An Unsettled World: M. John Harrison’s short stories
More reliable than this book’s retro sci-fi front cover, the author’s first sentence is one to read for first impressions and future expectations. The opening words of the eponymous tale in Settling the World: Selected Stories by M. John Harrison are memorable:
With the discovery of God on the far side of the Moon, and the subsequent gigantic and hazardous operation that brought Him back to start His reign anew, there began on Earth, as one might assume, a period of far-reaching change.
Such a dosing of theology with blasphemous chutzpah is a forerunner of the killing of God in Pullman’s His Dark Materials - the first volume of which doesn’t appear until 20 years after this short story – but the mock-serious sentence is uniquely Harrison’s.
Exquisitely crafted sentences distinguish John M. Harrison’s prose, as does the placement of individual words and phrases that can pop up anywhere and penalise anyone rash enough to speed-read this author. Sticking with Settling the World, there is a scene that takes place in Southend and as the story’s male protagonist, Oxlade, walks along the seafront the setting is suitably evoked with mention of sunburnt forearms and the odour of fried fish. But added to these standard descriptions is an atmosphere Harrison calls ‘light opera’, a musical metaphor that neatly captures the mercurial, holiday-escapist mood that a place like Southend proffers to day visitors. Then, a few pages later, Oxlade says he is travelling into ‘the Umwelt of God’, an astounding thought once the reader has checked Wikipedia for the word’s meaning.
A pair of sentences form the final paragraph of ‘The Settling of the World’ (1975): ‘Why has God come to us in this way? We were so eager to accept Him.’ The other stories in this broad-ranging selection of Harrison’s shorter fiction from half a century of writing are reflections on the pair of sentences - Oxlade is looking back on the changes to his world - that form the final paragraph.
In Harrison’s Umwelt, it is not unhappy people’s alienation that drives them to configure representations of a divine authority but their state of abjection. Existence is without foundations, a liminal state that can never be anything but a space, and the stories’ characters often inhabit this space as lost couples – or two sides of one entropic existence - in a benighted world: Lyall and Egerton in ‘Running Down’ (1975); Austin and Clerk in ‘The Incalling’ (1978); Sophia and Peter Ebert in ‘The Gift’(1988); Palinurus and an unnamed woman in ‘Land Locked’ (2020).
A cocktail of metaphysics and psychogeography characterise many of the stories; their landscapes of stagnant pools, cracked plaster, unpaired shoes and ruined wallpaper mirror fractured states of mind and broken ontologies. Other stories keep us in the here and now: migration in ‘The Causeway’ (1971); a macabre parody of self-blame in ‘I Did It’ (1996); and a place called Great Brexit in ‘Colonizing the Future’ (2020) where vaccinations are shunned and families ‘can float back into the future they deserve’.
Bookshops should think again if they are confident about shelving this collection of short stories under sci-fi or fantasy. They are fuzzily both, plus something else, and might best be displayed in a stairwell, an in-between space where borderlines are traversed.
In ‘Yummie’ (2017), someone says to Short, a character recovering from a heart attack, ‘How are you getting on, in your ongoing struggle with the world of appearances?’ Then, one of the disembodied voices that he hears whispers to him: ‘Research shows how rats dream repeatedly of the maze they have not yet solved.’ This chimes with Harrison’s remark, in a recent talk about Settling the World: Selected Stories, about how he sees an author like himself as the minotaur, encouraging the reader to navigate their own way through the maze to the story’s intention. ‘Yummie’ is a tale about our bodies’ vulnerability and, following Harrison’s suggestion about finding your own way through a story, reading it in the middle of a pandemic creates a feeling that right now we’re all in a state of post-cardiac arrest: an indeterminate, unruly and precarious condition where the past is gone and the future best put off for another day.
Settling the World: Selected Stories: 1970-2000, by M. John Harrison, is published by Comma Press.
Review by Sean Sheehan
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