to relate to the world as part of a mass. Psychology still exists. We haven't been fobbed off with sociology for ever. There are still non-political solutions. To an extent I'm reacting AGAINST politicisation of ANY sort. When you are evaluating in a personal, sense, you strongest motivation is to keep that personal motivation pure. There are still non-political problems. I've always spoken for the individual. I don't want to put the world to rights because I don't believe it CAN be put to rights. I would want to explain that statement at length, but it would seem to me that there is a human condition, and that the writer's job is to live with it, describe it - not to try and change it on the basis of some theory that he only partly understands, or indeed, ANY theory! So even Socialist S.F. has no real interest for me. In fact it has even less interest because the more propaganda you have, the less art. There's no doubt about that, and I use art to mean artifice, that is, again - technique.

AD:You've been described as an Anarchist - which infers a belief that once the manipulative influences of State and Religion are removed, people are inately good. You've also been described as a pessimist. Don't these two terms conflict?

MJH:My argument would be that people are inately good - but that doesn't mean to say we can expect such from them. Because of their non-communication. Because of their inability to understand their own motives, let alone anybody else's. Eventually they cannot co-operate. Not successfully. Not to produce things that are worth having. It's quite easy to co-operate to produce atomic weapons, but nobody seems to be able to co-operate to solve the problems of the Third World (laughter). I don't know. I'm not a pessimist anyway. I'm an Absurdist. I don't believe there's any meaning to the universe. And my stories illustrate, or accept that, as a basis. I'm a materialist and no materialist can believe that there is any sense of purpose - but that doesn't make you a pessimist. That just makes you sombody who sees no meaning in it, and must therefore show his characters trying to find their own meaning, their own level of meaning. Trying to define themselves, compassionately, in relation with the other human beings they know. I think I've accepted too easily the definition of pessimism. It's a simplification. I don't think my work reflects pessimism so much as absurdism. There is a realisation of the philosophical and metaphysical meaninglessness of the universe, but what I like to try and say is that we must get on and do what we do, the best we can, without meaning. Usually we make a cock-up of it, and we have been doing for several thousand years, and we will probably continue to do so for several thousand more years. I don't think that's pessimism so much as simple observation of the facts.

AD:There's one final quote I want to fling at you - "an ideology of despair is as emotional as any other" (from 'THE MACHINE IN SHAFT TEN'). Does that mean that all viewpoints come down to subjectivity?

MJH:Yeah. I think we must accept that. We must accept - given that - that we must operate personally. I mean, that's why I'm still an Anarchist. If all value-judgement are subjective which they are by definition, linguistically and in the real world, then any evaluation we make of the universe is personal. It therefore behooves us to act with dignity, and act personally. Not to club together in big groups and say "because we have agreed on this personal evaluation as universal, from now on it will BE universal, and we will hit anybody who doesn't agree with us"!

AD:In 'THE MACHINE IN SHAFT TEN' you write "we have meaning - and thus thankfully, no more illusions left to lose". This is presumably what you mean by "a dignity of pointlessness"?

MJH:Exactly. Exactly.