My life in outer space

Harrison – M John

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 13 – Gardner Dozois (Ed) (2000)

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 13

A decent crop of stories from 1999 many of which seem preoccupied with the theme – either subtly or overtly – of longevity or perhaps to be more accurate the preservation of body and/or personality.
It’s a mixed bag, but the overall quality is high.

The Wedding Album (1999) David Marusek (Asimov’s 1999.06)

Marusek takes the basic concept that photographs will develop into ‘sims’ – 3D sentient captures. He then runs with the idea on a surprising and twisting journey into the future.

10 to 16 to 1 (1999) James Patrick Kelly (aka 1016 to 1) (Asimov’s 1999.06)

A visitor from the future to the 1960s has to recruit a young boy into a mission to save the world from nuclear holocaust. Emotive and well-characterised.

Winemaster (1999) Robert Reed (F&SF July 1999)

Robert Reed is a master of strangeness and envisions a plague which destroys and recreates humans as digitised entities. Very clever.

Galactic North (1999) Alastair Reynolds (Interzone #145)

Reynolds here – over a vast span of time – tells us the origin of a situation detailed in his Revelation Space novels and a long chase across time and space. Marvellous stuff. An exemplary example of new space opera.

Dapple: A Hwarhath Historical Romance (1999) Eleanor Arnason (Asimov’s 1999.09)

A romantic tale of a young female alien belonging to a curious species. They are gay by nature and only turn to heterosexuality in order to breed. The girl wants to be an actor but as this is a strictly male occupation she disguises herself as a boy in order to pursue her career.
A romantic and poetic piece.

People Came from Earth (1999) Stephen Baxter (Moon Shots, July 1999)

Following a nanocaust the survivors of a moon colony struggle to keep the human race alive. Another piece which is romantic in nature and despite being scientifically accurate is more poetic than realistic.

Green Tea (1999) Richard Wadholm (Asimov’s, October 1999)

Dense and slightly baroque Hard SF here in which exotic matter is stored on the vane of a spaceship in order that it will be transmuted and destroy a nearby star in an act of revenge. Cleverly structured first person piece. Hard work, but worth persevering with.

The Dragon of Pripyat (1999) novelette by Karl Schroeder (Tesseracts 8, October 1999)

One of the best in this collection. A freelance troubleshooter is sent to the Chernobyl site as intelligence suggests that terrorists may be planning to blow open the ‘sarcophagus’ containing the failed reactor. However, tales of a dragon living in the poisoned town seem to point to something else going on. Excellent writing and characterisation.

Written in Blood (1999) Chris Lawson (Asimov’s June 1999)

Another excellent piece, the title of which refers to a muslim and his daughter on their Hajj, who meet a man who can write the text of the Koran into DNA. Again, excellent characterisation, and containing a hefty swipe at the practice of female genital mutilation.

Hatching the Phoenix (1999) Frederik Pohl (Amazing Stories, Fall 1999)

A late Heechee story in which Gelle-Klara Moynlon visits a project she has funded which is capturing and enhancing the light from a system that has already been destroyed. The enhanced resolution means they can observe an intelligent species on the surface before the nova rendered them extinct.

Suicide Coast (1999) M. John Harrison (F&SF Jul 1999)

A very dark tale from Harrison about dangerous sports, software and the nature of friendship.

Hunting Mother (1999) Sage Walker (Not of Woman Born – Mar 1999)

On a converted asteroid, an elderly genetic scientist and her half-cougar ‘son’ dance with death in a very poetic, romantic piece on the theme of how the old have to give way to the new.

Mount Olympus (1999) Ben Bova (Analog Feb 1999)

A workmanlike but unoriginal tale from Bova which features a rescue from the caldera of Olympus Mons on Mars

Border Guards (1999) Greg Egan (Interzone #148 Oct 1999)

Egan postulates a future where immortal humans live in an infinite array of worlds called The Territories. A young man around a century old meets one of the creators of the Jewel, the device which, when implanted, absorbs the cells and functions of the brain. Mind blowing stuff.

