M. John Harrison: The Condition of Falling

Interview by Andy Darlington

(c) Andy Darlington

Originally published in "Vector 135" - 2750 words

You must remember this...

Track your mind back. 'NEW WORLDS' magazine? England's New Wave? The heat-death of the Science Fiction universe?

M. John Harrison: "I began on 'NEW WORLDS' in 1968; by then Michael Moorcock had been editing it for four years. The ideological terrain had long been mapped out in his editorials, and in guest editorials by writers such as Ballard and Aldiss. The unprecedented Arts Council Grant and equally unprecedented pornography charge were already historical". Yet through Harrison's short stories - and the novels that followed - it soon became obvious that he understood "the depths and subtleties of the genre to an extent that elevated his work far beyond that of his contemporaries" (editor of 'SOMETHING ELSE' magazine).

Born in 1945, M. John Harrison's first professional sale was to the long-extinct 'SCIENCE FANTASY' in 1966, followed by hard S.F. contributions to the 'NEW WRITINGS IN SCIENCE FICTION' anthology series. His later work was featured in 'QUARK', the excellent 'SAVOY DREAMS' collection, the prestigious 'AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS' - and, of course, 'NEW WORLDS', for which he was literary editor from 1968 to '75. His elegantly crafted and meticulously fine-tuned critical essays for that journal launched damning invective against his chosen victims, a ritual literary slaughter that allowed no quarter, attacking all writing he deemed imperfect, and all ideas mundane, hackneyed, or over-used.

In this way he set the standards against which his own work must be judges.

He lived in Camden (London) with what he claimed to be "the largest domestic cat in the world", relocated north to Glossop, and then to a small cottage on a steep hillside overlooking the Yorkshire village of Holmfirth - producing a fistful of critically acclaimed genre novels along the way. 'THE COMMITTED MEN', 'THE CENTAURI DEVICE', 'THE PASTEL CITY', 'A STORM OF WINGS', and 'IN VIROCONIUM'; fantasies, according to 'THE GUARDIAN' newspaper, "grounded in M. John Harrison's sense of reality" with the ability to "realise the unreal by brilliant selection of detail".

We talked about the evolution of his work, and his subsequent move through what he describes as a 'transitional process' from the Science Fiction ghetto into 'less stylistically restricting definitions'. "My next book will have absolutely nothing whatever to do with S.F." he declares. "My stories and my fictions from now on will be human. They will have the human sympathy of a single human being for other single human beings".

In the flesh he's often difficult to interpret. He's entertainingly self-opinionated in a style that's instantly recognisable from his 'NEW WORLDS' essays. In a style that makes this conversation a lethal amputation from the genre he claims to be abandoning. A vehemently parting broadside at both 'Old' and 'New Waves'; but I get the impression that he's also fueled by a nervy energy that's humanly sensitive to any retaliatory slight.

M. John Harrison is "late evidence of the 'NEW WORLDS' phenomenon". A writer whose style evolved out of - and transcends - the New Wave heat-death of the Science Fiction universe. Now he continues to embody its restless, challenging and uncompromising spirit.

You must remember this...

ANDREW DARLINGTON: Did you grow up reading conventional Science Fiction?

M. John HARRISON:I grew up reading everything. I read Science Fiction along with Boy's School Stories, Girl's School Stories, T.S.Eliot, books about horses... from the age of eleven to about age twenty I read genuinely omnivorously. I preferred fantasy with a religious flavour if I could get it - C.S.Lewis, Charles Williams, Tolkien. I adored T.S.Eliot from the moment I read the first line of "The Wasteland". And I still do.

AD:Was J.G.Ballard an influence on your development?

