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Harrison, M John

Entry updated 24 July 2023. Tagged: Author, Critic, Editor.

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(1945-    ) UK author and rock-climber, who began to publish work of genre interest with "Marina" for Science Fantasy #81 in February 1966 as by John Harrison; he was most closely identified in the 1960s with New Worlds, where he released his first sf story, "Baa Baa Blocksheep", in November 1968, and for which he later wrote some of the best tales using the Jerry Cornelius template, or Icon, from the series created by Michael Moorcock. He also wrote considerable criticism for New Worlds, usually as Joyce Churchill, and served for some time as its literary editor, this material, plus later nonfiction, being assembled as Parietal Games: Critical Writings By and On M John Harrison (anth 2005), a volume which contains, as a kind of extended introduction to his work, a set of essays edited by Mark Bould and Michelle Reid. Typical fiction from Harrison's early career was assembled in The Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories (coll 1975), a volume which reveals its New-Wave provenance in narrative discontinuities and subheads after the fashion of J G Ballard, though the finest story published here, "Running Down" (in New Worlds 8: The Science Fiction Quarterly, anth 1975, ed Hilary Bailey), is a tale whose surface seems conventional. It is only on understanding the devastating thoroughness of its articulation of Entropy in terms of moral contamination that it can be seen as genuinely radical. At the heart of this story – as in much of Harrison's shorter work from this point onwards – lies a sense that the deepest sin is not to abjure God but to abjure the fullness of the world itself. Further work – except for the Viriconium tales, which have been left separate – was assembled in The Ice Monkey and Other Stories (coll 1983), which includes some sf tales of a striking and obdurate coldness; in Travel Arrangements (coll 2000), which contains more fantasy; in Things That Never Happen (coll 2003), a career retrospective with some new material; and in You Should Come With Me Now: Stories of Ghosts (coll 2017), most of whose contents are concisely and sometimes radiantly abstracted from obedience to genre.

Harrison's first novel, The Committed Men (1971; rev 1971), is an impressive Post-Holocaust story set in a fractured England, centring physically on the ruins of the motorways, and generating a powerful sense of entropic dismantlement. His third, The Centauri Device (1974), is a significantly disgruntled Space Opera, perhaps his least successful book, and one which demonstrates a discomfort with the escapist conventions of this sort of sf that survived until Harrison's remarkable work in the twenty-first century. Unsurprisingly, the doomsday device of the title duly blows up the Galaxy.

As the first volume of his Viriconium sequence – though it is much simpler than later instalments – Harrison's second novel, The Pastel City (1971), is of greater interest. It is a Far-Future science fantasy set on a bleak Dying Earth, whose description plays on Sword-and-Sorcery imagery, though nothing happens of a magical nature. Viriconium itself is both the land – conveyed with a growing capacity to portray in words the physical world – and the City at the end of time which dominates it. The second volume of the sequence, A Storm of Wings (1980), rewrites its predecessor in language whose intensity is both surreal and topographically exact, so that an orthodox tale of alien Invasion becomes a series of bleak tableaux vivants as witnessed through the insectoid Perception of the invaders. In Viriconium (1982; vt The Floating Gods 1983), the final novel of the sequence, is far more abstract, rendering the fin de siècle transports of its plot in language of a fixating painterly density. The substantially reworked UK versions of the stories assembled as Viriconium Nights (coll 1984; rev 1985) – and later brought together with In Viriconium as Viriconium (omni 1988; exp to include The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings 2000) – focus even more intensely upon the task of seeing their dying landscapes with utter exactitude, so that the inhabitants of the city present their failed artistries in terms less and less reassuring to any sense that they are able to inhabit a fantasy world; this sense of the closing of the world was intensified in The Luck in the Head (Autumn 1984 Interzone text alone, by Harrison; text rev as graph 1991) with Ian Miller, which darkly re-viewed a tale from the UK collection. The reality of things seen comes, in the end, to be the only reality to which Harrison will give allegiance in the sequence. The central lesson to be extracted from his work – as in his short stories – is that any personal triumph over the exigencies of the world must be earned by attending to that very world, for only when self and city and rockface are seen with true literal sight do we know what it is we wish to leave: by which point, even if Viriconium has turned into Camden Town, we do not wish to leave.

The Wild Road sequence of tales with Jane Johnson, writing together as Gabriel King, which started in the late 1990s, are relatively playful fantasies. Nor are the three serious novels which followed Viriconium of direct sf interest: Climbers (1989) is an associational novel about rock-climbing; The Course of the Heart (1992) stringently anatomizes the cost of a transcendental epiphany which cannot be retained in this world by those whose moment of penetrating awareness proves crippling; and Signs of Life (1997) amplifies and repeats some of the inturning message of its predecessors. In all these books, the world is dreadful with the weight of being; in a sense, therefore, they define the end of the Viriconium sequence and of the preceding sf tales, because for Harrison – after thirty years of fining his vision – the only difference between the lords and ladies in science fantasy and climbers clinging to a rock in the real world (as in the 1989 novel) was that the latter knew where they were.

