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Cover-Settling the world-HarrisonTo begin, some amateur archaeology.

Comma Press describes this latest M. John Harrison collection as “a landmark collection of his finest short fiction from over 30 years of writing” which is an accurate but mysterious way of describing a book subtitled: Selected Stories 1970-2019. In fact, I think the earliest story is “The Causeway” from 1971 and the latest, “Land Locked,” was written this year, post-COVID-19, and only published in June. “Colonising the Future” and “Doe Lea” are also new for this collection but the latter was “republished” by Granta in July before Settling The World saw print.

Harrison himself is relaxed about temporal specificity, writing on his blog that: “I organised the contents—to the degree I could remember—in chronological order of writing, spread roughly over the catchment area of each original volume [of collected fiction].” Those volumes—The Machine In Shaft Ten (1975), Ice Monkey (1985), Travel Arrangements (2000)—are all long out of print. So too is 2002’s Things That Never Happened, which brought together Ice Monkey and Travel Arrangements. It is a pretty disgraceful state of affairs but we do at least have You Should Come With Me Now, Comma Press’s 2017 collection, even if (as Harrison says in the same blog post which I’m going to liberally quote from throughout this review): “Some of my choices had to be rejected even as they were made, because they would compete with [that volume] ... I see the justice in that.”

But after this initial selection, Harrison’s proposed table of contents has since been winnowed and re-ordered. The following stories have all been culled: “The Orgasm Band” (1975), “Egnaro” (1981), “The Quarry” (1983), “Old Women” (1984), “Gifco” (1992), and “Black Houses” (1998). The aforementioned “Land Locked” has been added since it postdates Harrison’s original selection. Again, you can understand this but the resulting structure is a lopsided dumbbell of a book: five stories from the Seventies, five from the last five years, and seven from the thirty-five years in between but nothing at all from 2003-2017. I can’t really see the justice in that.

If the rationale for that decision is pretty clear (if slightly dubious), the one guiding the new running order is totally opaque. The collection takes its title from the opening story, “Settling The World” (1975), and it is an interesting choice. I wonder if it was selected for this honour in part because of its opening line: “With the discovery of God on the far side of the Moon, and the subsequent gigantic and hazardous towing operation that brought Him back to start His reign anew, there began on Earth, as one might assume, a period of far-reaching change.” It has a classic New Wave SF feel but such a bold high-concept hook is unusual for Harrison.

Oxlade, a bureaucrat in a nameless government department, unspools the story in the same tone of breezy pedantry as that opener: “we were all delightfully relaxed in those first days, settling our shoulders, as it were, into a larger size of coat.” Not exactly usual for Harrison either; the air of almost drugged optimism is a long way from the curdled unease of the majority of his work. Oxlade’s chief needs a job doing; the investigation of God’s Motorway, twenty lanes of logic-defying traffic stretching from the Thames Estuary to the Midlands. Riding high on previous successes—“A complicated business, with a solution perhaps more metaphysical than actual”—Oxlade is duly dispatched from the Ballardian suburbs of Esher to Southend. There he takes the sea air, eats very big prawns, and meets Estrades.

Estrades—“saturnine expatriate, survivor of a thousand and one labyrinthine excursions beneath the political crust”—was once his opposite number in the game of European statecraft and is now a remnant of the past, untouched by the new world order. For Estrades, the larger coat chafes. He is an intrusion into the comfort of Oxlade’s life and their mutually uncomprehending philosophical banter is both a delight and a precursor of what follows.

Night falls, Oxlade observes the sealed Motorway, there is espionage in the mist, and suddenly everything is accelerating, terrifyingly. The sunshine of Southend is stripped away; pathetic fallacy gives way to existential dread. Oxlade and Estrades are on the Motorway, the “Umwelt of God,” and there is no turning back. The cover art for the book—lovingly harking back to the original publication date and the Panther paperbacks of yore—reveals what they find there. The shift of tone is wonderfully destabilising but then the story drifts to its conclusion through Oxlade’s rehabilitation and to a semi-twist ending that mirrors the opening. You can’t help thinking that ten years later into his career, Harrison would have lopped off the top and tail.

