Harrison, M. John 1945–
Harrison, M. John 1945–
(Joyce Churchill, Michael John Harrison, Gabriel King, a joint pseudonym)
PERSONAL: Born July 26, 1945, in Warwickshire, England; son of Alan Spencer (an engineer) and Dorothy (a clerk) Harrison. Education: Educated in England. Religion: Atheist. Hobbies and other interests: Mountaineering, fell-walking in Scotland and in England's Lake District, playing guitar, riding horses.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Mic Cheetham Literary Agency, 11-12 Dover St., Green Park, London W1S 4LJ, England.
CAREER: Writer. Atherstone Hunt, Atherstone, Warwickshire, England, groom, 1963; student teacher in Warwickshire, England, 1963–65; Royal Masonic Charity Institute, London, England, clerk, 1966; freelance writer, 1966–; New Worlds (magazine), London, literary editor and reviewer, 1968–75.
AWARDS, HONORS: Boardman Tasker Memorial Award, c. 1989, for Climbers; Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist and James Tiptree Award, both 2003, both for Light.
The Committed Men, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1971.
The Centauri Device, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1974.
Climbers, Gollancz (London, England), 1989.
The Course of the Heart, Gollancz (London, England), 1992.
Signs of Life, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Jane Johnson; under joint pseudonym Gabriel King) The Wild Road, Del Rey (New York, NY), 1998.
(With Jane Johnson; under joint pseudonym Gabriel King) The Golden Cat (sequel to The Wild Road), Del Rey (New York, NY), 1999.
Light, Orion (London, England), 2002, Bantam (New York, NY), 2004.
Anima, Gollancz (London, England), 2005.
The Pastel City, New English Library (London, England), 1971, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1972.
A Storm of Wings: Being the Second Volume of the "Viriconium" Sequence, in Which Benedict Paucemanly Returns from His Long Frozen Dream in the Far Side of the Moon, and the Earth Submits Briefly to the Charisma of the Locust, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1980.
In Viriconium, Gollancz (London, England), 1982, published as The Floating Gods, Pocket (New York, NY), 1983.
Viriconium (omnibus), Unwin (London, England), 1988, reprinted, Bantam Books (New York, NY), 2005.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
The Machine in Shaft Ten, and Other Stories, Panther (London, England), 1975.
The Ice Monkey, and Other Stories, Gollancz (London, England), 1983.
Viriconium Nights, Ace (New York, NY), 1984, revised edition, Gollancz (London, England), 1985.
Travel Arrangements, Gollancz (London, England), 2000.
Things that Never Happen, Gollancz (London, England), 2004.
(With Ian Miller) The Luck in the Head (graphic novel), lettering by Carol Kemp, Gollancz (London, England), 1991, Dark Horse Comics (Milwaukie, OR), 1993.
Contributor of articles, short stories, and reviews, sometimes under pseudonym Joyce Churchill, to Transatlantic Review, New Worlds, New Manchester Review, New Worlds Quarterly, Fantasy and Science Fiction, New Writings in Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, It, and Frendz. Literary editor, New Worlds, 1968–; contemporary fiction reviewer for the Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and the Daily Telegraph.
SIDELIGHTS: In 1985, British writer M. John Harrison described himself as "a compassionate but realistic [writer]," not "a pessimistic writer," in the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers. "My fiction is concerned with the inability of people to feel ordinary emotions, or to communicate them successfully to one another; their efforts to maintain identity in the face of abstract systems and idealistic social structures; and their perception of themselves as live individuals in a meaningless, contingent universe." He added: "The most radical expression of this existential standpoint is found in the collection Viriconium Nights, but it is clearly present in stories such as "The Machine in Shaft Ten" and "Settling the World" and in The Committed Men."
