Tag Archives: M John Harrison

The Centauri Device

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Centauri Device [also] by M John Harrison.

Harrison The Centauri Device

Harrison The Centauri Device SF Masterworks

The jacket copy on the back of this book begins “Bastard son of a port whore …,” and gives an impression of this book’s contents that is unusually accurate among 1970s SF paperbacks. Its setting is a twenty-fourth century in which an interstellar cold war is heating up, and the rival superpowers are both terrestrially-based: the Israeli World Government and the Union of Arabic Socialist Republics. Protagonist John Truck is an alienated loser, who the reader soon finds out is also descended from an alien survivor of human-perpetrated genocide. The “device” of the title is an enigmatic find from the ruined Centauran homeworld, which the agents of the competing powers each think will give them the edge. Other players in the game where Truck seems to be a pawn include a cabal of space anarchists led by a aesthete, an interstellar drug business and its kingpin, and the evangelical cult of the Openers, who have windows surgically installed to reveal their innards.

Although Harrison seems not to be especially proud of this early effort, saying it was from before he “learned to write,” it still stands out as bucking the trends of space opera in interesting ways. The antihero John Truck is not too unusual in the new wave science fiction set that Harrison participated in. I enjoyed the surprising passel of Swinburne references, especially to Atalanta in Calydon, along with allusions to Huysmanns and other decadents. Admittedly, most of what Harrison does well in this book, he does again far better in the more recent Kefahuchi Tract novels.

Nova Swing

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nova Swing by M John Harrison.

M John Harrison Nova Swing

If I wasn’t already gratefully familiar with the style of M. John Harrison, and you gave me this book to read without attribution, my guess at the author would be R.A. Lafferty (which is high praise from me) — with perhaps a dash of William S. Burroughs. Nova Swing is a sequel to Harrison’s Light, but there’s little connection of plot or character: they share a 25th-century setting in the interstellar space of the “Beach” near the Kefahuchi Tract, an anomalous zone of cosmic and alien enigmas. Still, Harrison is not one for superfluous exposition, and his highly allusive approach makes the prior orientation of the first book useful for reading the second.

The noir elements in Light are more central in Nova Swing, and the overall gist is less epochal (which is not to underrate the intimacy of the first book). A central conceit is the idea of “site crime,” because an unexplained event of alien life/technology/reality in the city of Saudade has created a site which is terrifyingly transformative of human perception and being. It seems to be to the 25th century what recreational drugs were to the 20th century. People come to it for thrills, danger, enlightenment, and self-annihilation. Naturally, the civil authorities organize to repress and contain it. Inevitably, they have little success.

As with its predecessor, this is not a book that can brag about its accessibility. There were definitely stretches of the novel where I wondered if it was really going to tell a story, or if it was just pushing characters around and making aesthetic impressions. The whole thing really came together in the last few chapters, though. [via]

Light

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Light by M John Harrison.

M John Harrison Light

Light braids narratives about three central characters. The least admirable of these (and that’s saying something), a figure downright despicable in fact, shares the given name of the author. “M” is for Michael, and writer Harrison is “Mike” to his friends. Michael Kearney is an English physicist in the early 21st century, and I find it strange to imagine what it must have been like, or done for, Harrison to invent and describe this murdering obsessive with his own name. This novel, like all of Harrison’s I’ve read, is a writer’s delight, brimming with artful language and deploying its genre elements in original and impressive ways.

The other two plot threads are set in the 25th century far from Earth, and there is a somewhat mechanical rotation among the three, chapter by chapter. They are certainly set in the same imagined universe, so that they occasionally illuminate each others’ background, but it’s not until roughly the midpoint of the book that any of the actual relationships among these individuals start to become evident. Seria Mau is the mercenary captain of The White Cat, a cutting-edge starship constructed around salvaged technology from a long-expired alien civilization. Ed Chinaese is a washed-up pilot and explorer who has been killing time dead in a downmarket virtual reality.

The stories in this book are about the use and abuse of memory, the boundaries of human understanding, and a kind of cosmic hope. They play out through a blend of exotic physics and occultism witnessed through the sort of conversational and gestural detail that transforms banalities into objects of fascination. [via]

Viriconium

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Viriconium by M John Harrison, and foreword by Neil Gaiman:

M John Harrison's Viriconium

 

Harrison’s Viriconium is a fantasy setting in the Dying Earth subgenre, realized in a decidedly postmodern style. I suspect it of being a reinvention to some degree of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique, although Jack Vance’s Dying Earth could have been an influence as well. But the flavor is all original here. Viriconium is the last capital of humanity’s last empire: a paragon of the city that has been. The “evening” culture of Viriconium has lost its understanding of the “afternoon” technologies, which now serve as sorcery and magical artifacts. Throughout there is the sense that humanity has lost its dignity and possibly even its will to survive in a poisoned world.