That notwithstanding, “Settling The World” is the archetype of the Seventies short fiction collected here. Oxlade wonders to himself why Estrades entangled him in his plans: “Murder would have been so much easier. I believe now that it merely gratified his vanity to have a captive observer.” These early stories all feature an obsessed observer, almost a voyeur (always a man, always a man alone), experiencing a wrongness in the world through an other more psychically attuned than them, the other an intrusion themselves but also a gateway into a wider intrusion.

So let’s step back further to where a true chronology would have begun: “The Causeway.” It is the most overtly science fiction of the stories collected here, the only one not set on Earth. Crome is an interstellar dilettante, slumming it on a low-tech world that seems to offend him with its backwardness, sullenly and partially observing its fabric. He becomes obsessed with a local woman—he knows nothing about her, he simply finds her attractive—and seeks to “save” her:

“I’m going to take you away from here whether you want to go or not,” he said. “This entire planet is a madhouse.”

There were things he didn’t quite understand, but even after a week of her evasions, he was sure she had no husband.

He understands nothing. He is rebuffed first verbally, then physically, and finally—when he seeks to move from observer to actor—by the entire planetary culture. His lack of understanding, the impossibility of understanding, is the point of the story but it means it is a difficult story to get any purchase on. Crome’s blank boredom and base desire are pretty dull and the causeway itself is monolithic in its physical dimensions but not in its psychic weight. In this collection, it reads almost like a booster stage; a necessary but ultimately disposable step to the next story: “The Machine In Shaft Ten” (1972).

There are echoes of Oxlade in Lutkin’s narration of “Shaft Ten”—“One is morally entitled, I believe, to some life of one’s own, even to the detriment of one’s public self”—but the recently resigned cabinet minister is less well inhabited than the middle management spy. As with Oxlade, he is dragged into the affair of the titular machine to act as observer. As with “The Causeway,” this reads mostly like a step forward, a progression towards “Settling The World” and that story’s twin from the same year, “Running Down,” the purest and richest expression of the observer story.

That might seem overly dismissive but “Settling The World” and “Running Down” are the first and fourth stories in the collection, whereas “The Causeway” and “The Machine In Shaft Ten” are the seventh and ninth. I don’t really understand this; the earlier stories can’t help but feel underwhelming when presented in this order and it is to the detriment of the collection as a whole that the historical strata of Harrison’s fiction have been dug over with a JCB excavator.

“Running Down” opens with an extraordinary, lacerating section in which our narrator, Egerton, reflects unsparingly (in both directions) on his early relationship with Lyall, when they were undergraduate roommates at Cambridge. Against their wills, a grotesque magnetism pulls the pair together again and again over the decades. Egerton tries to escape the country—first to Africa, then to the Alps—before experiencing a traumatic injury: “I returned to Britain more out of the lairing instinct of a hurt animal.” His decline is more dramatically mirrored by Lyall’s and when they are united for a final time, it is clear that Egerton is observing a fundamental wrongness.

As well as a refinement of Harrison’s earlier themes, “Running Down” also provides a compass point to the future. The science fiction trappings are stripped away and the mode is more horror than fantasy. Biographic elements become more common, both in terms of the obsessions and the territory. Egerton’s own formative experiences are perhaps not so different from Harrison’s: “my own early experience under the bleak shadow of the southern end of the Pennines — the open-coffin funerals of a failing industrial town, a savage unemployment, black Methodism.” What in “Settling The World” were “what used to be called the ‘Industrial’ Midlands” are here defined by mountains; mountains, in turn, define the story.

We spend time in London—where we start to grasp that Lyall is an avatar of entropy—and then out to the Lakes, the observation of both landscapes acute but the “nature writing” perhaps most noticeable given the context:

In the thirty or so miles that separate Ingleton from Ambleside, geomorphology takes hold of the landscape and gives it a cruel wrench; and the moorland—where a five-hour walk may mean, if you are lucky, a vertical gain of a few hundred feet—gives way to a mass of threatening peaks among which for his effort a man may rise two thousand feet in half a mile of forward travel.