A Publishers Weekly contributor who reviewed Harrison's seventh novel, Signs of Life, commented on "Harrison's concentration on the emotional core of his characters and his lyrical flair." Liam McIlvanney reviewed the same title in the Times Literary Supplement and lauded the author's ability to create "vivid, fresh imagery … and acute observation." "His prose has impeccable rhythm and poise," declared McIlvanney. "Harrison excels at exhaustive, itemized descriptions. A putrid rubbish dump or a cluttered interior provide the material for small masterpieces of layered descriptions. His writing is saturated, pungent, intoxicated with the detail of urban life. It is almost pathologically precise." However, in Signs of Life, according to McIlvanney, Harrison's descriptive powers serve as a double-edged sword, often obstructing the flow of the story. As such, determined McIlvanney, Signs of Life as a novel exists as still frames assembled without "purposive structure." Nevertheless, McIlvanney continued, these flaws can be overlooked because Harrison "write[s] with … uncommon brilliance."
The flaws McIlvanney cited in his review of Signs of Life parallel the comments a St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers essayist made about Harrison's collection of eight stories, Viriconium Nights: "Many of the pieces feature some of Harrison's best writing, but that is what most of the stories are: exercises in style. The characters remain ill-defined and the actions are directionless and at times absurd. Vivid images come to nothing as plot and characters never interact." Harrison's 1989 novel, Climbers, judged the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers contributor, "contains some of his best writing and delivers some memorable, chilling scenes;" while The Centauri Device, a 1974 release, is one of "Harrison's most accessible book[s]."
Harrison was praised by the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers contributor as "a brilliant stylist whose work captures the grotesque and the decadent in vivid, absurd images that are as fascinating as they are unique." Harrison, who believes that his "fiction is not easily described as [science fiction]," related in the book: "My writing is oblique, compressed, and allusive, with a carefully textured surface. Despite this I am much less a stylist, and very much less a 'writer-for-writing's-sake,' than is generally supposed in the theoretical regions of [science fiction], which are as poverty-stricken as its human ones."
"The sense of place is everything" in Travel Arrangements, maintained Phil Baker, reviewing the collection of stories for the Times Literary Supplement. Harrison, asserted Baker, "is obsessed with capturing and crystallizing a local bleakness, making it the negative pole to a visionary richness that can only be called mystical." The thirteen stories by Harrison, who Baker contends occasionally exhibits "an antiprovincial snobbery," are at times "marked by an element of machismo and even an occasional strand of something like misogyny." In Travel Arrangements, Harrison's writings are "not entirely true to the science fiction or fantasy genres," noted Baker, who identified Harrison as "a visionary writer, who deserves far greater recognition."
Another, more recent short story collection by Harrison is Things that Never Happen, which Booklist contributor Regina Schroeder praised for the stories' "strength … in attention to detail." A Publishers Weekly contributor added: "Wise, unflinching, precise, these stories immerse us in a world we thought we knew but that stands revealed by turns as richer, starker and more complex."
Harrison is closely associated with the British New Wave science fiction that emerged in the 1960s. The New Wave opened the science fiction genre to experimental literary techniques from the avant-garde. "Harrison first found his voice," related the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers essayist, "as a critic and short story writer in New Worlds magazine, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although his fictions were notable from the beginning for their finely worked surfaces, Harrison's precise evocations of the quiddity of the world should not blind us to the strong narrative structures underpinning them."
Harrison's interest in the innovative approach of New Wave science fiction is particularly evident in his short stories, where he uses disjointed narrative structures, plays with the nature of reality and creates characters whose moments of revelation are ambiguous. His short fiction is often set against a drab and rundown environment. Amid this sordid world, Harrison spins tales of hopeless characters who seek redemption but find only fresh misery. Typical of Harrison's approach is the story "Engaro," which tells of a poverty-stricken bookstore owner who tracks down, through oblique references and cryptic clues, the secret country of Engaro, rumored to be the source and foundation of all the world's mysteries. When he finds the country, however, he discovers it to be depressingly ordinary and everyday—not at all the romantic paradise he had imagined.
