On the Best Subversive, Genre-Busting Writer You’ve Never Heard Of
Tobias Carroll Rereads M. John Harrison, an Under-Recognized Master
The year is 1999. The setting is a dinner party in the Midlands. A man named Michael Kearny is there, accompanied by a woman named Clara. Kearny is, apparently, bored with the conversation. It’s a familiar scene, and in just a handful of sentences the author of this scene perfectly summons a sense of an embittered guest at a stagnant dinner party. It’s what happens next that prompted a double take when I first read it: Michael and Clara make their exit, and they go into an empty room “where he killed her as quickly as he had all the others.” Suddenly, our angry young man isn’t what he seemed to be. Suddenly, this novel’s very nature has spun on the proverbial dime.
That’s how M. John Harrison’s novel Light begins. A cursory search of the novel will likely reveal to you an image of a book with a starship on its cover, as the vast majority of Light is set 400 years in the future. That abrupt pivot, from dinner party frustration to a shocking act of violence, is indicative of both Harrison’s skill as a writer and his manifold ability to avoid narrative beats he feels are unnecessary are both on display in this handful of pages.
Harrison has long been a cult writer with a number of high-profile admirers—Neil Gaiman penned the foreword to the omnibus Viriconium, for instance—but that cult might be getting a little larger. Jennifer Hodgson, whose work elevating the profile of the legendary experimental writer Ann Quin, edited a career-spanning anthology of Harrison’s short fiction, titled Settling the World: Selected Stories. Its back cover bears blurbs by the unlikely trifecta of Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Macfarlane, and Olivia Laing. Harrison also won the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize—“to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”—for his novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. Said novel is about the fraught and hesitant mid-life affair between its two central characters, a human connection made in fits and starts; it also might be about a secret society of fish people. (You may never look at the Victorian children’s fantasy The Water Babies the same way again.)
This is the first thing to know about M. John Harrison’s work: it doesn’t lend itself well to easy summarization. This is the second thing to know about it: it is frequently thrilling, and never predictable. There are certain motifs that recur across his fiction, including insects, the skull of a horse, and Tarot cards. But there’s also an evasiveness around genre tropes and a penchant for treating time as malleable. This is, perhaps, most obvious in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy—Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space—where the first and last volumes suggest the lines between present and future are so blurred as to be nonexistent.
Harrison also telescopes time within single pages, single paragraphs. Though the setting of The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is contemporary, Harrison is more than happy to condense multiple centuries into the span of a single ecstatic sentence:
This curious ruin—thrown up in the 1200s by Geoffrey de Lacy, one of Henry III’s lesser-known Savoyards, and pulled down not much more than a hundred years later during the Despenser War—featured a single triangular corner of masonry, fifty or sixty feet high and leaning fifteen degrees off the vertical, looking less like architecture than the bow of an unfinished ship: as if its founder had seen into some future of immense sea-level rises, a world in which the hill would become an island, the castle grounds a quay.
Time isn’t the only thing Harrison treats as firmly malleable. The same is true of his willingness to play with genre conventions, something that’s been present in his bibliography since his early novel The Centauri Device, which features an epilogue calling into question the veracity of the skewed space opera that preceded it. Harrison does something similar with the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy: as Paul Kincaid points out in his review of Empty Space, it’s possible to read the trilogy as not being science fictional at all.
The novels and short stories collected in the omnibus Viriconium take a similar approach. Though the general setup seems familiar to readers of fantasy fiction—a mismatched band of heroes responding to a monstrous threat—Harrison subverts expectations at every turn. One major character dies offscreen between volumes, and over the course of several books, a few of the central characters wrestle with their own aging and sense of mortality. There’s also the city that gives the book its title, which may be situated in the distant future, or another world, or in different versions across space and time. Harrison never quite gets to the brink of metafictional critique of these genres, but there is a sense of deconstruction afoot.This is the first thing to know about M. John Harrison’s work: it doesn’t lend itself well to easy summarization. This is the second thing to know about it: it is frequently thrilling, and never predictable.
Even in his more realistic works, the same haunted playfulness is present. Signs of Life is on one level a chamber piece focusing on the shifting bonds, both fraternal and romantic, among four people. But while these emotional and physical connections keep the narrative grounded, there’s also a speculative element running through the entire work. The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again similarly balances the emotionally resonant story of two people not quite connecting with one another with more ominous changes happening to the environment around them. It’s a novel that turns the anxieties of Britain during Brexit into something surreal and compelling—but in its descriptions of characters having to confront ominous beliefs in people they’ve known for years, it reads just as powerfully in QAnon-era America.
That sense of the ominous and secret is reflected even more sharply in Harrison’s short fiction. The narrator of “Cicisbeo,” which appears in the collections You Should Come With Me Now and Settling the World, is the onetime lover of a woman who’s opted for a married suburban life. Her husband obsesses himself with a surreal home improvement project, which brings the story to an end on a note both majestic and terrifying. The title story of “Settling the World,” about an aging intelligence operative on a search for God, who has returned to Earth, further smashes together genres, resulting in something that reads like John le Carré spiked with DMT.
In her introduction to Settling the World, Jennifer Hodgson places Harrison within a generation of writers “who turned fiction against itself.” Harrison’s work is both intellectually stunning and unfailingly gripping. But besides being a writer of big ideas, he can also achieve a beatific profundity, as in this passage from The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again:
All along the reach, he now understood, islands were turning into boats; while boats gave up and, settling in on the back end of some late-winter tide, quietly turned into islands. It was the story of every life.
Take either Harrison’s intellectual rigor or his gift for prose on their own and they’d make a fine basis for a career in writing. What Harrison does so well is bringing the two together, transforming the familiar into something uncanny, a welcome stop on the way to revelation.