As that quotation suggests, animating this landscape is as important as observing and points us forward to “The Ice Monkey” and perhaps Harrison’s single finest work, Climbers (1989), both in subject matter and tone.

At Cambridge, the “conspiracy of the choir” is “pure, ecstatic and a constant wound to the outsider.” In the lakes, Egerton finds the closest thing to a home that Britain can offer: “Two or three minute figures were working their way slowly down the Band, heat and light resonating ecstatically from the 2,900-foot contour behind them.” Then later: “suddenly, the peaks about me flared and wavered ecstatically.” God cannot provide ecstasy but rock can.[1]

In this environment, Lyall seems even more of a horror show. But gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes back at you. If Egerton is no longer an outsider in the same way he was in Cambridge and even London, he is still determined to be so on some fundamentally misanthropic level: “I didn’t want her confidences, any more than I wanted his … I have a horror of confession.”[2] Against a backdrop of building fascism, we are remorselessly drawn to an appropriately biblical conclusion.

“Running Down” is a masterpiece and it is criminal that it had been allowed to go out of print. Would Harrison himself agree? In that same eminently quotable blog post, he writes that he may or may not have revised “Running Down” for its 1983 republication in The Ice Monkey:

It’s so long ago that I can’t remember if I revised it for my second collection, but I suspect I might have done. “Running Down” was baggy & overweight, & “The Ice Monkey” was such a change for the better that I’d become impatient with everything that preceded it.

In fact, he did revise the story but I’m not clear if the revised version is used here. I assume so but it is still by far the longest story in the collection. It is a long way from baggy and overweight though. Perhaps the final third is a little leisurely in its pace compared to the earlier intensity, recalling another geological quote from the story—“Ingleborough Hill itself is a snare and a delusion, since a full third of its imposing height is attained by way of an endless gentle slope bare of interest and a punishment to the ankles”—but then, I always loved Ingleborough.

Harrison goes on to expand on the subject of story length:

I was also tempted to add a section of blog-length fictions: total word-count being restricted, that would have elbowed out some of the earlier stuff. (Later I might do a whole volume of those, for readers who aren’t afraid of a more compact item.)

I’m afraid to say that I am afraid. Presumably consciously echoing Harrison’s sentiment, the forty-page “Running Down” is immediately followed in the collection by the four-page “Land Locked.” In the story, Palinurus the Navigator promises “only loss and confusion” then reappears in the equally short “Colonising The Future” (2020). Harrison is scratching away at something here—sensual, impressionistic, political—but I want him to have a bigger canvas than these cryptic sketches. That volume of compact items is not for me.[3]

So back to the chronology. “The Incalling” (1978) wasn’t collected until The Ice Monkey but reads very much as a piece with the stories of The Machine In Shaft Ten and a continuation of “Running Down” in particular. Austin is Clerk’s publisher, a hierarchy that provides him with a tenuous duty of care as Clerk’s life—inevitably for this collection—starts to decline. But like Egerton, he wants to observe, not be involved:

He had reached some crux only partly visible to the outsider … I was curious; he sensed this, and made energetic efforts to draw me in ... I wanted to help, of course, if I could, but not from so intimate a distance.

Observation is at its most voyeuristic here and it is bleak, powerful stuff. As Harrison suggests above, it also marks the end of Act One of his career which makes the table of contents more maddening than ever; “The Incalling” and “The Ice Monkey” are—uniquely—paired chronologically but three quarters of the way through the book.

The rest of the stories do not fall so neatly into acts, both because the career of a writer as talented as Harrison resists them and because the constraints of the collection conceal them. There is a clear trend to the minimisation of the fantastic through the Eighties and Nineties though. Either—as in “A Young Man’s Journey To Viriconium” (1985) and “The East” (1996)—the intrusion is sensed rather than seen, observation giving way to intuition, or—as in “The Ice Monkey” and “Science And The Arts” (1999)—intrusion is not needed for the world to be unsettling.