MJH:At about twenty this omnivorousness stopped, and I began to read only Science Fiction. This happened for two reasons; the first is that I discovered J.G.Ballard. I became literally obsessed with his work for the two to three years that followed. So yes, he did influence 'THE COMMITTED MEN', and one or two of the early short stories - "Vistions of Monad" for instance. The second reason was that I began to work on 'NEW WORLDS' and I didn't have time to read anything but review copies - and of course, they were all Science Fiction. It ruined my head until about 1976 when I finally packed it all in. During that time I never read a good book, never even read a decent book. I reckon at the age of twenty, although I was everything you would expect a young writer to be, that is - narive, not very good, etc etc - I could at least have BEEN a writer. But by the time I was twenty-four/twenty-five I could ONLY be a Science Fiction writer, because then I was reading nothing else. My whole head had become stuffed with the rubbish, even though I hated most of it, it still went in. It was like being force-fed with dirty dripping. And it went in every single month - a hundred, two hundred American paperbacks on that sort of grey paper that smells of excrement. About four years ago I decided I would get rid of the last vestiges of all that stuff in my library. I just chucked the whole lot out. I don't read S.F. of any sort anymore. I reckon you are what you eat, solely. Science Fiction was a very expensive blind alley as far as I'm concerned. It allowed me to earn a living and make a very small reputation within the field, although nowhere else. The technique of S.F. writers is so POOR. They don't KNOW anything, they don't READ anything but Science Fiction. It's not their fault, although to an extent it's their fault as much as it is their readers. The readers won't READ anything but S.F. They are like children who won't eat meat 'cos it hurts their teeth (Harrison says this with a sneer). Or because it makes them sick. So they eat cake all the time. And Science Fiction publishers are there like confectioners, to supply lots of cake. The whole 'NEW WORLDS' and the whole New Wave movement in S.F. was blown from the start by the very fact that if you eat nothing but cake then eventually your jaw atrophies. There is nothing else you CAN do. You may desperately want to be a great writer and say something worthwhile, but if you've spent your entire life reading and writing pap you haven't got a chance. You've got no techniques.

AD:You once wrote a 'NEW WORLDS' essay on "The Literature of Comfort", which divided the history of Science Fiction into an approved S.F. of ideas (Wells, etc), and an escapist S.F. of comfort, which you traced back to Frank L.Baum.

MJH:Yes. I remember the article. I dunno, it's a long time ago. I probably wouldn't agree in the sense that I don't think about things in those terms anymore. For instance - you say 'ideas', I don't think writing is about ideas. I haven't for five or six years. Polemicists, propogandists, philosophers and politicians write about ideas. People who write fiction or poetry, they don't have 'ideas'. I don't want to go into it any deeper than that without my notebooks! But, I don't know... I still don't like escapism. I still think that S.F. is a literature of comfort mainly. Even the New Wave - the 'NEW WORLDS' style New Wave of the late-sixties and early seventies - has been corrupted into a kind of comfort fiction, particularly by many American writers, the so-called 'Labour Day' group. These people have simply stripped the nastier elements out of the New Wave, repackaged the sex, and sold the whole thing as 'Brotherly Love' with lots of sex and furry animals. All of which has no interest for me at all. It's only purpose is to comfort people. If they NEED to be comforted that badly, then I suppose that's fair, but I don't think they do. I don't think ANYBODY is in a poor enough shape to need Ursula Le Guin! I never have done (laughter). Really they should just stiffen their spines and get on with their lives - NOBODY needs Ursula Le Guin!

AD:Critics invented a useful - and perhaps appropriate, phrase, "the school of cosy disaster". Originally they used it to describe the pre-New Wave tales of John Wyndham.

MJH:Yes. Of course, he specialised in the Middle Class disaster where everything was alright again at the end of the novel. If we all pull together and be nice and decent, thoroughly decent and Middle Class, we shall get through. Remember the T.V. series 'THE SURVIVORS'? That was straight 'cosy disaster'. Did you notice that there was always one Lower Class person per episode? Like a token black. In every episode there was one, and he always spoke with a gnarly speech and touched his forelock and all that sort of thing. Horrible programme. It's a nice description though - 'cosy disaster'. We've specialised in it in Britain. Until... I was going to say, it wasn't until Ballard and Aldiss came along that we had any disasters that WEREN'T cosy, but they were grinding different axes anyway. You couldn't really call their things disaster stories. My 'THE COMMITTED MEN' was a not-very-cosy disaster.

