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Settling the World: Selected Stories Paperback – 20 August 2020
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'A new book by M. John Harrison in an event. The recurring idea in many of the stories is the need for escape, and the impossibility of it... In other hands, this might come across as cynical or hectoring, but Harrison is far too subtle a writer for that. There is genuine sorrow here... and genuine anger too...' --The New Scientist
'Harrison draws out his ghostly characters from behind the bones of the plot, allowing their stories to be emotional, poignant and disquietingly possible...' --Lamorna Ash, The Times Literary Supplement (£)
'His novels have been likened to J.G. Ballard's, but these stories are more like satirical set pieces than brooding psycho-fictions: genial and generous, finding wry mirth in absurdity.' --Houman Barekat, The Spectator
'In the far-distant future, when hyper-intelligent scorpions are looking back on the culture of the upright apes that once cluttered this planet, I think they will be frankly bemused that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that Ian McEwan won the Man Booker Prize, that Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer and yet all the time M John Harrison was staring them in the face.' --Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
'One of the best writers of fiction currently at work in English.' --Robert Macfarlane
'The exactness, acute self-consciousness and vigilant self-restraint of Harrison's writing give it piercing authenticity.' --Ursula K. Le Guin
The wit and effortless elegance of the writing are impeccable.' --Ursula K Le Guin, The Guardian
About the Author
- Publisher : Comma Press (20 August 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1912697289
- ISBN-13 : 978-1912697281
- Dimensions : 12.6 x 1.6 x 19.41 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 28,425 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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This collection begins in 1971, bypassing Harrison’s earlier work, which was redolent of J.G. Ballard and the late hippie ethos then suffusing Ladbroke Grove. “Running Down” and “The Incalling” exhibit a profoundly reworked style. In them, what seem reasonable protagonists face grimly unreasonable situations, portrayed in a new, confident prose. Harrison’s evolution was striking. Among other influences, one can point to the level tone of John Wyndham, the empathy and snapshot detail found in H.E.Bates, and the beady anatomist’s eye with which Angus Wilson dissected British class and squalor. Yet despite all this, Harrison was still some distance from a fiction that could square up to his main concerns – notably, the addictive interaction of fantasy writing with the lazy, pitiable, or politically blighted needs which characterised so much of its readership.
It wasn’t until “The Ice Monkey,” from 1980, that he accessed a technique to address and upend that dependency. This may (or may not) be the story of a curse - but any resolution, even the possibility of the supernatural, is withheld. It’s up to us to assign its sense. After that, with steadily increasing poise, standard genre arcs and punch-lines get pushed to the margin, cold print becomes emergence, and the reader is left as the real spectre that haunts and activates these narratives. What they are (and what we are, too, having absorbed them) is often uncertain, a matter of wave or particle. The ambiguity has baffled, even enraged an audience that still expects head-patting reassurance from its authors. Even so, Harrison’s sophistication shouldn’t deter. His work may aim through the page at the paratextual but it’s seldom glib, always intriguing, and often extremely funny.
Its indeterminacy gets foregrounded in “Science & the Arts,” which could well be the most accomplished piece in this collection, an example of actual SF where hard uncertainty theory blends with the ifs and buts of desire. A longer, more recent tale, “Doe Lea,” exceeds even that formal achievement, blurring its own substance and perimeter. At first glance, this explores paternal loss: a wound Harrison has fingered previously in “Nova Swing” and (not included here) his extraordinary blog-post, “The Year So Far.” Yet as “Doe Lea” unfolds, nothing holds true, not even pronunciation of its title. The narrative voice is less distraught than scattered, anomic. Events it discloses are humdrum, and far removed from grief. None the less, the suspicion grows that its descriptions are not just unreliable but impossible, perhaps a screen memory for quite incoherent trauma. What remains may (or may not) he a Lacanian ghost story, in which a barely present point of view is defined and possessed by its own signifiers. As such, it represents an abstracted warning about what can happen to any of us as somebody’s child, should we not exorcise that identity and fail “to be” in our own right. Other interpretations may (or may not) prove just as telling: unpack your own. If nothing else, though, that theme propels us to the end of the book with “The Crisis” (2017), predictive of both Covid and the dada shock of Brexit, and featuring yet another signified, rootless protagonist who meets an ironic end. It also seems to mark one outcome of Harrison’s fascination with Tarkovsky: here, finally, a Stalker gets stalked. Anybody more concerned with words than the realities from which they fall might want to think about that.
Prefaces rarely merit praise as distinct work, but Jennifer Hodgson’s is a wonderful exception. Warm, lucid, and deeply informed, it underlines the strengths of this book and Harrison’s writing as a whole. One can only hope she leads new readers to “Light” and “The Course of the Heart,” as well as to Harrison’s other collections, such as “Things That Never Happen.” It’s unlikely you’ll need any further recommendation than hers - but if so, here it is.