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March 2003
 
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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

Things That Never Happen by M. John Harrison
Night Shade Books, $27.00, 449 pp

Light by M. John Harrison
Gollancz, 17.99, 335 pp

The Scar by China Miéville
Ballantine Books, $18.95, 638 pp

The Separation by Christopher Priest
Scribner, 10.99, 464 pp

Well you think you had a good time
With the boy that you just met
Kicking sand from beach to beach
Your clothes all soaking wet
But if you look around and see
A shadow on the run
Don't be too surprised if it's just a paper sun.

"Paper Sun," Traffic

Paper Suns

With the appearance of the collection Things That Never Happen and Light, a new novel, we seem to be having an M. John Harrison Moment. And about time, too. For more than twenty years, Harrison's work has anticipated the amphetamine buzz and bleak ardor of the early 21st century: it's just taken the world that long to catch up with him.

But now we have. An entire generation of writers has been influenced by Harrison or fallen somewhere within his remit; China Miéville, who provides a heartfelt and engaging introduction to Things That Never Happen, is perhaps the youngest and best-known. Many of the stories in Harrison's collection have become classics, which seems a rather musty distinction to bestow on works that remain as edgy and disturbing as "Running Down," "The Incalling," "A Young's Man's Journey to London" (originally "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium"), "The Horse of Iron and How We Know It," "The Great God Pan," "Anima," "Gifco," to name just a handful. I discovered Harrison's work relatively late in life---not till I was past thirty---but fortunately rather early in my writing career. Since 1989 I have read and reread Harrison's stories, and can honestly say that they've taught me more about the craft of fiction than I've learned from just about anything else.

Harrison trained as an engineer when he was young, and it shows in the meticulous care he puts into constructing his tales. Not just the machine-work of what used to be called worldbuilding (a term that has always made me break into a rash; worlds, at least the ones we know of so far, aren't [and probably shouldn't be] built, at least not by homo sapiens) but might better be described as world shaping; not just his characterization, which ranks with that of masters like Robert Stone or Graham Greene; not merely his prose style, elegant and devastating as a 28-gauge stainless steel garotte; not just his subject matter, which is nothing less than the mutable nature of our world (or any other), which we so foolishly believe we can apprehend and change. Harrison does all of these things, while at the same time giving readers a powerful sense of the author's own engagement with these issues, and with his own work: a great, almost immeasurable gift from an author to his readers.

Harrison's work seems (to me, at least) much in line with that of another cheerful observer of human experience, Arthur Schopenhauer. Critic Bryan Magee gives a nice precis of Schopenhauer's philosophy - that "the noumenon and the phenomenon are the same reality apprehended in two different ways - the noumenon is, so to speak, the inner significance, the true but inaccessible being, of what we perceive outwardly as the phenomenal world . . . they are two different aspects of the same thing, an inner and an outer, but one is not the cause of the other." Harrison's characters exhaust themselves with their efforts to perceive both these aspects of reality at once: it's as if they are trying, fruitlessly, to fit themselves with spiritual bifocals. For the most part, they fail utterly, or at best are driven to madness or despair by their attempts; but there is an undeniable exhilaration in reading of their struggles. Harrison is a longtime and obsessive rock climber, and one can easily draw parallels between the allure of works like Jon Krakauer's non-fiction account Into Thin Air (mountain-climbing and existential despair) and Harrison's novel Climbers (rock-climbing and existential rapture, with a few bits of despair).

"The secret is everything until you know it too," Harrison writes in the Author's Notes to one of his finest tales, "Egnaro." It is a measure of M. John Harrison's generosity, and genius, that he continues to share his secrets with all of us.

Light, Harrison's first science fiction novel since 1975's The Centauri Device, is a taut, sleek and often very funny space opera about the discovery and deployment of a quantum space drive. The three-tiered narrative begins in 1999, where a physicist named Michael Kearney is (mostly) unwittingly involved with the creation of the drive. Quantum physics at first seems to be a bit of a hobby for Kearney; his primary obsession is with an occult figure that he seeks to appease through ritual murders. Meanwhile, four hundred years in the future, a junkie named Ed Chianese is having some trouble paying off his suppliers and running into a bit of bother with the notorious Cray Sisters, and an interstellar pilot named Seria Mau is getting ready to open a mysterious box. The storyline is audacious and completely over-the-top; after a while its most extravagant aspect, the quantum drive itself, seems also to be the most believable.

