In this episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, we air an interview with the reviewer, editor, and critic Niall Harrison which Dan conducted at Conversation, the 2023 UK Eastercon, at which Niall was a Guest of Honour. Through a series of books from various parts of his life, Niall talks about how he began reading SF, why he started reviewing it ... and where criticism might or should go in the future.
Niall Harrison is author of All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays (Briardene Books, 2023). Eastercon 2024 will be Levitation, hosted in Telford; Eastercon 2025 will be Reconnect, to be held in Belfast.
Critical Friends Episode 5
Aisha Subramanian: Welcome to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast. I’m Aisha Subramanian.
Dan Hartland: And I’m Dan Hartland. In every episode of Critical Friends, we’ll be discussing SFF reviewing: what it is, why we do it, how it’s going.
Aisha Subramanian: In this episode, we air an edited version of an interview with the reviewer, critic, and former Strange Horizons editor Niall Harrison, which Dan conducted at Conversation, the 2023 UK Eastercon, where Niall was a Guest of Honour. Through a series of books from various parts of his life, Niall talks about how he began reading SF, why he started reviewing it ... and where criticism might or should go in the future.
Dan Hartland: Niall chose a number of books. In this edited version of the interview, we discuss in turn a Dragonlance novel, The Test of the Twins by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman; Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson; The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell; Hav by Jan Morris; The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi; and a story, “Regenerated Bricks,” by Han Song (which appeared in Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters’s The Reincarnated Giant).
Aisha Subramanian: And so, without further ado ... Niall Harrison’s life in books.
Dan Hartland: So at some point, Niall Harrison—doyen, critic, reviewer, reader, very patient friend of mine—you weren’t a science fiction reader, as difficult as we may find that to believe. When did that happen ... and why?
Niall Harrison: I mean, yes, the first thing I remember reading in terms of series are things like Swallows and Amazons, Willard Price's animal adventure books, those sorts of series. It wasn’t until probably nine, ten, eleven that I feel that I remember getting into science fictional fantasy series. And there were a couple of routes into that. One was my dad would occasionally read to my brother and I and he read the one I remember is an R. A. Lafferty story called “The Seven Day Wonder,” which is about a kid who just creates a tube and looks at it and makes things disappear and baffles all of the adults. And on his bookshelves he had ... I remember seeing Dune and occasional Heinleins and Foundation, which I read my way through several times. And then the first thing I remember kind of getting into that I then pursued was a series called Dragonlance. My parents bought me a couple of omnibus anthologies, I think for birthday or Christmas one year.
Dan Hartland: Do you know why? Like ... why?
Niall Harrison: I don’t remember why, no.
Dan Hartland: Fascinating, isn’t it, these things?
Niall Harrison: I don’t think I’d made it all the way through The Lord of the Rings. So they might have been trying to find something else that ...
Dan Hartland: “Maybe he could do with this one.”
Niall Harrison: Yeah, but this is one is a spin off of Forgotten Realms D&D thing. And it’s one of these series where there were initial trilogies which were based on, I think, an actual role playing campaign and then lots and lots of other books. And at the time, and certainly in my teens, we would go to the US on holiday fairly often. And I sort of have memories of going into bookshops in US malls and coming back with armfuls of Dragonlance books that I would then spend the rest of the holiday reading.
Dan Hartland: So they had that glamour.
Niall Harrison: Dragonlance Legends, which is the second trilogy, deals with with a pair of twins, very stereotypical. There’s a handsome, kind of noble warrior brother and a weaker, frailer, but ambitious and powerful wizard brother. And when the wizard brother studies to pass the exams, the examiners are so terrified of him, they curse him and they give him sight, which looks at things and sees them decaying. So he looks at an apple and sees it rotting away. He looks at a person and sees them ageing. And the symbol of this is that his pupils are turned into hourglasses. And the second trilogy is all about essentially his lust for power, his quest for power, and eventually going on to because this is a fancy trilogy going on to challenge the gods themselves.
Dan Hartland: Yeah, it’s that moment of sort of dizzying conceptual shift that science fiction fantasy can deliver and which you had previously not encountered. So at ten, that must have struck you pretty hard.
