One cannot help but imagine a gang of cowboys turning up at the resplendent home of Science Fiction Foundation Publications Inc.: "Want a book then, Missus?" And what we have is undoubtedly a book, if you ignore the fact that as you read you are increasingly aware of the literary equivalent of cracks in the surface, bubbles under the paper, and nothing quite lined up properly. At one point there were, most likely, proposals for two very different books: a collection of the nonfiction M. John Harrison has written, and a collection of essays about M. John Harrison. Then something went wrong. Maybe one or other of the projects didn't have quite the amount of material it needed to sustain a volume in its own right; maybe someone had cold feet and worried that there wouldn't be enough of a market for both books. We will probably never know. What we do know, because it is here in front of us, is that they decided on a bodge: hammer the two books into one volume and let it go at that. It was just the first of a series of curious, questionable, or plain wrong decisions that were taken about the book.
Out of 340 pages, fewer than one hundred are given over to the putative volume of essays about Harrison. This means that getting on for three-quarters of the book is made up of the eighty-six book reviews Harrison wrote between May 1968 and September 2004 (this number includes one guest editorial, one "think piece" on Viriconium, one essay in the Foundation series "The Profession of Science Fiction," and one curious dialogue published in Peter Weston's Speculation in 1968, but essentially this is a collection of reviews). Make no mistake: though this is clearly disproportionate in terms of this particular book, it is still good news because these reviews are easily the most impassioned, entertaining, and interesting pieces gathered here.
M. John Harrison is one of the two or three finest writers of prose fiction working in English today. What makes him so important is the economy of his word choice and the care he takes in making sure that each word carries more than its fair load of meaning and story. These are characteristics of someone who thinks, with immense attention to detail, about exactly what is involved in the act of writing. The reviews gathered here provide a fascinating case history of the development of those thought processes, the evolution of ideas as they are tried out by examining what does and does not work in the output of other authors. We read these reviews, in other words, for what they tell us about Harrison, not for any critical insights they provide into the works discussed. (There are such insights, but I cannot imagine many people reading this book to identify what's wrong with Anne McCaffrey's Decision at Doona or what's right with Samuel R. Delany's Nova.)
The early pieces, from when Harrison was Books Editor of New Worlds, reveal him to have been the ideologue of the New Wave (or New Rave, as he consistently calls it). The reviews followed (or, I suspect, increasingly blazed) the party line, but what is most interesting is not their severe judgementalism but their wide-ranging reference. His was already a worldview shaped as much by books on Krupps or marijuana as by the latest works of Michael Moorcock or the newly rediscovered Mervyn Peake. Later, when he had more space in the long reviews he wrote for Foundation and the Times Literary Supplement from the early '80s onwards, the reviews are more considered, more analytical, and more interesting. Particularly in the way they reveal the theme of "specificity," the insistence on the detail which reveals the deep truth, that is the hallmark of his own fiction from at least The Course of the Heart onwards.
Even here, however, there are questions that must be raised about editorial decisions. Did we really need to have every single review Harrison has ever written? Even the columns of brief capsule reviews that tell us little about Harrison and less about the books under consideration? And does it really make sense to organise the reviews by place of original publication? In a fascinating review of Alex Garland's The Coma, which was published in the TLS, Harrison makes an extensive and telling reference to The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen. It turns out that he had reviewed this novel only a couple of weeks before in the Guardian, but we have to read on for another thirty-odd pages before we come upon that earlier review.
And after a feast (a glut?) of Harrison, we move directly into Rob Latham's essay examining the importance of Harrison's New Worlds reviews in establishing the whole New Wave enterprise. In isolation, this is an excellent essay, but positioning it where it is diminishes it. Having just read these very reviews in full, having absorbed the agenda at first-hand, there is a sense that what Latham has to say is already familiar. This essay would have worked much better as an introduction to the collection, setting out themes and ideas we might then have traced through the works in question. It would certainly have worked better than Mark Bould's introduction, which opens with a strained metaphor over-extended for more than a page; one senses that the far more economical Harrison would have moved beyond it within a couple of lines.
This critical anthology, rather crudely bolted on to the back of the book, also consists of a good piece on Climbers by Graham Sleight, an excellent piece on In Viriconium by Nick Freeman, a rather pedestrian account of The Centauri Device by Rjurik Davidson, and an essay on The Course of the Heart by Graham Fraser during which one is never quite sure whether the truly excellent insights will break free or whether the whole thing will collapse under the weight of its own self-importance. And that is it. Rather lean fare for a writer as challenging and rewarding as Harrison. Nothing on the early Viriconium tales, nothing on the short stories (though the number of times people find themselves referring to "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium" or "Egnaro" or half a dozen others reveal how central these stories are to any appreciation of Harrison's work), nothing on Signs of Life. And nothing original on Light, though this is clearly one of the most important novels he has written; instead we get reprints of two reviews, by John Clute and Farah Mendlesohn, which really isn't enough. The whole thing is rounded off with another reprint, an interview of Harrison by Bould, which is entertaining enough; but I know of several other interviews that have got under the skin more.
But never mind. Slap on a thick coat of paint, and no one will ever notice how rickety this whole thing is.
Paul Kincaid is the editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Companion. His fiction has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and his criticism appears regularly in SF Studies, The New York Review of SF, Foundation, Vector, and elsewhere. He has contributed to numerous reference books on science fiction.