Category: Harrison M. John

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced last Wednesday, and it was the one I hadn’t finished reading at the time. So first of all, congratulations to Mike Harrison on his win — I’m pleased he’s had this recognition. Now on to the book itself. 

On the face of it, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again would seem the most conventionally written novel on the Goldsmiths shortlist — there are no contrasting voices or unusual layouts here. But what Harrison does, gradually and comprehensively, is to undermine the basic qualities that we might expect a conventional novel to have. Coherence, progression, resolution… all dissipate as you look at them more closely. 

Harrison’s two protagonists are caught in the midst of something strange, not that they seem to notice. Shaw is getting back on his feet following a breakdown. He moves into a small room in a damp London house. He meets one Tim Swann combing through the soil in a cemetery, and later discovers he lives next door. Tim offers Shaw a job in an office on his barge, obscure administrative tasks and trips to niche shops that are barely hanging on:

The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it was still 1981 — denizens of futures that failed to take, whole worlds that never got past the economic turbulence and out into clear air…

In one sense, then, the ‘sunken land’ of the title refers to people and places worn down by austerity. 

The novel’s second protagonist is Victoria, with whom Shaw is having an intermittent affair. Victoria has moved from London to the Midlands, to work on renovating her late mother’s home. She finds the people quite distant, and seemingly more knowledgeable about her mother than she is. She becomes sort-of friends with Pearl, a waitress, who lives in a house whose rooms seem to shift and where people come and go without warning. 

You would never know there was anything unusual about Victoria’s life, though, if you judged by the banal emails she sends to Shaw (not that he usually reads them). Failures in communication are a recurring feature of this novel, whether it’s Victoria and Shaw not telling each other what’s really going on in their lives, or Shaw’s struggle to connect with his mother, who has dementia and can never get his first name right.

A breakdown of communication is one thing, but this is also a novel where the world itself fails to come together. Images of water abound, and there are rumours of humans being born with the appearance of fish. Tim Swann researches such fringe phenomena, and there are hints at a unifying explanation of all the book’s strange happenings. But when one’s actually reads Tim’s writings, the semblance of coherence disappears:

Stories reproduced from every type of science periodical appeared cheek-by-jowl with listicle and urban myth. These essentially unrelated objects were connected by grammatically correct means to produce apparently causal relationships. Perfectly sound pivots, such as ‘however’ and ‘while it remains true that’, connected propositions empty of any actual meaning…

The same goes for Sunken Land more broadly. Whatever’s really going on here, it’s not within the sight or comprehension of our protagonists — and therefore of us. If there’s a promise of escape from (or for) this sunken land, it will be fulfilled somewhere else. Harrison’s novel is unnerving because there are echoes of motion throughout, but ultimately what we experience through its characters is stasis.

Published by Gollancz.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Reflections: a fan of the outliers

I’ve always felt fairly uneasy about the idea of being a ‘fan’ of any given author or series, because I’ve never really had (what seems to me) the typical fan’s relationship with the fiction I read or watch. Even when I was deep in collecting the volumes of long series like Discworld and Fighting Fantasy, I appreciated idiosyncracies and irregularities, the value of allowing writers to go where their imaginations took them. When I encountered other fans’ opinions, the common consensus seemed to be that the closer a given book was to the series/genre norm, the better; whereas the outliers were what most intrigued me.

Over the last 10-15 years, the fields of science fiction and fantasy have become much slicker when it comes to managing series; the trend has been towards valuing plot continuity, ‘world-building’ and high-concept combinations of ‘tropes’. Those, I’ve come to see, are not really my sort of thing, which is one reason I’ve drifted away from reading a lot of genre SF and fantasy in recent years. The work I find myself most drawn to is singular and often self-contained, and I still find myself liking aspects of work that many others seem not to (so, for example, I love The Luminaries for its four-dimensional living metaphors; and I don’t really care much either way about its plot, pastiche or astrology, which seem to get most of the attention). Ultimately, when it comes to matters such as world-building and series continuity, I am more in tune with the project of Viriconium, and I have to proceed from there.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

My favourite reads of 2012

It’s that time of year again, for looking back over what I’ve read and picking out the highlights. In previous years, I’ve limited my list to books published in the year in question, or split it equally between old and new titles. For 2012, I’m just doing a straightforward list of my favourite twelve reads of the year, regardless of when they were first published.