Scherzo with Tyrannosaur (1999) Michael Swanwick (Asimovs July 1999)

A prelude to ‘Bones of the Earth’, set in a future where enigmatic aliens have given humans the secret of Time Travel. Tourists can travel to a thousand years before the dinosaurs are wiped out and dine on plesiosaur steaks. Swanwick examines some of the benefits, consequences and pitfalls of time travel very cleverly here.

A Hero of the Empire [Roma Eterna] (1999) Robert Silverberg (F&SF Oct 1999)

Silverberg in his alternate world where the Roman Empire continues to the present day. An exiled favourite of the Emperor is sent to Mecca where he encounters a modern-day Mohamed.
Expertly done, giving much food for thought.

How We Lost the Moon, a True Story by Frank W. Allen (1999) Paul J. McAuley (Moon Shots, July 1999)

A great short piece by McAuley which details what happens when a small black hole escapes from a research facility on the dark side of the moon. As expected, well written with interesting characterisation. Much better than Greg Benford’s novel ‘Artefact’ which uses a similar premise (on Earth) but falls down on the one dimensional characters.

Phallicide (1999) Charles Sheffield (Science Fiction Age Sep 1999)

Sheffield writes here from the viewpoint of a young woman brought up in a US cult, who is allowed certain liberties because she has a talent for Chemistry and pharnaceuticals. The cult employ her skills to develop Viagra-style drugs to keep the elderly Patriarch and his aging minions sexually active. When one of the eldwrs plans to marry her thirteen year old daughter, she decides to rebel.
It raises many social and ethical questions and may have benefited from being developed into a longer format.

Daddy’s World (1999) Walter Jon Williams (Not of Woman Born – Mar 1999)

A very decent piece about the digitisation of consciousness and what it may mean in real terms.

A Martian Romance (1999) Kim Stanley Robinson (The Martians – 1999)

One of Robinson’s alternate tales of his terraformed Mars in which the terraforming has failed. Some of the residents embark on a trip across one of the frozen seas.

The Sky-Green Blues (1999) Tanith Lee (Interzone #142 – 1999)

A tale of alien love and the reality experienced by a fictional character. Poetic but a little odd.

Exchange Rate (1999) Hal Clement (Absolute Magnitude, Winter 1999)

Clement does what he does best here which is to postulate exploration of life on a planet five times the radius of the earth. It’s ravaged by earthquakes, has very little hydrogen, and a complex atmospheric mix. Despite his years Clement has managed to keep pace with the younger writers.

Everywhere (1999) Geoff Ryman (Interzone, #140 February 1999)

A positive view of the future from Ryman at a time when The Angel of The North is a historical landmark. Superlative writing.

Hothouse Flowers • (1999) • shortstory by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October-November 1999)

The concept of keeping old people alive taken to a logical but absurd conclusion.

Evermore (1999) Sean Williams (Altair #4, August 1999)

A probe containing the digitised copies of prospective colonists has its main drive destroyed by an encounter with a micrometeor. The human personalities, living in isolated virtual worlds and after thousands of years being borderline insane are brought together for a radical proposition.

Of Scorned Women and Causal Loops (1999) Robert Grossbach (F&SF Jan 1999)

The hadron collider is the setting for this intriguing time travel murder investigation.

Son Observe the Time (1999) Kage Baker (Asimovs May 1999)

Part of Baker’s ‘Company’ series which features an organisation of immortal time travellers. Here they are in San Francisco before the great earthquake of 1906 attempting to conserve art and literature that would otherwise have been destroyed. Someone else is there, however, with an altogether different agenda. Excellent stuff.

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Viriconium Nights – M John Harrison (1985)

.Viriconium Nights

A series of tales set in Harrison’s wonderful and baroque Viriconium universe.

‘Viriconium Knights’ is not set in the Viriconium that we know from ‘The Pastel City’. The young assassin, Ignace Retz, has an encounter with an old man and a tapestry which reveals disturbing visions of other Viriconiums. Like the novels these stories are packed with inventive and curious imagery and characters. The society is richly imagined, down to the smallest detail, and there are echoes of icons and symbols from elsewhere in the Viriconium canon, such as the old man’s metal eagle, reminiscent of the finely-crafted metal birds of Cellur.
Ignace Retz sees visions of himself in the tapestry, but he is identified in these visions as tegeus-Cromis.