Niall Harrison: Yeah.
Dan Hartland: So where did that lead you to? If you were, like, at this book, where did you go from there? How did you try and get that fix from elsewhere?
Niall Harrison: Fifty more Dragonlance novels!
Dan Hartland: That’s a lot of US trips!
Niall Harrison: They were over here as well, but none of them quite hit the same highs, obviously, because they never do. But the other thing was when we were on those trips, we would start to pick up other things. So I’d pick up occasional issues of Asimovs or Analog. And it’s interesting that that was the route through which I think I ended up then going into the local library and picking up more stuff. So that’s when I started discovering Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton.
Dan Hartland: And at this point, it starts to be embedded in your daily life, your regular reading, because it’s not just happening over there in the glamorous US.
Niall Harrison: No. At this point, I’m in my mid teens and I’m subscribed to SFX and I’m kind of starting to follow along. I don’t know anyone else who’s really reading science fiction written at school. I don’t have any friends who—Games Workshop a little bit—but they are not reading the same writers I am.
Dan Hartland: So it’s a purely solitary pursuit at this stage.
Niall Harrison: It’s fairly solitary, yeah.
Dan Hartland: So how do you experience the books in that case? Because, of course, right now we’re here because you’re a Guest of Honor at an Eastercon where people talk about these books constantly amongst each other. But you’re not talking about these books to anyone right at this point.
Niall Harrison: It was all pent up and came flooding out years later! Yeah. No, pretty much. I mean, I probably must have talked to my family about them to some degree, but I don’t remember having passionate conversations over dinner about what I was doing.
Dan Hartland: Well, I’m sure your parents were relieved.
Niall Harrison: Yeah. And at the time, when I was fifteen, the school library had a shelf and the town library as well had a shelf of Kim Stanley Robinsons. And I kind of worked my way through and Pacific Edge, which is the third of three alternate future Californias that he wrote and is the kind of positive utopian one, is the book of Kim Stanley Robinson’s that I’ve returned to more than any other. Although the Mars ones were the ones that really shaped kind of me at that time.
Dan Hartland: I just wondered whether we could linger just briefly on that separation between the Mars books and this book that you say you’ve returned to more than the Mars books. And could we drill down just a little bit as to why that might be? What is it about this book that has become stickier for you? Do you know?
Niall Harrison: There’s a clarity to it. There’s a simplicity to it, I guess. The Mars books are doing many, lots of, things: a huge story over centuries with a cast of dozens. This is a handful of people in a small town in California. I think, the California aspect itself—I mean, obviously there’s a lot of California in everything, Kim Stanley Robinson writes—but given that it’s somewhere that I’ve traveled to quite a lot, both growing up and subsequently on holidays and for work, it’s a place in the world that kind of means quite a romantic place for me in some ways. And so it embodies that and lets me live in that place a little bit.
Dan Hartland: That brings us back to the biographical, this idea that the books that we critics and reviewers try and pick apart really are having an emotional impact on us, which we sometimes try and obscure in our work and come up with all these very smart sounding phrases like overshoot to describe to coin a word. Yeah, to describe books. But really they’re hopefully hitting us somewhere where we feel it. But to return to this idea that you’re feeling these books, but you’re feeling them alone because when you’re at school, no one else is reading them, were you aware of a wider community that you didn’t have access to?
Niall Harrison: Because by this point, again, I found Asimov’s, Analog, Gardner Dozois’s Best Ofs and his enormous summaries of what was going on. And through that I got some issues of Interzone. I never actually really subscribed to Interzone, probably until the late 90s, so that wasn’t the main route for me. SFX was part of the route in. We didn’t have the Internet at home, so I didn’t get the Internet until I went to university in 1998.
I went off to Oxford University and went to the Fresher’s Fair and went into the Fresher’s Fair with a single mission, which was to find the science fiction group. There was not a science fiction group, there was a speculative fiction group. And the table was staffed by two women, Jo and Ruth, who I think is over there, and they were signing up every Fresher they could possibly entice. Deliberate strategy on the part of the group, and quite an effective one.