So, in alphabetical order of author surname, here they are:

Adrian Barnes, Nod

Telling of a battle of words and perceptions in contemporary Vancouver, this is a dystopian novel with the nervous energy of a new world still being negotiated, and a keen sense of its own precariousness. It never feels as though it’s about to settle.

M. John Harrison, Viriconium

Possibly the ultimate anti-escapist fantasy (and almost certainly the only major work of fantastic literature to be set partly in my home town of Huddersfield). In this collection of novels and stories, it’s fantasy that does the escaping, leaving readers and characters alike scrabbling at mirrors.

Katie Kitamura, The Longshot

The tale of a mixed martial artist heading for one last shot at glory. This short novel is as taut and focused as a winning fighter; it’s a brilliant unity of form and subject.

Jonathan Lee, Joy

A fine character study of a successful young lawyer who attempts to take her own life in front of her work colleagues, and of other key figures in her life. Lee has superb control of voice and tone, and the whole novel is a great pleasure to read.

Simon Lelic, The Child Who

Here, by coincidence, is another incisive  character study focusing on a lawyer – this time the solicitor defending a twelve-year-old accused of murder  whom he (and everyone else) knows is guilty. This unusual angle enables Lelic to give certain key scenes an unexpected texture, and to give a complex picture of the issues he raises.

Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

A Senegalese folktale spliced with quantum physics. A morality tale whose only moral is that the reader should decide on one for herself. An examination of choice wrapped up in a glorious piece of storytelling that knows just when to turn on itself.

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

A chorus of narrators tells the story (and stories) of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’ who go to the US at the start of the last century, and their descendants. Otsuka’s short novel is a beautiful composition whose focus shifts elegantly back and forth between a wider and more individual view.

Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn & Child

An anti-detective novel in which any semblance of narrative or coherence dissipates as soon as you look. Its pieces are brought together into a whole by superb writing and Ridgway’s distinctive aesthetic.

Adam Roberts, Jack Glass

Read during my ongoing semi-hiatus, this novel brings together Golden Age detective fiction and science fiction, and interrogates them. It is very much alive to the limitations and shortcomings of those types of fiction, but still plays fair with the reader. (See Jonathan McCalmont’s masterful review for more on the book.)

Zadie Smith, NW

A collage of a novel that examines the connections between several characters’ lives in north-west London. Smith goes through several different styles and approaches in NW, but all combine successfully in this insightful read.

Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat

A deeply unsettling piece of work that turns the concept of the murder mystery on its head and – perhaps even more effectively – puts a dark twist on the notion of a character study. This is the sort of novel that makes me want to explore the rest of its author’s œuvre.

Lucy Wood, Diving Belles

My favourite debut of the year, this collection brings Cornish folklore into the present day. These stories are  by turns amusing, mysterious and evocative; I can’t wait to see what Wood writes next.


This will be my last blog post of 2012. Wherever you are, I’d like to thank you for reading and wish you well for the coming year. See you again in 2013.

What I’ve been reading lately

I don’t have proper internet access in my new flat yet, and won’t have until mid-January; so blogging here will still be intermittent for the time being. But I have still been reading: this post is a quick catch-up of the last few weeks.

Lavie Tidhar, Osama (2011). The latest novel to win the World Fantasy Award, this details a private detective’s search for the author of a series of pulp novels featuring “Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante”, in a version of history without global terrorism. Tidhar makes a comparison between ‘real-world’ terrorism and pulp fiction, which I found to be very powerful; but I suspect I’m not familiar enough with the other works with which Osama is in dialogue to fully appreciate the book.