AD:New Wave was conceptual literature in that it was consciously reacting to the 'cosy' Science Fiction that preceded it. It wasn't market-orientated writing. 'THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION' was conceptual S.F. in that it formed a manifesto, a statement about what J.G.Ballard thought the genre SHOULD be doing.

MJH:That's true. It was a reaction, and a destructive one too, it was iconoclastic. The trouble is - is it worth producing that amount of iconoclastic energy to break up and let air into the hermetic escapist dreams of children? Is it worth it? Was it worth all that running around foaming at the mouth saying "this is terrible stuff"? I'm not sure it was. In fact, I'm quite sure it wasn't. It's not my place to criticise Jimmy (J.G.)Ballard, but WHAT A WASTE OF TALENT to only be reactive. To exist only in reaction to something which is palpably and obviously rubbish. It wasn't necessary. The Dada Art Movement was necessary in its time. It reacted against the entire monolith of established Western art - that's a LOT. But Science Fiction wasn't very much. It was just a little genre which nobody took very seriously, and which frankly, isn't of much use. S.F. has only been of use within literature when it was polemical. That is to say, when it was '1984', which it genuinely was a fiction of ideas, as in Huxley or Orwell. That seems to me to be the limits of its worth when it's considered part of literature. In fact the movement in what you would call avant garde of modern S.F. today is very much towards a fiction of ideas. It's a Socialist fiction. I'm not interested in that.

AD:Many of the more radical elements of Science Fiction now seem to have been absorbed into mainstream.

MJH:I don't know to be honest. I haven't been near a shop that sells it for two or three years. I haven't read any for so long.

AD:While the mass pulp market for good new S.F. seems to have been replaced by Horror and Fantasy fiction.

MJH:It was bound to happen. They printed too much of the stuff during the boom. The bust is always bound to come after the boom. Publishers never learn that sort of thing because they are very slow people.

AD:Perhaps by deflating the escapism of Science Fiction you were also destroying its practical applications, it's use as a 'comfort fiction'? Perhaps people buy books like they buy records; they dance to the music without being overly concerned with how technically well it's assembled or how aesthetically pure its motivations.

MJH:What you're talking about is a process of sawing off the bough that you're sitting on. We may have done that, intellectually, and over a long period of time. I don't think we did it as far as the people who just bop along to the record are concerned. They went on just buying the stuff, and the publishers - who of course, are only concerned with people who bop to the record, went on selling it to them.

AD:But much of the Science Fiction that is popular today - the 'STAR WARS'/'STAR TRECK' syndrome, is a reversion to pre-New Wave mentality. The type of material you were attacking.

MJH:Oh yes. I agree with you. If what you're saying is that we sawed off our own particular bough, then we did. And I think it was inevitable. And for about four writers it was a good thing. The writers who were good enough to make something out of the condition of falling. Of realising that there was no bough left. Thomas Disch. Ballard. Aldiss. One or two others. But then, they had always wanted to be writers who said something about the world, about people. They had always wanted to be 'proper' writers; writers in the tradition of writing, which S.F. isn't. It's not in that tradition. And sawing off that bough, in a way, gave them the confidence. You've got to go for it in the end. You've just got to decide to do it. Tom Disch hasn't written anything that you could describe as Science Fiction for some time.

AD:You described your short story collection - 'THE ICE MONKEY' - as part of a process of moving out of the genre.

MJH:The book is very transitional in the sense that it still tries to use S.F. or Horror or some other genre to make its point. Perhaps the points are now so human, are so concerned with human beings, that the S.F. is distracting. It's taking the readers attention away from the point. The Science Fiction element in "Running Down" (in 'NEW WORLDS No.8') for instance, is where the chap is conceived to be so cynical, unpleasant, and miserable, that his own self-disgust affects his environment. It was a good enough image in 1975 when I couldn't talk directly about people. As a writer I wasn't technically capable of simply looking at people. But that doesn't seem to me to be much of a solution nowadays. If I were writing that story now there wouldn't be any S.F. in it. There wouldn't need to be, because I now feel that my technique is good enough for me to look directly at people, and write about people.