There are exceptions, of course. “The Gift” (1988) flips the structure of the early stories on its head. Peter could be the next Lyall or Clerk; Harrison showing us the decline from the inside for the first time, the intrusion transparent and a clear trigger. But this is only partly his story. We first meet Sophie and her presence leavens and transforms a story that might otherwise have echoed the brutal existential horror of his earlier work. Instead there is magical realism and even romance; in the Seventies, life can only run down but here it can well up.

This is the second story in the collection and the third is an even odder choice for an early selection. “I Did It” (1996) is the most anomalous story in the whole book, a literalised metaphor which seems like a refugee from a Will Self collection. Is their presence here, sandwiched between “Settling The World” and “Running Down” at the beginning of the book, a mitigation? Because they are the only stories not told exclusively from the male viewpoint.

In the title story, Oxlade is married with children but his wife is mentioned only in a pair of asides at the beginning and the end of the story; she is simply part of Oxlade’s domestic furniture. Things do not improve throughout the Seventies and reach a nadir with “The Incalling.” Like several others from this period, it is a very misanthropic story but misanthropy when applied to women is hard to distinguish from misogyny and Harrison doesn’t give himself the opportunity to do so. The observer is always male so the gaze is always male, even if it is not lecherous but disgusted:

She began to trudge along the chalk line, round and round, compliant and bovine, Clerk not far behind, his eyes locked in that peculiar spasm of unsexual greed, fixed on her thick white back and low, pear-shaped buttocks. There was gooseflesh on her thighs, the light had bleached her pubic hair to a pathetic greyish tuft. Her degradation, it seemed to me, was complete: as was that of everybody else in the room.

Again, the gaze is reflected back but still. These are broadly the two modes of women in the early stories: invisible or repellent. “The Gift” changes that and by “Science And The Arts” and “Cicisbeo” (2003) Harrison is writing love stories. This collection is all the better for that.[4]

The narrator of “Science And The Arts” is an author. In fact, the author of a book that sounds an awful lot like Harrison’s own Signs Of Life (1997):

It was a novel about a woman who wanted to fly but the best she could get was a cosmetic treatment that made her look like a bird. I apologised to Mona that all my books seemed to feature women who became very ill after a series of operations.

Mona herself became very ill after an operation. The story charts her long recovery through the lens of her burgeoning relationship with the narrator. As well as the self-awareness of that quote, this is a story characterised by warmth and awkwardness. There is humour, including one laugh-out-loud line involving Pizza Express. The story ends with an unshowily brilliant final sentence that contains more humanity than all of Harrison’s Seventies stories combined (starkly highlighted by the fact “Science And The Arts” crashes into “The Incalling” in the table of contents).

“Cicisbeo” is less life-affirming—it concerns the literal disintegration of Lizzie Shaw’s happy life in East Dulwich (viewed from the outside, of course)—but is equally human. And the humour is still there, deadpan and painful. The narrator describes himself as Lizzie’s best friend which is not entirely candid. He is her cicisbeo which is very hard to paraphrase so I suggest looking it up, but it sort of makes him her mistress. Lizzie is the only person who can make him happy but she can’t so he has to make her make him unhappy.

In his earlier stories, Harrison brilliantly dissects his subjects but his observation borders on obsession in its attempt to perfectly describe. At this point in his career, the silences are just as important and he has developed a devastating power in pauses.

And then the interregnum begins: nothing until 2017 and “Yummie” and “The Crisis.” The former splits the difference between intrusion fantasy/non-intrusion reality but shockingly the latter is science fiction. This gap does, of course, also encompass most of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, including the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award win for Nova Swing, something that seems bizarrely improbable in the context of reading this collection.[5] It leaves the overwhelming impression that the reader of this book is only getting part of the picture.

As Harrison himself says, “a selection is a selection, not a ‘Best of.’ Nor could it be a serious retrospective. I selected for what I prefer.” I’m going to be bold here and say I think the selection was wrong and that was more to do with Comma Press than Harrison. Maybe the anonymous copywriter was inadvertently right and this should have been a collection of Harrison’s finest fiction from over thirty years: 1970-1999, filling in the publishing industry’s pre-You Should Come With Me Now error but going no further. The culled stories could have been preserved (elbowing out the later stuff) and coherence provided to the collection. Dilemmas like choosing “The Crisis” over “Keep Smiling with Great Minutes” (2008) would have also been avoided: “In an ideal world I will one day have both, side by side in a 100% Author’s Best Of selection. Or someone else can sort it out after I’m dead.” Well, Harrison isn’t dead yet. There is plenty of time for that blog-length fiction collection and a definitive best of, perhaps in three nice volumes of twenty years a pop.