M. John Harrison, Light (2002). I’m planning to read all of Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy before Empty Space makes its likely appearance on next year’s Clarke Award shortlist. I actually find myself unsure what to say about this first volume in isolation, and feeling that I’ll get more from it once I’ve read the whole series. I am struck, though, by Light‘s general movement towards possibilities being realised and mysteries starting to be solved, which stands in marked opposition to what I’ve come to expect from Harrison’s work. Of course, that movement may yet be subverted – we shall see.

Helen FitzGerald, The Donor (2011). A father faces the dilemma of being the only suitable organ match when both his daughters suffer kidney failure. I read this for Fiction Uncovered, so a longer review is forthcoming.

Samit Basu, Turbulence (2012). The passengers on a flight from London to Delhi wake from a dream to find that they each have a super-power based on what they most desire. A few of them try to make a difference to the world, but others have their own agendas. Turbulence starts out well, with a sharp wit and a welcome suggestion that powerful individuals may not find it as easy to change the world as they imagine. But then a sense of spectacle comes to dominate, and the novel as a whole ends up too frothy.

Stendhal, Roman Tales (2012). A new translation (by Susan Ashe), of three of Stendhal’s later works, all based on trials from the 16th and 17th centuries. I suspect that readers who already know Stendhal’s work and style will get more from this book than I did. Sometimes I found the detail engaging; at other times, it came across as a little dry.

Christopher Brookmyre, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks (2007). Sceptical journalist Jack Parlabane may have met his match in the person of Gabriel Lafayette, a conduit for apparently incontrovertible paranormal phenomena. Certainly more is going on than meets the eye, as Parbalane is narrating while dead. This was my first Brookmyre novel, and I gather it’s less humorous than is his typical style. The book took a while to get going, but I did appreciate its twists and turns. I do want to sample Brookmyre’s more typical work, though.

Kate Atkinson, Human Croquet (1997). The tale of the present and past of the Fairfax family, seen mainly through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Isobel, who finds herself occasionally slipping through time. The timeslip aspect of the book  is what works best for me, with Atkinson giving it a wonderfully matter-of-fact quality. But I found the family drama side of Human Croquet less engaging, which left me unsatisfied with the novel as a whole.

K.T. Davies, The Red Knight (2012). This  first novel from small publisher Anachron Press is a fantasy set in a kingdom facing civil war, centring particularly on the character of Captain Alyda Stenna, who returns from a successful campaign to find that her battles are far from over. Though the plotting isn’t always as clear as it might be, there’s a real exuberance to Davies’s storytelling which keeps things interesting.

Laurent Binet, HHhH (2009/12). A novel about a real-life plot to assassinate Reinard Heydrich in 1942, interwoven with the author’s reflections on writing fiction from history. I read this for Bookmunch, so once again, there’s a longer review in the works.

Sunday Story Society: “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring”

To keep up to date with the Sunday Story Society: view our schedule; follow @SundayStorySoc on Twitter; or visit us on Facebook.

Today we’re talking about “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring” by M. John Harrison, a story which became the foundation of its author’s 1996 novel Signs of Life. To kick off, we have an extensive response from Nina Allan, which I’ll quote only in part here:

You could almost say that ‘Isobel’ is MJH in microcosm […] It bears many ur-Harrison trademarks: gaunt cityscapes in decline, disenchanted individualists in terminal disconnect mode, intimations of the marvellous. The language of the story manages somehow to be both resolute and dissolute, a gradual persuasion of the drab towards incandescence.

And here are some initial thoughts from me:

When I read this story, I still had the experience of Viriconium very much in mind; if that series moves towards the destruction of fantasy-as-escape, I see “Isobel Avens” as doing something similar. Of course, there’s Isobel’s dream of flying, which cannot be realised; and the fantastical surgery, which is no magic solution. But I also think this is a great portrait of an exhausted relationship: empty conversations; Mick Rose’s constant calls for the reader to “imagine this”, as though his relationship with Isobel happened to someone else. And there are some superb lines: “The years I lived with her I slept so soundly” – I love how equivocal that sentiment is.

So, what did you think?

M. John Harrison, Viriconium (1971-85)

This is Viriconium: the city to end all cities; namesake of the dominant empire in Earth’s twilight. This is Viriconium: an omnibus of novels and stories by M. John Harrison. When you venture in, it’s important to bear in mind which of these statements is the more accurate.

