Friday, 9 October 2009

The Committed Men - M John Harrison

I must have read this. I have the original paperback. I remember buying it. It shows signs of wear (which means I read it more than once). Yet I did not remember anything. Normally a scene or an image will stay fixed somewhere in the subconscious (more often than not in my case attached to entirely the wrong book), yet this was like reading the book for the very first time. And was I disappointed? No. Simply mystified that such a wonderful book didn’t somehow make more of an impression.

Published in 1971, I suspect this was overshadowed by other works around at the time. It certainly follows the entropic theme that was so prevalent in works by others associated with the New Wave – Aldiss, Ballard, Moorcock, Sladek, and so on. Indeed, you can see the elements employed by those writers standing at the core of this work. A post-apocalyptic landscape, wet and chilly. A band of misfits on a seemingly pointless and hopeless quest. A peppering of the off-beat, with nods to other authors, especially that other MJ.

Yet for all that, this is Mike Harrison’s work and no pale shadow of anyone else’s. Everything that appears in later, more mature work, is to be found here. The same refusal to play god with world building. The same dark humour. The same surreal settings that blossom like fungus and mould across the face of the real. And by saying this is to be found in Harrison’s more mature work is not to imply this is somehow immature. Far from it.

We have here a work that is assured and highly accomplished as well as, dare I say it, literary. The characters are interesting. They may not develop much, but that is not the point of the book. And we are certainly left with enough to be curious about how they came to be as they are and where they might go afterwards. The portrayal of a society dissolving into the mire is well realised. We are left wanting more.

The book is also short and tightly written. One could wish that authors and publishers would get back to work of this length. If a story requires length, then it should be long, but much sf these days is bloated, full of stuff that doesn’t need to be there to tell the story. Publishing seems to demand 100,000 plus words when many stories would be far better told in 70,000 or less.

If you like Harrison’s later work, this is well worth seeking out.