Light almost functions as a Young Person's Guide to M. John Harrison---not Harrison Lite, but a sort of breathless Cook's Tour of the author's fictional concerns, from that unhealthy preoccupation with gray-faced magi manqués to anorexic women to cats to shady con men, necromantic killings, North London Noir, sex, and stuff that is way, way beyond sex: Light is the only space opera I can think of that gives off a shimmery erotic glow while dishing the dirt on post-quantum theory. Cheaper than a post-grad education in physics, and more fun, too!

Raw Power

In his intro to Things That Never Happen, China Miéville mentions reading Harrison's "Egnaro" when he was fifteen. "We should all be so lucky," I thought (and, "Well, this explains a lot."). I will admit here that I have not yet read Miéville's first two novels, King Rat and last year's award-winning Perdido Street Station. But, based on his most recent book, The Scar, I'd say Miéville is coming pretty close to pitching a perfect season The Scar returns to the vast and hallucinogenically imagined world of its predecessor, but this time the action moves from the febrile reaches of the city of New Crobuzon, to the febrile reaches of a floating city called Armada. The narrator, Bellis, is an unwilling conscript to Armada's population, and The Scar's loose plot involves her efforts to escape and return to New Crobuzon. The notion of a floating city is delectable, but Miéville seems a bit uncomfortable away from dry land, orvery, very deep water. The most gripping parts of THE SCAR are those that take place beneath the surface of various oceans: a gorgeous preface that takes place miles undersea; a fantastic battle with a a gigantic bonefish; an absolutely wonderful, over-the-top sequence about the descent in a bathysphere to investigate an ailing, kraken-like monster called the avanc, a creature substantially larger than my hometown, which has been harnessed to tow Armada across the seas. This last gave me the same primal thrill I felt the first time I saw Gorgo, an experience I've spent decades trying to recapture. There is also a terrifying and extremely moving visit to the island of the anophelii, mosquito-men and -women whose cultural and sexual mores are beautifully detailed and described, though I felt that these chapters would have been better served if they'd been worked into a short story, rather than an onshore jaunt for the passenger-residents of Armada.

Still, for the most part The Scar functions as a picturesque narrative, a tour-de-force that sometimes feels a bit like a prolonged march, or paddle, across an endless seascape. Miéville is a spectacular talent, but The Scar still feels like a young writer's book. Maybe a young readers's as well: I found its 600-plus pages, with their discursive rambles regarding Armadan politics, races, and intrigues, exhaustive and often exhausting. That beautiful, immense avanc seems like a nice metaphor for Miéville's extravagant gift as a writer. I am very interested in what he does with it next.

WWII Redux

Christopher Priest's exquisite alternate history The Separation is being considered as a film, but that shouldn't stop anyone from reading it now, before Absolutely Everyone is talking about it. The Separation is an exceptionally frightening novel whose nightmare power derives from its chilling, almost clinical evocation of an historical reality with which we are all familiar, the London Blitz. Twin English athletes with a German mother, Jack and Joe Sawyer, participate in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. At a British Embassy reception following their event, one of the twins is approached by Rudolf Hess; later, both Jack and Joe help a young German Jew escape to England. What follows is a cliffhanger narrative of dual identities, betrayals, and shifting realities, as two versions of the twins's histories---and England's, and the world's---are woven together, like strands of DNA, to form a terrifying narrative. Priest has used doubles before to great effect, in his award-winning novel The Prestige; but The Separation trumps even that tale. Its chapters linger in the mind like scenes from a Hitchcock film, impossible to shake off; like Hitchcock's work, The Separation begs for repeated readings to appreciate the cold brilliance and execution of its intricate plot fully. A masterly novel that deserves to become a classic.

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