And part of the enticement was that people who joined could pick a book to add to the society library. I had not actually read The Sparrow at the time, at least I don’t think I had. The reason I picked it is that I knew it had won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. And I’d been aware of the Arthur C. Clarke Award because my uncle had bought me a copy of The Star Fraction the previous year, and it came with a little logo on that said, “Runner Up for the Clark Award,“ which is not something that is routinely done. But so I thought The Sparrow, Clarke Award, want to read that—that’d be a good, impressive-sounding addition. And then I did read it, and it absolutely bowled me over. It’s not, interestingly, one that I have gone back to again. Again, I don’t know how well all of it holds up, but that prologue is etched in my mind. And that last line of “they do no harm,“ it just lands with the force of ... well.
Dan Hartland: I mean, that line, “they do no harm,“ is absolutely central to the whole book. But let’s linger just briefly, because yet again you’ve chosen a book that had an emotional impact on you, rather than one that is big and clever, although some of them are that too.
Niall Harrison: The other one that would have been for this period was Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, which is an extraordinary collection that I love dearly, but is very different in tone. Kind of plays into what you’re saying.
Dan Hartland: But at this point, whichever book you chose, you’re reading it within a community.
Niall Harrison: Yeah. The speculative fiction group met twice a week. There were kind of discussion, meetings and other things on Wednesdays and then just hanging out.
Dan Hartland: Does this have an impact on your reading?
Niall Harrison: Absolutely.
Dan Hartland: In what way?
Niall Harrison: Reading authors that I had not ever read before, that people were directly recommending to me; me starting to recommend things to other people; going off to the first conventions I went to. So PicoCon, the Imperial College SF event that is a sort of one day event every February ... so small cons. So feeling part of a community, feeling part of a discourse, a conversation to coin a phrase. And yeah, just enjoying it at that point.
Dan Hartland: So at this stage, you’re starting not just to receive recommendations, like finding a sticker on a book and looking for something else. You’re starting to develop your own tastes and wishing to inflict them upon others. And you’ve been doing it ever since!
Niall Harrison: This is not an infliction! Yes. By that point I’d graduated, but not lost touch with a group of friends. And we’d started the habit of every so often, once a year, every couple of years there’d be about a dozen of us, maybe up to sixteen or seventeen, going to a big house somewhere with a big pile of books. And we would just sit around and read, play occasional board games, cook big meals. Some adventurous souls would go for an occasional walk. But mostly the reading. And a habit developed that there would quite often be something that someone reads early on in the week and then says, everyone else has to read this, and it goes around the room.
Dan Hartland: But we get towards the community thing again, which is that you’re not just responding to it. There’s a second thing going on here which not everyone does, which is proselytise as well. So you’re handing it round to all these poor people that are stuck in this barn somewhere with you and have nowhere else to go.
Niall Harrison: Somewhere in the Lake District, I think that one was.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. So tell me about that. Not necessarily just about this specific book or that specific experience, because at this point you are starting to review—that’s how I first met you, you were online, we were reviewing media.
Niall Harrison: That’s the other strand that we haven’t talked about, right? So also at university, the other community I got involved in was online on Usenet: uk.media.tv.angel, and to a lesser extent the Buffy the Vampire Slayer group. But the Angel group, very much so. You and I and a few other people over there. And there were what, half a dozen of us that would every week, write a little piece about whatever episode had aired and then we would go into detailed dissection. That’s probably where I practiced kind of my reviewing chops, if you like. And that community aspect of it was central. The fact that we were doing it as a group and that we were reacting to each other’s takes was what made it compelling.
Dan Hartland: But there were more people than the half a dozen that did the reviews in the group. There were many more people who commented on the reviews. So we still haven’t got to the heart of why you were doing one of the reviews. Why are you handing these books around? Why are you writing about Angel episodes (by the way, “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been,” Season Two of Angel, is art) ... Why are you doing this? Is there a compulsion in you? Do you even know why you’re doing it?
Niall Harrison: At that time, I don’t know now, to some extent. It’s just something I do, it’s something I watch, something I read, something ... To some extent I listen to things and I want to talk about them, to share them. And that’s the mechanism through which I do that.