Lords of Misrule’ is a short tone-poem of a piece in which tegeus-Cromis (or a version of tegeus-Cromis, since the city here is called Uriconium) visits a strangely-shaped homestead lying in the path of an invasion. An ‘idiot-boy’ keenly displays his Mari, an elaborately decorated horse’s skull with a hinged jaw, mounted on a pole which, again, is used for an undefined ritual purpose, its origins perhaps long forgotten to the Uriconians, but associated – as the title suggests – with ancient British Pagan practices.

The Mari reappears in ‘Strange Great Sins’, a tale told by a ‘sin-eater’, summoned to a house to eat the sins of a dead child (another ritual). He tells the story of his strange half-mad uncle. The sin-eater only begins to know and understand his uncle following his death and the young man’s move to Viriconium to take over his rooms, there discovering his lifelong obsession with a dancer and his secret (again ritualistic) shrine to her.

The Dancer From The Dance’ is another tale set in what appears to be an alternate Viriconium. In the novel ‘In Viriconium’ Harrison posits the idea that that the Earth is so old that reality itself has begun to break down. Here, the spaces within the city seem to have become fluid and unmeasurable as Crome discovers when he is forced – by fate, circumstance or design – onto Allman’s Heath with a dancer and a dwarf clown, each of which have their own practised arts of bodily expression. The dancer is Vera Ghillera, with whom the narrator’s uncle fell in love in ‘Strange Great Sins’.

The Luck in The Head’ again features the pagan rituals which are a recurring motif throughout the collected Viriconium works. An assassin is recruited by a mysterious woman through a dream of a sacrificial lamb to kill Mama Vooley.
It’s a dark and highly imaginative piece rich with textural detail. It was also converted into a graphic novel in collaboration with Ian Moore.
Characters appear and reappear within these tales, but one is never certain whether they are the same people or their potential selves in another incarnation of the city. This was device pioneered by Moorcock, most notably in his Jerry Cornelius series – to which Harrison contributed – although Harrison has here taken the concept to an extremely sophisticated level.

The Lamia and Lord Cromis’ reintroduces tegeus-Cromis, of ‘The Pastel City’ on a seemingly fatal quest to kill the Lamia who is a curse upon his family. Five of his immediate male ancestors have died in the act of killing the Lamia. The Lamia has always returned to be killed by the next in line.
It’s a Spartan and disturbing tale and – like the other stories – not a little weird, but, one is easily seduced by the prose, the obsessive attention to detail and the smothering entropic atmosphere of stagnation and decay.
The last tale ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ is the most enigmatic, being a story set in Manchester of the author’s attempts to find the way into Viriconium. The beauty of it is the captured surreal banality of conversation and characters, oddly echoing the characters of Viriconium, yet firmly rooted in our own society. The signs of burgeoning entropy are all around us, reflected in the redundant and often meaningless exchanges of words between those the narrator overhears.
Viriconium is accessible, he discovers, through reflective surfaces such as windows and mirrors, immediately suggesting that the City is ultimately a reflection of our own society, tied to its empty rituals and loth to embrace change.


The Centauri Device – M John Harrison (1975)