By the way, this post is going to tell you quite a bit about what happens. I can’t really see that as a spoiler, because plot is not the point of Viriconium (except insofar as it’s an illusion, like much else in the stories). It’s the experience of reading Harrison’s work that counts, and nothing I say here can substitute that. Not that it’s going to stop me trying to give a sense of Viriconium, of course.

The first novel in the sequence, The Pastel City (1971), sees Viriconium under attack from the forces of the ruling queen’s cousin. One of the old king’s champions, tegeus-Cromis (‘who imagined himself a better poet than swordsman’), picks up his weapons and sets out to reunite his comrades-in-arms and defend the city. So far, so conventional, it might seem – albeit with a vividly realised setting of a decaying far future. Advanced technology from previous eras (the ‘Afternoon Cultures’) persists, but the world has forgotten how it works. The landscape is one of rust and garishly-coloured metal salts. The stars have been rearranged to spell the name of a past culture, but no one is left who can read it.

But the deeper themes of Viriconium are already becoming apparent. Some say that reality is becoming thin with age, forgetting itself. Cromis’s journey does not run according to plan, and he turns away from witnessing its ending, and away from greater knowledge. By the close of The Pastel City, individuals from one of the Afternoon Cultures have been resurrected – so Viriconium finds itself in danger of being superseded by the past.

As a fictional city, Viriconium is a timeless mish-mash; but, in The Pastel City, one nevertheless has the impression of a coherent, functioning place. That impression is predicated on the structure of the novel, though, as A Storm of Wings (1980) makes clear. This is a much more fragmented text, which could be seen in some ways as a parody of its predecessor’s quest-fantasy. Various characters (some from The Pastel City, some not) assemble in the queen’s palace to begin dealing with a threat to Viriconium. But the sense is much more that they have been moved there, like pieces on a gameboard; the reasons for their gathering are not so clear, to them or the reader.

All those reasons, it turns out, are aspects of the same thing: an invasion of insect-people who have their own way of perceiving the universe, radically different from humans’ – and these alternative perceptions vie for supremacy. Reality in Viriconium (in Viriconium) is literally what you make of it. The scenes of A Storm of Wings slide between perceptions; the reader’s best hope is perhaps just to hang on.

In the third novel, In Viriconium (1982), part of the city has been afflicted by a ‘plague’ which causes reality itself to thin out: people fall ill, buildings decay, ventures fail. A portrait-painter named Ashlyme attempts to rescue his fellow-artist, Audsley King, from the plague zone – a mission which, perhaps inevitably, leads to disaster. Harrison shows the reality of Viriconium to be ever flimsier here: so much so that the real world (our world) is leaking through. The mundanity of the novel’s events, and the fragmented nature of its ‘narrative’, suggest that the coherence of The Pastel City was illusory, no more than a matter of perception.

It might seem at first glance that the Viriconium novels take place in the same chronology, but there are enough discrepancies to make clear that it’s not so. And the stories which were assembled as Viriconium Nights (1985) – and are scattered throughout the 2000 omnibus I was reading – demonstrate that even more emphatically. Characters and places (even Viriconium itself) can have different names or histories. This is revealed to the character Ignace Retz in the story ‘Viriconium Knights’, when he is shown scenes of adventure featuring warriors who bear his face. ‘All knights are not Ignace Retz,’ he is told – but, if all these scenes have happened, or will happen, somewhere, what does that make him?

In my omnibus, ‘Viriconium Knights’ is placed first of all (even before The Pastel City); so we know from the start that there can be no such thing as a definitive vision of Viriconium. Essentially, the Viriconium Nights stories are slices of life from ‘places’ that can have no life beyond their individual tales. In ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ – the final story – Viriconiun is no more than an abstract entity for which people in our world may yearn. The protagonist tries vainly to make the mirror of a café toilet act as a portal to Viriconium. After images of the far future and tales of saving the world, that is all you have left. That is what’s real.