Dan Hartland: Now, you’ve gone from not knowing anyone to being asked for university and knowing a relatively small group of people that for some reason call themselves a speculative fiction group. Then towards having a wider circle of friends that you’ve met through the Internet. And now with this book that we’re about to hear a reading from, unless I see a scared wave from the back of the room. Awesome. You are in an even bigger community, indeed, the biggest in your field in the year of the 2005 Worldcon. How does that feel?
Niall Harrison: Terrifying, obviously. So I’d got in touch or made kind of contact with the BSFA, as it were. Some of us had started going to the monthly London meetings and I’d written a couple of reviews for Vector and for Alex McClintock’s site, Diverse Books. I did a few, nothing longer than sort of six or seven hundred words at this point. And as the Worldcon kind of approached, I found myself getting sucked into the maw of involvement with it. I think Farah Mendelsohn recruited Gene Melzack and I to help with some aspects of the program. And suddenly there I was deciding which of these authors that I had read stuff by but never met might be on a panel together, like playing with action figures and getting to make them talk to each other.
Dan Hartland: Is anyone else disturbed by that? And this was a time when you were moving from your communities to, as we said, a bigger community. But not only that, you were very rapidly getting a pretty prominent voice in that community.
Niall Harrison: Yeah, because Gene Melzack and I took over the Features Editor role in Vector in 2005. And we set up Torque Control, which was the first time there had been a BSFA blog, I believe, which became the kind of platform for a lot of the next five years for me at the same time, pretty much. I volunteered as reviews editor for Strange Horizons, which ... It’s weird to think how Strange Horizons seemed like it been around as an institution already at that point. It’s five years, right, starting 2000, and now it’s twenty-three years and counting. And so I had a platform not just for me to write things, but for me to tell other people to write things. And that was exciting.
Dan Hartland: It’s just getting worse and worse with you, isn’t it?
Niall Harrison: The egomania is uncontrollable.
Dan Hartland: And you’re also one of the other things that you’re doing at this absurd time is you’re judging the Clark Award.
Niall Harrison: A couple of years later. Yeah.
Dan Hartland: And that brings us to Hav by Jan Morris. I remember I was one of the people being inflicted a book upon by Niall at this time, and I remember him giving me this book, and I’m afraid to say that I really enjoyed it and I was a bit disappointed not to be able to argue with him about it.
Niall Harrison: This came in as a Clarke Award submission, I think, in the first year that I was a judge. And I had no idea who Jan Morris is. For anyone else who doesn’t know, she was an extremely well regarded travel writer, historian, journalist, just an extraordinary life, if you go look her up on Wikipedia. And so it came in the pile of Clarke books. And when you’re a Clarke judge, you have some eighty, hundred books, with five minutes to get through them. I just picked up and started reading. It has no conventional plot to speak of. It is a travel book about a fictional place that Jan Morris has inserted into the history of somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, and done so with such thoroughness. The story goes that when the first part of it was serialised in the London Review of Books in the 80s, that some people wrote letters asking how they could get to have because they were assuming it was travel writing because it was Jan Morris. And I was entranced by it.
Justifying it as science fiction was made a lot easier by Ursula Le Guin reviewing it in The Guardian and insisting that it was science fiction. Science fiction is what we point what Ursula Le Guin points to, and we just trust her judgment on it. It’s one that inspired me to go and read a lot more of Jan Morris’s work: she had an enormous bibliography. I’ve probably read a book a year pretty much by her since coming across this one. So it’s a book that unlocked a whole area of literature.
Dan Hartland: It’s really interesting because, again, these books are their personal artefacts. It’s very easy for reviewers and critics to be accused of, often rightly, of being cool and rather sniffy about things. But ultimately, the reason that I write reviews—and I think you’re the same, Niall—is because these books have an effect, and we want to understand why. And the effect they have is primarily personal. But—
Niall Harrison: If you ask me today, that is the thing I would say. If I’m trying to write a review, the thing I want to convey is the effect the book had on me. If people can get an emotional sense from the review that’s what I meant.