But until my fantasy becomes a reality, you should still buy this book because—for all its structural contortions—it is your only opportunity to read these remarkable stories. So I’ll put the archaeology and engineering to one side and concentrate on literature and the fact that “Doe Lea” is as fine a story as Harrison has ever written.

The nameless (or maybe not) protagonist’s father has just died. The immediate aftermath of this event is economically sketched in the casually brilliant opening paragraph:

My father and I had our ups and downs but in the end we were good for each other. His name was Alan. After he died, which was on a Wednesday, I wasn’t sure what to do ... I thought that sitting there like that might help me acclimatise to the experience, and all the other experiences I would now have to become used to. Then I walked down the road and took the 10.40 from St Pancras home.

In his later career, Harrison increasingly deploys a well-spun line in intentional bathos, sometimes for comic effect (very effectively in “I Did It”) but sometimes to puncture the idea that the sublime is possible. His protagonists strive for it but are denied it. Our protagonist cannot escape the most mundane eventuality: a delay to his journey which sees him staring out of the window:

Among them I caught sight of a steep pile of sand—or perhaps less a pile than a bank: a bank of sand baked and eroded concave until it resembled a wave glimpsed at a distance at the end of a toytown street, the foam on its top represented by a scruff of vegetation faded to dusty green. It was a curious, threatening feature for a contemporary housing estate.

Harrison could, of course, have edited from pile to bank in revisions before publication; it is not him choosing the word but his protagonist. As with so many of them, his protagonist is cursed to seek to observe the world as accurately as possible when the world cannot be truly known. And not just unknowable but inherently ominous.

When his train is further delayed, he disembarks at the next station: “The name on the station signboard was Doe Lea, and later I would come to believe this was the name of the place itself.” The strangeness of this sentence is unsettling; the protagonist, usually so precise, equivocates on something so trivial. Doe Lea is not, in fact, in Kent but in Derbyshire, much more familiar Harrison territory. The town in the story is unmoored from space and time.

He walks into town, at first aimless but then seeking the bank of sand. It is very different to his earlier perception when he reaches it but he again tries to comprehensively catalogue it: “surrounded by a calm, musty smell of nettles, late elder and dog rose—then something I couldn’t name.” He is unable to successfully climb the bank and, defeated, returns to town.

There he is invited in (out of pity?) by a couple who then abruptly leave, entreating him to stay and let the old man who mows their lawn in. “He isn’t really a gardener, although that’s what he prefers to be called.” He agrees—what else is he going to do?—and so witnesses a farcical, mesmerising travesty of lawn care. It is a scene ripe for being translated into European art house slapstick.

He leaves to board another train. As signaled by the story’s epigraph, about a doppelganger and taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, he finds a note in his pocket from the couple which addresses him as Alan. But I will leave it there. I don’t need to pin down and dissect the story and the relationship between the protagonist, his father, and the old man. I don’t need to find the perfect taxonomy to adjudicate between pile and bank. It is enough that I know more about the unknowable world after reading Settling The World than when I began.

[1] “Ecstatic” also appears twice in “Settling The World” and was clearly much on Harrison’s mind in 1975.

[2] “Her” is Lyall’s wife, a rare woman in the landscape. More on that in a minute.

[3] Harrison notes his more recent work seems livelier to him before continuing: “of course, it could very well feel livelier because it’s better-written, more mature in its reflections & conclusions, and sits more trimly on the page than earlier stuff.” Sorry, Mike.

[4] I think I’m right in saying, however, that there isn’t a single story in this collection where two women hold a conversation, regardless of the subject.

[5] Nueva Swing is the name of a unisex hairdresser in “The Gift,” suggesting money to be made from the multimedia megatext of the M. John Harrison Extended Universe.

Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
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