The Centauri Device

Captain Truck, son of Annie Truck, is the last of the Centaurans; a humanoid race whom humanity mostly exterminated during a terrible war. What was left of the race fled into the galaxy and intermingled, sometimes breeding with humans.
It was thought during the final stages of the war that the Centaurans had invented a Doomsday device. Now, it seems, that device has been discovered, but it can only be operated by a Centauran, and Truck is the only one left.
In this somewhat baroque future where Truck’s ship’s engineer is a Chromian dwarf called Fixx, and his best friend is a somewhat dim individual but brilliant guitar player, earth is split between the Arabs and Israelis and an endless war is in its prime.
Truck is pursued by the Arab and Israeli military, an anarchist artist magician and the religious faction represented by the Openers, whose followers believe that the way to enlightenment is via installing windows in their bodies to expose their inner organs to the world and the galaxy.
It’s a rollercoaster ride through a Dystopian future which very much symbolises the stylistic SF of the 1970s. It’s interesting to note that the Chromian dwarf possibly links this novel with the Viriconium series. Harrison perhaps borrowed Moorcock’s ubiquitous idea of the multiverse – in which the world is duplicated and distorted through infinity – to use in his Viriconium series since some of the stories of the city seem to be set in an alternate version of that world. Maybe TCD is set in an earlier version of one of these universes, or maybe not.
The Seventies was a time when SF occasionally put on the Glam Rock drag of fantasy, and certainly this novel has its fantasy trappings, from the hats and cloaks to the baroque magician – who produces green carnations from behind the ears of unsuspecting gawpers.
There are the caricatured grotesques such as General Alice Gaw of the Israeli military, the hermaphrodite whore, Grishkin the Opener Priest, Fixx the psychotic dwarf and Truck’s paranoid and slightly disturbed wife.
It is an important novel of The Seventies, a signpost showing where we were and where we were going.


In Viriconium – M John Harrison (1982)

In Viriconium

‘In Viriconium’ follows the satirist and diarist Ashlyme, a man who, much like Goya, is commissioned by jaded society figures and paints them unflatteringly, exposing their inner natures.
A plague is spreading across the city and when the boundaries of its infection expand to cover the home and studio of fellow artist Audsley King, Ashlyme resolves to remove her from the plague-zone by whatever means.
Thus begins a complex and haunting narrative in which Ashlyme becomes willingly or unwillingly involved with other residents of Viriconium. There is the Fat Mam, Audsley’s companion and fortune-teller. Cellur, the ancient alien creator of the metal birds from ‘The Pastel City’ makes an appearance, separated from his stored memories and unable to remember his previous life or indeed, how old he really is.
Reality is beginning to break down within the city. Another dwarf, The Great Cairo, appears to be sharing his control over the City with the Barley Brothers, a couple of Gods or at least elemental forces who have taken on human form only to revel in the excesses of human stupidity and intoxication.
Attempts to rescue Audsley, who resists the notion that she needs to be saved, end in various failures. The Great Cairo, who involves himself in the scheme for his own self-aggrandisement, kills one of the women who impede them from smuggling a drugged Audsley away from the plague zone. He then pins the murder on his accomplices and blackmails Ashlyme into assisting him with various schemes of his own, including the wooing of the Fat Mam, for whom the Great Cairo has developed a passion.
Throughout, the City itself broods in the background, sinking under the weight of its detritus.


Light – M John Harrison (2002)

Light

‘On the barren surface of an asteroid, located deep in the galaxy beneath the unbearable light of the Kefahuchi Tract, lie three objects: an abandoned spacecraft, a pair of bone dice covered with strange symbols and a human skeleton. What they are and what they mean are the mysteries explored and unwrapped in LIGHT, M John Harrison’s triumphant return to science fiction.’

Blurb from the 2003 Gollancz paperback edition.