A similar study of entropy appears in the novels The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, and In Viriconium. These novels envision societies suffering from "a plague of despair," according to a St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers contributor. Harrison's characters are "so paralyzed by their past that they fail to confront the present." In the city of Viriconium, the world is now so ancient and tired that time is confused and the past repeats itself over and over again. A kind of terminal wasteland where the cultural wreckage of the centuries lies scattered, Viriconium is home to "writers, inventors and painters [who] preside over unfinished designs, paintings, and writings, letters going nowhere, ambivalent performances, inexplicable events and recollections," as Valentine Cunningham explained in the Observer. This situation is, according to the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers contributor, a criticism of fantasy literature itself, especially "those decadent forms of high fantasy which initiate and heighten only selected aspects of the world."
In 1998 Harrison teamed up with HarperCollins science fiction editor Jane Johnson to write The Wild Road, under the joint pseudonym of Gabriel King. In this fantasy novel, a kitten named Tag is forced into making a quest to find the King and Queen of Cats. Laurel Bliss, writing in Library Journal, felt the book is "disjointed and confusing," but found the "details of feline behavior," interesting. The authors teamed up again for the sequel to The Wild Road. Reviewers compared The Golden Cat favorably to Watership Down. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "A must for cat lovers, this book offers rewards for any fantasy reader who can accept a primarily feline cast."
In the more recent work Light, serial killer Michael Kierney works in quantum computing and uses dice he stole from an alien to randomly decide on different choices in his life. However, the alien has been tracking him for years, leading Kierney's life to intersect with K-ship captain Seria Mau, who is trapped when she literally becomes part of a spaceship, and Ed Chianese, who lives in a simulation machine. "This is space opera for the intelligentsia, as Harrison … breaks aspects of astrophysics, fantasy and humanism to hum right along with the blinking holograms," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction critic Elizabeth Hand called Light "a taut, sleek, and often very funny space opera about the discovery and deployment of a quantum space drive."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, May 15, 1999, Sally Estes, review of The Golden Cat, p. 1678; January 1, 2003, Regina Schroeder, review of Things that Never Happen, p. 861; September 1, 2004, Regina Schroeder, review of Light, p. 74; September 15, 2005, Regina Schroeder, review of Viriconium, p. 37.
Guardian (London, England), November 2, 2002, Iain Banks, review of Light.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2004, review of Light, p. 665; September 15, 2005, review of Viriconium, p. 1005.
Library Journal, April 15, 1998, Laurel Bliss, review of The Wild Road, p. 119; April 15, 1999, Jackie Cassandra, review of The Golden Cat, p. 148.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June, 1998, Charles de Lint, review of The Wild Road, p. 36; February, 2001, Elizabeth Hand, review of Travel Arrangements, p. 36; March, 2003, Elizabeth Hand, review of Light, p. 38.
New York Times, September 12, 2004, Gerald Jonas, review of Light.
Observer (London, England), October 31, 1982, Valentine Cunningham, review of Viriconium, p. 30.
Odyssey, March, 1998, Elizabeth Counihan, "M. John Harrison and Jane Johnson (aka Gabriel King)."
Publishers Weekly, July 7, 1997, review of Signs of Life, p. 47; April 19, 1999, review of The Golden Cat, p. 66; December 16, 2002, review of Things that Never Happen, p. 50; August 23, 2004, review of Light, p. 41; September 13, 2004, review of The Course of the Heart, p. 63.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 2003, David Ian, review of Things that Never Happen, p. 139.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 15, 2004, Michael Berry, review of Light.
Times Literary Supplement, May 30, 1997, Liam McIlvanney, review of Signs of Life, p. 22; May 19, 2000, Phil Baker, "Burnt-out Kettles," review of Travel Arrangements, p. 23.
Bookslut, http://www.bookslut.com/ (October 9, 2006), Adrienne Martini, review of Light.
Infinity Plus, http://www.strangehorizons.com/ (October 9, 2006), David Matthew, "M. John Harrison," interview with the author.
Locus Magazine Online, http://www.locusmag.com/ (October 9, 2006), interview with M. John Harrison.
M. John Harrison Home Page, http://www.mjohnharrison.com (October 9, 2006).
SFSite, http://www.sfsite.com/ (October 9, 2006), Gabriel Chouinard, "A Conversation with M. John Harrison."
Strange Horizons, http://www.strangehorizons.com/ (October 9, 2006), Cheryl Morgan "Interview: M. John Harrison."