Viriconium represents a systematic destruction of the idea of fantasy as escape. It is bleak, even nightmarish at times – yet it’s beautiful, too. You’ll have to read it for yourself, though, to really see what I mean.

Book notes: Caldwell, Delius, Harrison

Lucy Caldwell, The Meeting Point (2011)

Euan Armstrong takes his young family to Bahrain, ostensibly to undertake missionary work; but Euan’s wife Ruth begins to question all that she holds dear when she discovers the true nature of that work. Meanwhile, teenage Noor Hussain has returned to Bahrain from England to live with her father; she has struggled to fit in and is contemplating suicide. But then Noor finds new hope in the person of Ruth, just as Ruth is falling for Noor’s brother Farid.

There are times, particularly towards the beginning, when Caldwell’s description feels over-egged; but The Meeting Point ultimately succeeds because of the elegance with which it portrays its central dynamic. Both Ruth and Noor have unrealistic desires which will inevitably lead them to clash; the progression of those events is thoroughly credible. Caldwell also draws her protagonists deftly; there’s a nice contrast between the broad strokes of Noor’s teenage impulsiveness, and Ruth’s more measured personality. All in all, The Meeting Point is a well-wrought novel that’s very much worth reading.

Lucy Caldwell’s website

Friedrich Christian Delius, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (2006/10)

Another fine novella from Peirene Press, this one translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Margherita is a young German woman who came to Rome to be with her soldier husband Gert, only for him shortly after to be sent to Africa in the aftermath of El Alamein. Now, in 1943, she is alone in Rome, unable to speak Italian, but grateful for the small German enclave which surrounds her. We follow Margherita as she makes her way to a Bach concert, and reflects on her situation.

At a structural level, Portrait of the Mother is masterful, as its 117 pages comprise a single sentence. The affect of this is of a constant unspooling of thought and detail, with certain ideas recurring throughout. Delius captures particularly well Margherita’s naivety, and the irony underpinning it: insulated as she is her little bubble, she can’t comprehend the difficulties faced by ordinary Roman citizens; she’s sure that everything will be fine with Gert, just as she is sure that Rome would never be a target for bombing… Delius’s Portrait is a sharp character study.

M. John Harrison, The Ice Monkey (1983)

One of my reading resolutions for this year is to get around to reading something by M. John Harrison, who has been on my TBR list for rather longer than I’d have liked. I decided to start with collection of seven short stories, which has proven very interesting to read.

The title story sees Harrison’s narrator, Spider, who takes his friend Jones to visit the latter’s estranged ex-wife, Maureen – it doesn’t go well. Later, Jones and Spider go climbing on Ben Nevis, and that ends in tragedy. This piece sets a certain tone that carries through much of the rest of the anthology – many characters have similarly broken lives, for example – but there’s also continuity at a deeper, more structural level. The ending of ‘The Ice Monkey’ reads to me like a formal parody of a horror story, as it goes through the motions of hinting at a supernatural agency without actually doing so with any conviction – as though to emphasise that the mess-ups in the story have very human and natural causes, and there is no escape into the possibility of ‘magic’.

A deliberate turning-away from the fantastic seems integral to the affect of Harrison’s stories, here, as rituals and other strange happenings remain as mysterious to reader and characters alike at the end of a piece as they were at the beginning. In that respect, I’m reminded of when, last year, I read Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, whose aesthetic is also ‘anti-explanatory’ – though I find Harrison’s tales embody their aesthetic  more thoroughly.

The Ice Monkey is perhaps best summed up for me by its final sentences. In the closing story, ‘Egnaro’ is the name of a secret place which is heard fleetingly by various of its characters. Where other tales might uncover the truth of that place, Egnaro remains no more than a whisper’ As the story’s narrator remarks:

The secret is meaningless before you know it: and…worthless when you do. If Egnaro is the substrate of mystery which underlies all daily life, then the reciprocal of this is also true, and it is the exact dead point of ordinariness which lies beneath every mystery. (p. 144)

My key lasting impression of the stories in The Ice Monkey is that they highlight such ordinariness. Now I look forward to reading Harrison’s Viriconium, to find out if that impression will remain.

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