AD:But the Science Fiction image-bank provides a rich vein of contemporary mythology that can be used as symbolism. Much of what you describe as the S.F. content of 'THE ICE MONKEY' stories is little more than the kind of symbolism used by Kafka. I think it would constitute a considerable loss to your stories if you rejected that element.

MJH:Exactly. It is, in fact, Symbolism. The stories are Symbolist stories. Even the cruder ones in there, written as long ago as 1975, are structured exactly the way a Symbolist would have structured them. Exactly like Catherine Mansfield, or a post-Symbolist, a kind of proto-Modernist like Virginia Woolf would have. There are no plots per se. The thing proceeds by parallelism and constrast of symbols and images. The whole idea was to be a Symbolist, but at that time, rather a crude one. Whereas now I'd hope to do a little better and not need aliens from outer space at all. I don't think you need them. You can cut them out and still write the same story; still make the same comment about being human.

AD:There are advantages to working within a genre. There IS a guaranteed minimum market.

MJH:You've got a guaranteed audience. You've got a livelihood. But I realised that the genre wasn't allowing me to say anything. And at the same time I realised that if you really want to say what you want to say, you've got to take the risk of not having that guaranteed market. You've got to move out. It's not good promising yourself you'll write a wonderful non-generic book one of these days. What you've got to do is finally cut loose and do it. There's very difficult Rock climb in the Peak District called 'Cut Loose or Fly'. Flying being slang for falling. I just decided to cut loose. You must commit yourself to the effort even if you find yourself hundreds of feet up in space with only two directions - up, or down. You must take the risk. I decided to do it. Which means I shall probably become very poor very quickly. But then I wasn't all that rich to start with. For me, from now on - after fifteen years of writing about robots, all I ever want to do again is write about human beings. I don't say that I won't EVER write S.F. ever again. The Bank Manager may need me to! But I wouldn't be interested in it and I won't even bother trying to fake interest. People are much more interesting.

AD:Do you never think in terms of your audience? Are the people who read your stories never a consideration?

MJH:No. But on the other hand, oddly enough, I've found that I've got a bigger audience since I decided to be me and do what I wanted to do. When you do that - when you make that decision for the first time in your life, you mature as a writer and you develop a very obvious, very distinctive voice. And people are bound to hear it. They are bound to be interested in it one way or another. I seem to have had more response since I stopped trying to be a generic Popcorn writer. Since I stopped just grinding it out, and started to speak with my own voice. Certainly it's had more effect on the people who DO read my stuff. The critics who write about it are much more affected by it - presumably because it's more honest, and because of that voice is more distinctive. A lot of Science Fiction is so philosophically and metaphysically crude. Some S.F. writers are very matter-of-fact chaps, for so-called imaginative people they are very very blinkered. They seem to have the mentality of School Physics Teachers. You suspect that, although they blather on about him all the time, they have no understanding of Einstein or Relativity. One of the reasons I didn't earn much of an income as a Science Fiction writer - as a so-called professional writer, it's that my standards were a bit too high. The stuff I wrote never actually made it as good, rubbishy, readable, generic S.F., because it was always too fastidiously well-written. If I hadn't done my side-trip into S.F. I might very well have matured a little bit earlier. In my case, I'll admit that being a professional for fifteen years has given me certain techniques. Techniques for sucking the reader in despite himself, for facing him with things he wouldn't normally read, because he can't STOP reading, because he wants to find out what happens next. These are techniques you don't learn from reading Virginia Woolf. These are techniques that you learn - god help you, by writing crap. And the ability to suck the reader in and keep him there while you do your operations on him is, I suppose, worth learning.