A conclusion so implacable might seem to have constituted a creative impasse, but the Kefahuchi Tract novels which soon followed – Light (2002), which won the James Tiptree Jr Award, Nova Swing (2006), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award, and Empty Space: A Haunting (2012) – remarkably end-run that potential stoppage. Seemingly only loosely connected to one another, each is a Space Opera whose central focus is shared – the Kefahuchi Tract, a kind of light-years-wide interstellar honeypot (see Zone), whose epistemological and ontological mysteries have created rifts/riffs in reality that have haunted Alien species for aeons, and humans more recently – but which are otherwise dissimilar. In Light, it becomes clear, through a complex three-part storyline, that three separate protagonists are central figures (or victims) in an ages'-long Uplift programme to breed Homo sapiens as a race capable, not necessarily to its credit, of surfing into the rending chaos of the Tract. In Nova Swing, which is set on a planet dangerously intersected by metamorphoses in quantum reality (see Perception), the various protagonists could almost be seen as "tractates" of Kefahuchi: argumentative iterations of its universalist revelation of the unknowableness of the real. In Empty Space it is centrally unknowableness that haunts its protagonists and the worlds they desperately attempt to grasp: characters from the twenty-first century world we know, as depicted in the first volume; increasingly irradiated tractates in the second. Reality is increasingly interrogated (despairingly, which is no excuse to stop) through characters whose perceptions have the intensity of a work by Gerhard Richter (1932-    ) or Francis Bacon (1909-1992), who is cited more than once. Throughout, all the same, Space Opera topoi are baroquely and expertly deployed in the search. But – like the main protagonist herself – all fall down. Reality is empty space haunted by everything that has ever been real.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020) returns to the drained exigent world of Harrison's late twentieth century prime as an excruciator of the Matter of Britain, without sf argumentation. The setting is the near past of London and the Midlands, with an entropic suffusion of water of every sort eating at the foundations, all of which plays against subtle evocations of Charles Kingsley's deeply unsettling children's novel, The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (August 1862-March 1863 Macmillan's Magazine; 1863) [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The perceptions are sharp; the world depicted has become remote. [JC]

see also: Discovery; Disaster; Faster Than Light; New Writings in SF.

Michael John Harrison

born Rugby, Warwickshire: 26 July 1945




  • The Pastel City (London: New English Library, 1971) [Viriconium: pb/Bruce Pennington]
  • A Storm of Wings (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1980) [Viriconium: hb/Design Works]
  • In Viriconium (London: Victor Gollancz, 1982) [Viriconium: hb/from Aubrey Beardsley]
  • Viriconium Nights (London: Victor Gollancz, 1982) [coll: Viriconium: hb/Bregitta Booth]
    • Viriconium Nights (London: Victor Gollancz, 1985) [coll: rev of the above: Viriconium: hb/Bregitta Booth]
      • Viriconium (London: Unwin, 1988) [omni of the above plus In Viriconium above: introduction by Iain Banks: Viriconium: pb/Ian Miller]
        • Viriconium (London: Orion/Millennium, 2000) [omni: rev of the above, adding The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings: Viriconium: pb/Albert Godwin and Richard Carr]
  • The Luck in the Head (London: VG Graphics, 1991) with Ian Miller [graph: based on "The Luck in the Head", first appeared in Autumn 1984 in Interzone: hb/Ian Miller]

The Wild Road

  • The Wild Road (London: Century, 1997) with Jane Johnson, writing together as Gabriel King [The Wild Road: hb/Liz Cooke]
  • The Golden Cat (London: Century, 1998) with Jane Johnson, writing together as Gabriel King [The Wild Road: hb/Janette Earney]
  • The Knot Garden (London: Century, 2000) with Jane Johnson, writing together as Gabriel King [The Wild Road: hb/John Avon]
  • Nonesuch (London: Century, 2001) with Jane Johnson, writing together as Gabriel King [The Wild Road: hb/]

Kefahuchi Tract

  • Light (London: Gollancz, 2002) [Kefahuchi Tract: hb/Blacksheep]
  • Tourism: A Story (New York: Bantam Spectra, 2004) [story: chap: an early version of part of chapter one of Nova Swing: Kefahuchi Tract: pb/]
  • Nova Swing (London: Gollancz, 2006) [Kefahuchi Tract: hb/Dominic Harman]
  • Empty Space: A Haunting (London: Gollancz, 2012) [Kefahuchi Tract: hb/Sam Green]

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