Dan Hartland: Yeah, they have impact on our lives. But! Hav is an interesting case because you were desperately—not desperately, but seeking a community. So you start reading these books, and you slowly build up, and you’re completely isolated. Then you’ve got a little community, then you got a slightly bigger community, then you got a massive community. Then you’re King of Fandom. And immediately you are admitted to the inner sanctum, more or less, you start picking books like Hav and telling them, telling the genre, “No, no, this this is what you need.” Were you conscious of that? Were you deliberately trying to cause trouble?
Niall Harrison: No, I was not deliberately trying to cause that. No, I was not deliberately trying to cause trouble. I was conscious that it was not I’m trying to think what else was in that year that people were upset was left off. But I guess I was treating the Clarke like an extension ... I mean, obviously I wasn’t the only person on the jury arguing for it to be included, it’s a group discussion, of course. So I wasn’t the only person that ...
Dan Hartland: But Hav is not core genre, is it?
Niall Harrison: No.
Dan Hartland: Were you conscious of not wanting to read, of moving away from, of pushing the boundaries of—quote unquote—core genre? Because this is a book. I mean, this is a book.
Niall Harrison: It’s literature! Yeah. It wasn’t deliberate. I was conscious by that point that ... I think that happens to critics, right? When you read a lot and write about it and do that routinely. I certainly heard film critics talk about this. I’ve heard music critics talk about this. You start to look for the things that are a bit different than the things you have seen before, and this stood out in that way, and don’t think we should be afraid of exploring that. It’s interesting how things have changed over the last fifteen or sixteen years, right? Because the debate then was about, are we claiming that for our territory? I think if it came out now, that wouldn’t really be part of the conversation. I think both sides are much more open to books moving across.
Dan Hartland: Yeah, sure. But that doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because of people like you.
Niall Harrison: Okay ...
Dan Hartland: So if you don’t make the argument ten years ago, then ten years later, someone’s still going to say, “That’s not SF!”
Niall Harrison: Take it up with Ursula LeGuin!
Dan Hartland: But we do need to talk about moving forwards into sort of ... where are we now? 2009 with The Windup Girl. This is a point where if we’re talking about genre fandom, the community, the discourse, and where it finds itself, how it shapes itself, how it understands itself, we’re in a tricky place, and this book is part of that tricky place.
Niall Harrison: When you think about these two things happening at the same time, it’s a very interesting juxtaposition, right? So the first thing is that The Windup Girl comes out, it wins pretty much every award going, and it’s a book that the field had been waiting for because his stories had got a lot of attention in a few years before that. It’s a book that is doing things that the field had been increasingly focusing on. Like, it’s set in Thailand, it’s very near future, it’s globalized, ecological SF. And at the same time, 2009 is the year of RaceFail, right? It’s the year when all fandom descends into ... I don’t want to trivialize it. But it was a traumatic and challenging year for a lot of people.
And I wrote a review of it, of this book, for Strange Horizons, and the review came out in November. The book came out in, I think April or May. I must have written three or four versions of that review because I was trying to work out how to resolve exactly this tension of “this book got under my skin and did things to me.” And probably up until that point, I guess my critical thinking had been: “As long as I am honest and accurate in relaying that experience, then that’s how you write a review.”
And suddenly part of the discourse was, maybe that’s not enough. Maybe you’re not actually the right person to review this book, to talk about this book, or ... maybe I’ll say the next bit in a minute. But so there was a great anxiety that went into that review, and the review is in my new book, which is in the dealers’ room, so I’m not unhappy with it. And I think it says some things that I’m glad to have been able to. One of the things that reviewing does is it lets you articulate things, work things out and get them down so that you understand what you think. And I’m glad it helped me do that, but it was definitely a pivot in how I approached reviewing and thinking about reviewing.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. Towards a more self-aware approach.
Niall Harrison: I don’t think I was entirely unself-aware before that. I had been schooled at various times in various aspects of feminist SF, for instance. But this was certainly another level in that.
Dan Hartland: So we went from Windup Girl girl where you sort of started to think, who writes, who should write? Then in 2015, and I know for various reasons, you’re very busy with work ...
