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Travel Arrangements
M. John Harrison
Victor Gollancz, 262 pages

Travel Arrangements
M. John Harrison
M. John Harrison is a lifelong writer and author of many novels, among them: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, The Centauri Device, and The Course of the Heart. Under the pseudonym Gabriel King, he and Jane Johnson have written The Wild Road and The Golden Cat.

ISFDB Bibliography: Gabriel King
ISFDB Bibliography: M. John Harrison
SF Site Review: The Wild Road and The Golden Cat
SF Site Review: The Wild Road

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

M. John Harrison recently won the Richard Evans Award (named after the near-legendary figure of UK publishing who died a couple of years ago), given to the author who has contributed significantly to the SF genre without concomitant commercial success. In other words, one might say, for the best underrated author. Immediately upon hearing about the award to Harrison, I thought "How entirely appropriate!" Granted that he made a mild splash with his second novel, The Pastel City (1971), and with its loose sequels about the city of Viriconium, he has for the most part stayed below the radar of SF readers. This goes extra in the United States.

I was lucky enough to find The Pastel City not too long after its publication, and I followed Harrison's work for a while, but after the later Viriconium books in the early 80s his stuff became very hard to find. But in 1997, he published a wonderful sort of "Magic Realist Science Fiction" novel called Signs of Life, and, at around the same time, I also noticed such fine short stories as "Seven Guesses of the Heart" and "Suicide Coast" (the latter my personal pick for best SF short story of 1999).

Travel Arrangements is a new collection of short stories, his fourth collection. (Earlier he published The Machine in Shaft Ten, Viriconium Nights, and The Ice Monkey.) For all the title refers to travel, this book is almost obsessively about contemporary England. One story, "Seven Guesses of the Heart," is set on a fantastical isle. All the others are primarily set in England. (Travel, however, is often an explicit theme: "The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It," for example, is about a series of train journeys inspired by the Tarot; while "Gifco" is partly about a vacation in Morocco.)

Speaking in some ignorance, as an American who has never been across the Atlantic, I still get a very strong sense of place from these stories. The England they depict is closely observed, and very real -- very much the post-Thatcherite land, trying to simultaneously shuck off and preserve the images and the myth of "Albion."

It might seem from those words that the stories here are rather "mainstream" in tone and aim, and indeed this is the case. Many of the stories here are mainstream stories, and several more use SFnal or fantastical tropes to illuminate concerns of character and contemporary life that are exactly those concerns that dominate contemporary realistic fiction. None of this is at all bad: the stories are beautifully written, evocative, moving and strange. The tone is usually very low key, very quiet, even as wrenching emotional events are depicted. All in all, I think this is an outstanding collection.

As with many writers' collections, hints and references to his most recent novel turn up. In particular, "Anima" is a fine story which later became part of Signs of Life: concentrating here on the wild character Choe Ashton, and on a strange sexual experience he had when an adolescent. Signs of Life turns up again as a novel that the narrator of "Science and the Arts," the collection's final story, inscribes to the woman he is involved with.

This woman, Mona, is one of many mysterious women to appear in these pages. Indeed, a common theme of these stories is mysterious women, strong enough to cause the male characters to become obsessed with them, but flighty or odd or just difficult to understand. Take, for example, Elaine in "Black Houses," of whom the narrator writes "I've met people before, but not you. Not you." and later, inevitably: "I'd do anything to get you back." Or the late middle-aged, vegetarian, rather nutty Elizabeth, from "Old Women."

My favourite two stories here are among my favourite SF stories of the 90s. "Seven Guesses of the Heart" first appeared in Katherine Kerr's original fantasy anthology The Shimmering Door (called Sorceries in the UK). An aging magician, whose specialty is gardens, confronts the loss of his daughter, apparently to a misapplied spell, and the loss of his own powers. The story is a good example of what I was mentioning earlier: a fantasy story with a theme straight from the mainstream -- the relationship of a man, his wife, and his daughter, and the man's mid-life crisis. The story is not about the fantastic elements at all. However, the story is immensely enriched by the fantastic elements: they are used wonderfully to illuminate and bring out the central themes. That is, it's essential to the story that it be fantasy, even though one could treat the same theme without the fantastical elements.

On the other hand, my other favourite, "Suicide Coast," is the most overtly SF of all the stories at hand, and its theme is overtly SFnal as well. The narrator, Mick, is a journalist who writes about adventure sports: rock climbing, BASE jumping, hang gliding, and so on. He also does his own rock climbing, and drives fast cars. He tells of his relationship with an even more committed daredevil, Ed Johnson. Soon we see Ed's current life: wheelchair bound, living with Mick's ex-girlfriend, obsessively playing Virtual Reality games, still trying to recapture the experiences he can't have in "reality" any more. The story is tensely written, in Harrison's familiar very quiet prose style. He reminds us again and again of Mick's beliefs about what makes life worth living: "Nobody drives themselves anymore" says Mick, as he takes his Mercedes on the empty highways. "A life without consequences isn't worth living at all," he writes. We learn about Mick's rock climbing, and his driving, and about Ed's dangerous work, and how he became paralyzed. Then comes the ending, sudden, and perhaps half-expected, and throwing the whole story in a new light. We realize that real life, life with "consequences," doesn't just mean risking your life on a mountain, or in a fast car, but also risking your "feelings," your "self," if you will, by connecting with other people. And "nobody drives themselves anymore."

M. John Harrison is one of the best SF writers of the present day. This collection shows off Harrison's current style and his thematic concerns quite excellently. "Quiet" might be the most appropriate description of the affect of these stories, although the effect is anything but quiet.

Copyright © 2000 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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