This volume collects three novels and a set of related short stories. The novels are offered in publication order, which does not appear to be the chronological narrative sequence. (I think the third precedes the first two.) To posit a chronology that would include the short stories is a more daunting task. Some of these appear to move sideways in time: the same characters have different histories; the name of the city itself changes (Urconium, Vira Co, Virko); and the last is actually set in contemporary England among characters who dream of Viriconium. These stories particularly allow a more thorough deployment of metafictional devices to reflect on the nature of fantasy and the purpose of art (although these are also evident in the novels).

Recurring motifs include rascal dwarfs, queens, warriors who don’t believe in themselves, former humans who think they are still human, non-humans who think they have become human, mutilations, giant insects, sicknesses, and outsized reputations. The psychic tone all through the book is desperate and exhausted, and yet the material is so beautifully written that it is still a shadowed pleasure to read. to read. [via]

 

 

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Doctor Sleep

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Sleep by Martin Smartt Bell, from Penguin Books:

Martin Smartt Bell's Doctor Sleep from Penguin Books

 

Adrian Strother isn’t a doctor, and he hasn’t slept for some time. Nor can he for the three days that make up this novel. The reader is deposited in media res into Adrian’s 1980s London world, which seems to have his American past catching up with him, and his inchoate future dwindling to the indivisible point which hath no points nor parts nor magnitude. He’s a talented hypnotist with aspirations to the divine magic of Marsilio Ficino and (more particularly) Giordano Bruno. For much of this book he struggles with whether and how to care about the people closest to him, while his professional engagements produce surprising results, and his carefully-constructed interior world reaches its full momentum.

Doctor Sleep isn’t a “thriller” as the HBJ jacket copy claims. It’s more of a “love story” after the fashion of the two M. John Harrison novels I recently read as Anima. It combines the modern hermeticism of John Crowley’s Aegypt books with the gonzo introspection of a Robert Irwin novel. Layer on the chatty readability and pell-mell plotting of an early Palahniuk book, and you’ll about have it. But enough of comparisons.

The fast-reading story darkens severely towards its dawn. I caution interested readers against any alleged plot summaries, because although the story itself is given in a perfectly sequential first-person narrative, it all hinges on circumstances that are revealed in an elliptical manner to give them their greatest effect. One of the chief topics of the novel (and the title of the second of its three days) is the art of memory, and what a haphazard glosser might see as background is just as likely to be payoff.

There is certainly a Faust tale here, and much that can be read as allegory. It was the first book of Bell’s I have read, but since he could deliver “more light” in this fashion, I won’t make it the last. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Anima

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Anima by M John Harrison:

This volume is two novels under a single cover. They have similar scales and some thematic common ground, but no narrative coordination. The jacket copy calls them “love stories,” which is not completely off the mark, but probably fails to do justice to them. Publisher Gollancz has classed them as “Science Fiction/Fantasy,” which is again fair, but the subtlety of the fantasy (in the first) and the science fiction (in the second) is profound.

The first is The Course of the Heart. It has a vivid sense of place in its English settings, reminding me in some ways of a very adult version of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The novel impressed me with both its ability to be dreamy and icky by turns, and its verisimilitude in representing postmodern occultism. It’s not about occultism really, but it traces the troubled paths of three characters (one of whom is the narrator) in the decades following their initiation into “the Pleroma” by Yaxley, a loathsome magician who lives above the Atlantis bookshop in London. The closest comparison I could make for this book would be to the “Aegypt Cycle” of John Crowley, but boiled down from those practically Wagnerian proportions to a comparatively Beckettian economy, and with a distinctly different metaphysical verdict.

I found The Course of the Heart enjoyable and enigmatic enough for me to track down and read Harrison’s short story that it had elaborated: “The Great God Pan” (1988). Reflecting on the novel through the lens of Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1890) is certainly interesting. It places all three of the central characters in the position of Mary, the experimental subject who had her brain altered to expose her to the “real world” in Machen’s story. Harrison uses Gnostic language to figure this exposure as contact with the “Pleroma.” And he supplies each of them with different outcomes. But in an author’s note to “The Great God Pan” in the collection Things That Never Happen (2003), Harrison notes that the story owes more to Charles Williams than to Machen. And indeed, if John Banville were to write a Charles Williams novel, I would expect it to turn out pretty much just like The Course of the Heart, which tips its hat to Williams with a mention of War in Heaven on the final page.

As long as I’m making comparisons (still trying to take a measure of Harrison, who is a new author for me), I would note that the second novel, Signs of Life, reminded me of the work of Chuck Palahniuk — but less funny and consequently more disturbing. It partakes of typical Palahniuk tropes regarding vehicular speed and medical gore, along with laconic characters of inscrutable moral sense. I’m glad to have read this story, although I’m not sure I can quite say I enjoyed most of it, and there are certainly fewer people to whom I would recommend it than The Course of the Heart. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.