Niall Harrison: Yes. So I stayed with Strange Horizons up until early 2017, I think it was. By that point I was Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons. So then I stepped down and pretty much at the same time, I more or less stopped reviewing for about five years. There’s kind of two intertwined things. One is I’d taken on a new role in my day job, which was a managerial role, which kind of ate up a lot of the same brain space. For some reason, I just found myself without the time or energy. The other was, I think, not run out of things to say necessary, but run out of how to say them for a while.
Dan Hartland: How do you mean how to say them? I mean ... interpretive dance? What do you mean?
Niall Harrison: What do I mean? I mean getting a little stale, perhaps, and also by that point ... so when I became Editor-in-Chief at Strange Horizons, I asked Abigail Nussbaum to come be the reviews editor. She passed on to you and Aisha and Maureen Kincaid Speller in ... 2014?
Dan Hartland: 2015.
Niall Harrison: And you, all of you, did a much better job than I did, following on from RaceFail, of broadening the pool of reviewers and bringing in a much wider range of perspectives into that space. And for a while, I think I felt that was just the necessary thing. And now I sort of feel ... I guess I feel able to return in a way, because that’s happened.
Dan Hartland: You’re welcome!
Niall Harrison: And I’m in a slightly smaller part of a bigger pond. But the first substantial piece that I’d written for about five years was an essay on Chinese SF that appeared in Vector. And I kind of read a whole bunch of short stories and then organized them into a chronology. And Han Song was the writer I kind of most enjoyed discovering as a part of that process.
Dan Hartland: I have to say, I’m glad you’re writing again. But why was it The Reincarnated Giant or the Chinese SF essay? What was it about that that was, like, the thing that made you come back? Because on one level it’s counterintuitive, right? One response to the situation you found yourself in was, ”Okay, I’m only going to write about British SF. That’s what I feel qualified to write about.”
Niall Harrison: It’s astonishing to me that I put this list of books together, and I think the only British author on here is Jan Morris.
Dan Hartland: Exactly.
Niall Harrison: No Baxter. I mean, how did I put this this together without including Stephen Baxter? Yeah. How did that happen?
Dan Hartland: So why the Chinese SF? What is it about that means you’ve returned to us at the turn of the time?
Niall Harrison: I don’t know. I just felt like there was a gap that there was all this work coming through from China and from other places that I wanted to understand better. And I just remember, I think it was Jo Lindsay Walton sent the email, who was vector editor at the time, commissioning articles for a specialist on Chinese SF. And I thought, actually, yeah, I would like to get into that and look at that and find out what’s going on in that part of the field.
And the way the essay came out ... So I had, like, six anthologies. I read all the stories in them rather than reviewing them anthology by anthology. I took all the stories, arranged them by their original publication date in Chinese, and worked my way through them in that order to try to get a feel for what was happening in China over these two decades that I’ve been writing all these reviews. And then the essay is structured in that way. So it’s kind of a parallel chronology, which was just an interesting exercise in bridge building and finding where the links were.
Dan Hartland: And is that the future for your work, do you think? Is that the method you’re going to approach or the mission you’re going to set yourself moving forwards?
Niall Harrison: It’s the main thing I’m doing at the moment, yeah. The main project that I’ve started is a new columnist at Strange Horizons, as you know, which I’m calling Depth of Field, which is going to be quarterly. And there will be some new books, some old books, some genre books, some mainstream books, just putting them together in different configurations and trying to find links continuities between them to try to make it feel more like one field.
Because I think perhaps one of the things ... you know, is it’s a very exciting and necessary thing that we have all this information about all the different traditions of SF in the world now. And I don’t want to try to reify everything into a single sacred timeline, but I also don’t want everything to fly apart into 19 different timelines that don’t talk to each other. So I want to try and bridge between that a little bit.
Dan Hartland: I think that is a laudable mission and something for us all to be logging onto Strange Horizons every quarter to read about. Thanks for being Niall Harrison! Give him a round of applause.
Aisha Subramanian: Thanks for listening to Critical Friends. The Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast. Our theme music is dial up by Lost Cosmonauts. You can hear more of their music at Grande Valise dot Bandcamp dot com. See you next time. Our.