After taking a twenty-year sabbatical from the writing of genre fiction, Harrison returns as a blinding flash and a deafening report with this slick and complex piece of Space Opera.
The narrative alternates between the present day (or at least around the turn of the millennium) and the far far future among the strange denizens of the fringes of the Kefahuchi Tract. There, humanity is at war with an insect race called the Nastic.
They have also discovered the leavings of an Elder Race, a species so powerful they could create planets and suns and locate them wherever they wished. They left behind the fragments of a technology they called K-Tech; a technology impossible to reverse-engineer but one whose software has been grafted onto ‘K-Ships’; cyborg hybrids of human and ship.
Three narratives are intertwined. At the dawn of the 21st Century we follow Michael Kearney who. along with his partner Brian Tate are researching quantum states in the hope of discovering processes by which a quantum computer might be developed. They have a state of the art lab into which Kearney has incongruously introduced two cats; one black, one white.
We discover, within the first few pages, that Kearney is a serial killer, dispatching random victims as a placatory sacrifice to a creature called the Shrander which is pursuing him. Long before, Kearney stole a pair of mysterious bone dice from the Shrander and now uses them in experiments of chance and causality as he once used Tarot cards.
The second narrative takes us to 2400 AD and follows Ed Chianese, a former daredevil space-pilot who lives among the planets on the border of the Tract. As Kearney is pursued by the Shrander, Ed is pursued by the twin crime-lords, Bella and Evie Cray (the Cray Sisters in effect) and is pushed into an inevitable sequence of events which leads him to become a prophet for the mysterious Sandra Chen and The Circus of Pathet Lao.
The third narrative is that of Seria Mau Genlicher who exists in cyborg symbiosis with her K-ship ‘The White Cat’. She in turn is being pursued by a cabal of ships who are after an alien artifact in her possession which could lead to an entire planet of unmined K-Technology. The artifact seems to do nothing but ask for ‘Dr Haends to report to surgery’ when activated.
The three narratives ultimately converge but have elements in common such as the recurring imagery of black or white cats. In Sandra Chen’s museum section there is a piece entitled ‘Kearney and Tate staring into a computer monitor’. In Kearney’s time-stream there are unnoticed news items which refer to the discovery of the Kefahuchi Tract.
Each of the three protagonists is searching for answers to something; each is being pursued, and each is involved in unconventional relationships. Kearney is bound to his anorexic ex-wife; Ed develops a relationship with a vast rickshaw driver called Annie Glyph while Seria finds a strange affinity with Billy Anker – the man who discovered the artefact – before she abandons him on a moon contaminated with a fractal virus.
It is refreshing that Harrison envisions a future in which humans – and indeed ships – are as neurotic as they are today.
Harrison’s usual theme of entropy is laced through the book. ‘The Beach’ – as the area near the Kefahuchi Tract is known – is littered with abandoned worlds and suns, as if jaded races had just given up and died. There is certainly an air of universe-weariness running through this which is, to a certain extent, dispelled in the denouement.
Above all, it is a novel about people and how the past has or has not affected them. Seria – stripped of most of her physical body and locked into a tank – is haunted by thoughts of her childhood and how her father wanted her to ‘replace’ her mother.
Conversely Ed only remembers his time as a pilot and does not – until he meets Sandra Chen – remember that his past is intimately connected with Seria’s.
Kearney’s past is revisited via his wife’s testimony and his own memories, but it is not until the final pages that we discover that his fear of the Shrander was based on a misunderstanding, and that the murders were all in vain.
Even Harrison’s minor characters seem fully-rounded characters. Teg and Neena Vesicle for instance are Newmen; aliens who adopted a quasi-human form (with flaming red hair) and elected to live among humans. Despite their minor roles in the novel, Harrison fleshes them out skilfully, as indeed he does with the mysterious and retro-theatrical Uncle Zip. (one can easily imagine Tom Baker playing this in a film version).
Harrison stitches metaphors and symbols deftly into the three narratives and so has created one of the most stunning works of SF of the 21st Century so far.


A Storm of Wings – M John Harrison (1980)

A Storm of Wings

The belated sequel to ‘The Pastel City’ is a complex and sometimes impregnable novel, dense with metaphor and imagery, laced with an air of depression and futility.
tegeus-Cromis the warrior-poet is dead. It is eighty years since the War of The Two Queens, during which a large number of people of the Afternoon Cultures were ‘Reborn’ into the twilight of the world.
The Reborn, however, do not take easily to the Future and all have begun to suffer from a state of delusion plagued by visions and re-experiences of their former lives.
A new religious cult, ‘The Sign of The Locust’ is on the rise; Cellur, the immortal and alien Lord of The Birds, has re-emerged and Tomb the iron dwarf returns to Viriconium having experienced a vision.
Galen Hornwrack is unwillingly drawn into the defence of Viriconium and has the mantle of tegeus-Cromis – or at least his chain-mail and sword – thrust upon him.
The tone is unremittingly dark, and the writing undeniably beautiful. Nine years on from the writing of ‘the Pastel City’ Harrison’s style and skill has developed tremendously.
The themes of sanity, reality and perception are well to the fore, although the main theme is one of entropy and a society in which nothing is new, where anything to be discovered has already been discovered, a society so saturated in its own history that all it can do is relentlessly plunder its own past. Maybe Viriconium itself is a metaphor for post-modernism.
Cellur perhaps can be seen as a metaphor for Viriconium culture. In an attempt to escape during the War of The Two Queens he discovers a forgotten cache of his own memories, downloaded over thousands of years, peppered with unaccountable deletions and some gaps which cover millennia.


