Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Machine In Shaft Ten - M John Harrison

I bought this collection of short stories when it first came out. Lost it somewhere along the line. Treated myself to a ‘new’ copy. And what a treat. I had forgotten what a remarkably diverse collection it was. All the roots of Harrison’s subsequent work are clearly visible here. Indeed, the collection is remarkable in several ways.

To begin with is that diversity. Although there is a clear Harrison voice (the thematic continuity is very strong from story to story), and the presence of entropy marks these works as belonging to that very loose school of writers emerging at the time, the range given to the voice is extremely broad. Naturalistic narrative, surreal work, mainstream and experimental work. It’s all there.

It might be thought that such a wandering about through styles and content is a sign of uncertainty, of an author in search of voice. Far from it. These stories are not explorations casting about in the hope of finding something unique. The voice is already certain. What we have is a demonstration of the range of that voice. If at times it gets a bit Ballardian or Aldissian, if at times it displays a touch of Moorcock, this is not to be wondered at. Harrison was part of that choir. But his voice is very much his own.

That an author should be allowed such variety is also remarkable. This is not so much the case in the field of science fiction. There has always been greater leeway for astonishing changes of direction, content, and style. It is why versatile and literary writers are so attracted to the genre as that freedom to experiment with form comes as part of the package.

In this collection we have sketches for and from evolving work, especially the Viriconium cycle of tales – a fantasy form that eschews world building in favour of inhabiting the illogic of an alternate reality. This is a theme to be found in all his work, especially the recent books, Light and Nova Swing.

These are not necessarily mature tales, but they are confident. And if you want to see how short fiction can be stretched beyond the bounds of the conventional short story, there are worse places to look than in this collection.