Tuesday, May 6, 2003

New Worlds

In contrast, the uncanny in Harrison is very precisely modulated by strong plot. The thing is, though, that it tends to be happening just off stage. The stories are the messy, contingent, particular, organic journeys through and around narratives. It's the journey we follow, not "the plot" -- but without that plot, there'd be no journey.

From China Mieville's introduction to Things That Never Happen, by M. John Harrison

I recently checked out a book from the local library, The Centauri Device, written many years ago by M. John Harrrison. The book is in fact out of print now. Some weblog or other had noted Harrison's quirky style, and I found the name familiar, so I hunted down what was available via the library system and found exactly two titles, this one and the one whose introduction I quote above.

Well, The Centauri Device is rather arch and self-conscious, while aiming for a more plebian gutter-poetry. The part I got through reminded me of Samuel R. Delany, more specifically his early fantasy/science fiction works like The Einstein Intersection, and later (and better) Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Unfortunately, it's these comparisons which sank the book for me. I couldn't finish it, because I could remember, however vaguely, other books quite like it, which were so superior I simply didn't have the patience to continue.

Now this is probably unfair. I read those Delany books when I was in the bloom of youth, up through young adulthood. They have an inevitable gloss of nostalgia about them. But I'm pretty sure they were better, by a far cry, than The Centauri Device.

So I moved on to the short story collection, thinking I might be able to appreciate M. John Harrison better in smaller doses. It's there, in Things That Never Happen, that I learned that Harrison was one of the writers during Michael Moorcock's stint as editor of New Worlds, ushering in the revolutionary era of New Wave Science Fiction, which emphasized literary qualities over the science and McGuffins of the day. Perhaps this is where I remember him from. In any case, it is with a kind of shock that I look back and see how much my reading habits have changed.

From before high school to sometime in my early adulthood I often read big, fat books that ran 600 to a thousand pages without blinking an eye. I read The Lord of the Rings through twice in one summer, for example. I also read long, rambling, unresolved stories which I believe originated in the New Wave movement. Lots of Aldiss, Spinrad, Ellison, Moorcock, definitely J. G. Ballard! I think probably even Gene Wolfe could have been included in this company, and I really enjoyed his works, from his Book of the New Sun quartet to his absolutely wonderful collection of ambiguous short stories, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, and Other Stories (yes, that's the real title).

What's the point of this ramble? It is captured in that little gem of a paragraph by China Mieville above. Those stories were about the journey, rather than the resolution of a conflict. A story existed for our characters, but we were only privy to bits and pieces of it. It was always a bit like seeing Hamlet entirely as incidental action in the background, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern muck about with their own petty concerns, never getting any kind of answer to their questions.

I used to love these kind of stories, and in fact seemed to have a brain hardwired for them. I honestly recall watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, and fully understanding it, what it was about, the broad themes, and the fact that the unexplained elements didn't matter. Maybe it didn't happen that way, but the fact I remember it that way illustrates my predilections from my early years.

So I picked up Things with a whiff of nostalgia, and a bit of trepidation as well. I don't read big, fat books anymore, and I certainly tend to pick books with a beginning, a middle and an end, more often than not. Just to be on the safe side, I picked a story somewhere in the middle of the book (before even reading the introduction), basing my choice on the fact that it was only ten pages long. I read The Quarry at the YMCA, while Kelly attended her swimming class. Reaching the end of the story, my first reaction was, "So?" Oh dear, that's not good. Is it me? I was afraid I would return the book to the library without so much as a second chance.

Kelly wasn't finished, though, so I browsed the endpapers and found that The Great God Pan was considered a great story. At my next opportunity I read it, and it was quintessential New Wave. Very literary, ambiguous, hinting at things we are never told. I was taken back to those halcyon days of yore. For a moment I was transported. I set the book aside and began to think about much of what I've set down here in my rambling way. I went on to read the introduction, and the quote at the head of this article struck me particulary hard. This is what I used to strive for when finding books.

I still appreciate artful ambiguity in storytelling, if it isn't an excuse for the author not really having a story to tell. But now the 'journey' can be tiring, leaving me anxious ("are we there yet?") if it wanders on too long. The pace of my life, or rather the volume, seems to be too distracting to allow long reveries. If I picked up Delany's Dhalgren today, a book I pored over lovingly when it was first out, I would no doubt read the first few chapters, then reluctantly put it down. I know that were I to pursue it doggedly, it would be a matter of a chapter a night for the first week, ten or twenty pages each over the next week, then a mute accusing book on a pile of other books I've never finished. So I admit I've changed and move on. Structured books, beginning, middle, end. Shorter books, less than five hundred pages most times. Often non-fiction (anything more ambiguous and unresolved than real life?).

I should mention that I also attempted to read a book by China Mieville recently. Perdido Street Station was getting a lot of buzz, so I got it from the library. Thick 700 page book. The protagonist seemed kin to Ignatius Reilly ala Confederacy of Dunces, only in a fantasy setting. What is it with science fiction and the flawed character? Anyway, I could see that in another life, I'd have enjoyed it, but not this one. Back on to the library with it.

Now you know why I get so many of the books I try to read from the library.

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