The Pastel City – M John Harrison (1971)

The Pastel City

This is the first of a series of four books involving residents of the fabulous city of Viriconium, centre of an Empire heir to the legacy of the seventeen Afternoon Cultures which have plundered and despoiled the earth for millennia. The entire series, written between 1971 and 1985 has been republished in 2001 as a single volume, ‘Viriconium’ as part of Gollancz’ ‘Fantasy Masterworks’ list.
The Pastel City is an archetypal Science Fantasy novel, i.e. Science Fiction whose mood and setting allows it the freedom to employ Fantasy devices and conventions which have a scientific basis. Cellur the scientist, for instance, with his flocks of robot birds can be seen as analogous with an archetypal Fantasy wizard, a mentor figure to the protagonists and, like ‘The Lord of The Rings’’ Saruman, lives in a tower from where he sends out his birds to be his eyes upon the world.
The heroes, tegeus-Cromis (a warrior poet) and his curious ill-sorted companions have cloaks, swords and horses, but also occasionally force-blades, a kind of light-sabre, part of the remnants of an earlier civilisation’s technological weaponry.
They are caught up in a war between two Queens laying claim to the throne of Viricionium in a situation similar to that of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. The Old Queen has garnered support in the North and has resurrected an army of genetically-engineered three-eyed soldiers, bred to do nothing but kill, and consume the brains of their victims.
Superficially it’s a straightforward fantasy quest, but the beauty of this book lies in the quality of the writing and the poetic imagery of the landscape and settings.
Pervading the story is the theme of Entropy and the futility of progress. Harrison ‘frequently uses entropy as a metaphor for the meaningless struggle of everyday existence.’ As Rhys Hughes puts it. [1]

All that is to be discovered has already been discovered by the seventeen preceding cultures which have risen and fallen, and has now been mostly forgotten.
The ‘geteit chemosit’ – the cyborg army which marches across the ruined landscapes – is at first portrayed as a symbol of the potential dangers involved in technological development, and though they are employed as mercenaries in a bloody war it is ultimately discovered that their original purpose was something quite different.
The subtextual message – like that of Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ – is that Humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes.
The novel suffers to a minor extent from some overworked clichés of Fantasy Fiction: the swords, the horses, the rings, although the dwarf concept is given a fresh and original twist in the form of Tomb, an engineering genius who compensates for his small size by constructing a robot exoskeleton using rediscovered technology.
The style is very close to that of Michael Moorcock, who was involved along with Harrison in ‘New Worlds’ and The British New Wave movement. Harrison contributed to Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius Chronicles and there may be a veiled reference to Moorcock’s ‘Elric’ books when Harrison describes tegeus-Cromis’ sword:

‘The right fist rested on the pommel of his plain long sword, which, contrary to the fashion of the time, had no name.’ – (Chapter One)

There is some bad dialogue here and there.
‘He clutched desperately at the fingers of his left hand. ‘Grif, I could not kill it!
And I have lost the Tenth Ring of Neap.’’ – (Chapter Four)

This, for me, crossed the border into self parody.
Structurally, it follows the Mythic Quest structure fairly closely. The hero is forced by circumstance into a quest, encounters allies, meets a mentor, faces setbacks and eventually confronts an enemy – an old friend turned traitor.

[1] ‘Climbing to Viriconium’ – The Zone magazine (Issue #4, Summer 1996.)