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M. John Harrison's Light and The Centauri Device

There are two M. John Harrison novels that you should read, more or less immediately, if you haven’t. The Centauri Device and Light. It’s an investment though, since Centauri Device is only available in a Gollancz (UK) SF Masterworks edition, so if you’re interested, read his story Tourism here, or in your copy of years best SF 22, which of course you own. If you like that, then the investment is worth it. That said, some people have hated the story and then loved the books, so your mileage may vary. It doesn’t really matter, though, because if you don’t love M. John Harrison, you’re a bad person. Fundamentally and without question.

I’d read Light before, a couple of years ago, on the strength of a recommendation by someone, though I can’t recall who, although it was probably Jeremy Lassen, book pimp and co-owner of Nightshade Books. Cheated a little, and bought the UK edition cheap out of Canada, since it wasn’t coming out here for ages. I thought that it was great then, but the qualities of the book didn’t really stick with me that first time. I kept recommending the book to people who would never read it unless I loaned it to them, which, I think, is how I lost my first copy. It’s out there somewhere, unless I got it from the library. That time period is a bit hazy with boredom and frustration. In any case, I bought it again the other day without hesitation. Harrison both is and isn’t one of my favorite writers, but mostly is. He writes about losers, mostly, and not the cute, cuddly kind that you can feel well about when they make good at the end, such as you might find in vintage Gibson and Sterling. Most of the people in his novels are sad figures with massive flaws as visible and obvious as suppurating sores, who generally manage to fuck up everyone around them in the long run, both their friends and their enemies, and in Harrison’s work, these categories are terribly fungible. So, losers, kicked around by forces that they can neither affect nor ultimately comprehend and being pushed towards some end that we cannot see or anticipate, with the reader barely stuck in place by a mixture of charismatic characterization and the sick fascination that rivets your attention to an accident in progress. It sounds a lot like the overarching themes of the cyberpunks, really and would be fairly flat at this point were not Harrison one of the better writers working today.

It’s interesting to compare the two books side by side. They were written in more or less the same milieu about twenty nine years apart. Harrison has written little else in this particular setting, but I think that he must think about it, now and then, because the universe that we wander into in The Centauri Device is rough, still a little just off the rack, and the world in Light is an old but sturdy thing, many-patched and full of details and utterly comfortable to wear. Device is told through a smudged lens, its narrator utterly reliable but whose deep sympathies his characters and for the story that he’s telling come through very clearly. Light doesn’t avail itself of unreliable techniques either, and it’s narrative voice couldn’t be more neutral, but it almost seems as if the backing behind the story has slipped, the ontology underneath itself become unreliable. You might think that I’m speaking of Dickian ontological riffs, but it isn’t really that. Reality in Light is just as banal as in the phenomenal universe, it’s just less… concrete. By looking, you find, even if what you’re looking for wasn’t there to be discovered when you started looking. It seems to me to be quantum theory taken as both narrative ethos and as a force deeply tied to the observer, whomever there is to observe. Every method of going faster than light is possible, if you try it. The universe spawns anxious, grandmotherly ghosts from our unease and gawky aliens from our frustration at our own awkwardnesses. The three interlocking stories tease the reader, worry at their own coherence constantly. The universe is tired and outsiderish, more than willing to play these nasty little jokes endlessly.

The Centauri Device is full of poetic graces and the intentionally harsh enjambments of sense words with exquisitely mistuned modifiers that the cyberpunks would later call ‘crammed prose’. There’s an excitement to it, a sense that there are new things to be done here, on this particular overtrod path. It’s a young man’s book and a book mired deep in the cold war, one primary tenet being that there’s a third nation of the sick and the tired who are weary of the war which is their environment entire. This doesn’t, I think, decrease its relevance, for all that the Cold War has been over for all of my adult life. There’s always a massive conflict with which you are peripherally involved that and you yearn for it to be over, no matter which side prevails. Backed up by the strength of the writing and the a science fictional background which refuses to take itself seriously. And it’s funny. I mean, what more can you ask for?

Light is a different matter entirely. You’ll laugh, sure, but there’s a grimness here that a few laughs cannot overcome. The character in Device were more lovable losers than the ones here, with the possible exception of Chinese Ed. A sense of fatalism and inevitability overhangs and cannot be dislodged. You get the feeling that when a character is less that well rounded, that it is intentional. They’re flat because they have nothing more to offer the world than they offer their reader. They are simply what they are and it isn’t enough. The writing, which is always important to consider, when you’re speaking of Harrison, because his plots do not alway enliven and his characters, while well limned, make you want to be sick most of the time, the writing is more understated, without the shimmer and the bounce and it doesn’t force your attention here and there, but you never forget that it’s there. By ‘modern’ standard of mimetic writing, I suppose that it’s something of a failure, because occasionally you’ll find yourself pulled out of the story and forced to re-read a line or or a choice phrase just because it’s so good. But I’ve never held with the theory that writing should be a pane through which a scene is viewed. That particular pile of horseshit has led to more boring writing about imagined affairs than I care to recall, and I generally shy away from mainstream literary fiction. Writing should suit the story and Light manages this effortlessly and admirably.

Both books have warts, and their subject matter isn’t exactly what many people will pick up for pleasure reading. They’re quite weird in a lot of ways, and their gaze is obsessive. They’re worth reading, though, without any sort of doubt at all. I recommend them to everyone (although a lot of people are stopped dead by the first chapter of Light, but you should press on). They are not art that comforts, but they can be learned from.

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