An Interview with M. John Harrison by C. Derick Varn and Dinesh Raghavendra
M. John Harrison is an English author and critic. His work includes the Viriconium (1982), Climbers(1989), and the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy which consists of Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012). Considered a founding voice of New Wave Science Fiction, Harrison is known as an adroit stylist and a precursor to literary turn in science ficiton.
Former People Speak: What do make of the direction Science Fiction has headed in since you edited New Worlds and New Wave of Science fiction began?
M. John Harrison: New Worlds and the New Wave were a reflection of the more general cultural changes which went on from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. I think science fiction headed in more than one direction as a response to those changes. Or perhaps better to say that it’s an elastic medium, it was heavily perturbed, and it’s been bouncing around inside its formal limits ever since. There was an immediate reaction against the New Wave in the shape of a Reaganistic “back to the future” movement, but that was soon swamped by the concomitant emergence of left wing, feminist and identity-political sf. Now we see an interesting transition into post-colonialism, intersectionality, and–at last–the recognition by western sf that rest of the world writes science fiction too. These are, like the New Wave, responses to changes in the general cultural context. I enjoyed my time at New Worlds, although by the time I got there all the important work had been done. I enjoyed the New Wave for its technical experiments–even in those, though, it was beginning to reflect the generalised cultural shift to postmodernism (while the science fiction Old Guard hunkered down and grimly dug in its heels against the demons of modernism, fighting the previous generation’s wars, as Old Guards will).
You have been said to have included many Gnostic elements in your fiction? Why do you think Gnosticism has had such a pull of the mind of literary speculative fiction since Philip K. Dick?
I’m not sure that Gnostic influence on fiction limits itself–even in the niche you mention–to a period describable as post-Philip K Dick. But really I can only speak for myself. I’m interested that things might not be what they seem; Gnosticism, along with a lot of other systems of thought, has a longstanding metaphysic of things not being what they seem; it has experience with those kinds of paranoid ontologies and epistemologies. I’m interested in the unknowability of things in general and I love the physicists’ predictable once-a-generation pratfall into the hubris of, “Oh, we know everything now,” which always heralds a sudden increase in the difficulty of understanding the universe. The more you look, the more there is to look for, it would seem. I hasten to add that while I might be interested in Gnosticism, I’m not a Gnostic; for me, these are games with form and analogy, not proclamations of faith, and Gnosticism fits under the larger umbrella of Absurdism.
The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy has been said to be both focused on the unknowable and a future without any nostalgia. This has been seen as a critique of singularity predictors like Ray Kurtzweil. What do you make the effect that kind nostalgia for a knowable future in contemporary culture?
There’s a point at which futurism and fantasy become inextricable, rendering the distinction useless but clearly revealing their shared origins in wishful thinking. Where it’s possible to take the singularity seriously (that is, to separate it from its own boosterism and Aladdin’s Lamp fictions of itself) I think I’d apply to it Mark Dery’s excellent recent description of OculusRift, as “the brain’s dream of jettisoning the body. Also, the secession of the rich, into the virtual.” All our present evidence is that technological development costs a lot of money. The singularity is a utopia of capital. As the idea of unending economic growth proves itself to be not just wishful thinking but bad physics, progress towards the Rapture of the Nerds will stall except for rich individuals in rich nations.
Your work, particularly your science fiction work, is often rooted in critiquing contemporary society. How much do you think a science fiction writer needs to look into the current political trends to really produce relevant work?
I’m not sure it’s possible to answer that. How long is a piece of string? A writer can’t help being political, even if she simply goes along with the uninterrogated cultural assumptions of her day. Obviously I think it’s better to be consciously aware of the political origin of your ingrained attitudes; but I also think this core material should be handled with some restraint by the text. Your arguments shouldn’t appear on the surface but infect the whole, from setting to characterisation to imagery and on. Your logic should be poetic, ironic, quietly self-aware. Your metaphors should underlie, they should be the geomorphology that constructs every textual landform. They should emerge organically from the events you describe, like the product of relations at an earlier level. Above all, your politics must intricate themselves with the product of your deep imagination–your own deepest strata–because unless fantasy and science fiction originate down there, they are worthless as social, imaginative or even entertainment product. That’s my feeling. The best work neither shows nor tells: it says by being, not by saying.
It has been noted that often your fiction comes out of found conversations and disjointed real life things you overheard. This often allows what can be extremely surreal or imagistic to be rooted in something absurd and yet relatable. Do you find that you are training your observational skills in a realistic way to write what many people would see as high speculative fiction?
If you listen to what people are actually saying, and reproduce it faithfully, that material will find a useful place whatever you are writing. I like to isolate found material so that it becomes a kind of absurd commentary on the story’s events, especially in fiction set in the present day; but I also like to take found material out of its present-day context and use it to point up the oddness of an imagined future, or country, or character. If you want the unheimlich, you must have dissonance, although you have to be careful not to overdo it. Establish a context, then violate it quite sparingly. In weird fiction the strange is made to intrude on and threaten briefly the normal; but it’s equally important to threaten the strange with the normal. I get many of my effects by making sure of that two-way process. (If we’re to talk about more immersive fiction, ie fantasy or space opera, another benefit of this device is to create discontinuities, glitches in the so-called “logic” of the so-called “secondary world” which make it harder for the reader to suspend disbelief and escape into the fiction.)
You seem to be interested in alienation as a theme and seem ambivalent about modernity’s atomization. Do you see this ambivalence as helping you avoid romanticism?
That was my plan at twenty-five years old, when I had just started at New Worlds. I saw it as a literary decision, taken consciously and separately from who I was, separate from what my emotional needs might be. It was, therefore, in itself a massively alienated decision. I’m able to recognise now–at the age of seventy, so perhaps too late–that when you write alienation, you are in fact writing loneliness. Further, to do it successfully, you’ve probably submerged yourself for thirty years in your own alienation. This occurred to me with considerable force while I was reading Olivia Laing’s recent book The Lonely City. I was taken aback.
What writing do you see going on right now that gives you pause either positively or negatively?
I was astonished by Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World.
How do you see science fiction developing in the next five years?
I see an intensification of the growing right/left kulturkampf: it will be both exploited and diluted by the publishing industry, which in the last few years has been forced to become rather quicker on its feet about identifying commodifiable cultural shifts. What that will actually mean in terms of sci-fi books on shelves or e-readers, who can say? I also suspect that we’ll see less fiction of all kinds. Everyone will have published their novel and discovered they aren’t going to get rich–or even noticed–by writing. The industry, especially in its middleclass form, ie traditional, paper-published litfic, saw peak remuneration in the 1990s and peak social status dividends in the first ten years of the new century. For the global middle classes, writing a book will increasingly become the equivalent of Victorian accomplishment culture–everyone, if you recall, had to be able to sing a bit, play an instrument, ride a horse, paint watercolours, whatever. The dancing masters & music teachers scraped a living out of it.
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
I have a new collection of short stories that should see publication next year, and I’m working on a novel which might be described as “set now” and “strange”. Meanwhile, The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen, which have been out of print, should see the light of day again in paperback and digital form, from Gollancz this autumn.