Interview: M. John Harrison
By Cheryl Morgan
9 June 2003
M. John Harrison has been an inspiration to both readers and writers of SF and fantasy in the UK for over three decades. Amongst his greatest admirers is the new British fantasy sensation, China Miéville. Of late most of Harrison's output has been somewhat mainstream-oriented, but recently he has returned to more obvious genre work with the stunning space opera, Light. The book was co-winner of the Tiptree Award (along with John Kessel's "Stories for Men") and has been short-listed for both the British Science Fiction Association Awards and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Here Harrison talks to Cheryl Morgan about his life's work and his reawakened enthusiasm for fantastical fiction.
Cheryl Morgan: Let's start back at the beginning in the early 1970s. You were editing a magazine called New Worlds and, together with people such as Michael Moorcock and Norman Spinrad, you were causing quite a stir with something called New Wave SF. Is that something you are still proud of, or was it just something you did because you were young and rebellious? I've heard it suggested that British SF is only flourishing now because it took twenty years to recover from the disaster that was the New Wave.
M. John Harrison: I think it was worth doing. I'm not sure, from an historical perspective, that what we ended up doing was what we intended at the time. We had such ambitions, from the political to the literary. But I think we took a field that was frightened of practically everything, from its own sexuality to the politics of the day, and shook it until it took due note of those things.
CM: Is there anything else you would like to point to as evidence of its success?
MJH: Prior to the New Wave, science fiction was badly written. We added a broad new range of techniques, some of which were brand new, some of which had been available in the mainstream for half a century. In the end that turned out to be a two-way process -- we had more effect, almost, on the mainstream than on SF. It's easy to see now that writers like Will Self, Martin Amis, and Jeanette Winterson were influenced by what was going on between 1965 and 1975.
CM: You can clearly see some effect on British SF simply by going back and reading The Centauri Device and thinking, "wow, this has interstellar anarchists and beautiful spaceships with funny long names."
MJH: Some of what we did was different enough and exciting enough and, in my case, bloody-minded enough, to echo on.
CM: And most of the hot new authors that I talk to, if I ask them about their inspirations, will mention you.
MJH: Nothing ever goes away. Things just skip a generation. There was a reaction against the New Wave in the late '70s and '80s. Now the next generation is coming around and one of the ways they can offend their parents is to refer to what their grandparents were doing. I think that's very healthy. I don't expect to last as an "influence." A generation elects its own ancestors out of an initial lack of confidence, but pretty soon it finds its own feet and moves on. Also, I've got my own fish to fry. For me, now is now, then was then.
CM: Mostly what you were well known for back then were the Viriconium stories (now collected in a single volume, Viriconium, in the Fantasy Masterworks series). One of the first things that comes to mind on reading those books is that the setting is some sort of anti-Shire. Whereas with the Shire Tolkien created this idealized past that he mourned and wanted to get back to, in Viriconium you created a world for which our culture, and ones following it, are seen as representing a lost golden age.
MJH: The Pastel City retained that retrospective element, partly because the original inspiration came from the elegiac poem "Viroconium" by Mary Webb. But quite soon I began to be able to articulate my distaste for the whole idea of a past whose achievements are something to be mourned or copied. I'm not sure that I believe in a retrievable past anyway. If you think that the universe as we experience it emerges from some sort of quantum broth then the term "past" doesn't really have any meaning.
Even in more ordinary human terms there isn't much we can get at. What survives of the Elizabethan period? We can't go back there. We have no idea what they really felt about things. We can look at some objects, read some texts. But we can't experience their world as they did; those objects and texts can't have the urgency, the lively resonance, they had for their own users. Anything we do is essentially a reinvention. Despite that we have this huge enterprise which tries literally to "reconstruct" things, culminating in Britain's ridiculous heritage industry. We don't even know what was going on yesterday, let alone what was going on in 1653.
I wrote the later Viriconium stories to look to me the way the Elizabethan period looks to me -- confusion, paranoia and madness. Actually, come to think of it, that's how the world looked to me in the Thatcher period too. Barely comprehensible.
CM: One of the analyses that you see of Viriconium is that the looking back on the so-called "Afternoon Cultures" represents a Britain that is in mourning for lost days of greatness, the so-called "Post-Imperial Melancholy." And I think it does capture the mood of the country at the time you wrote it.
MJH: When I started writing, Britain was just becoming RetroLand. We had ceased to be a live culture. I don't object to "Post-Imperial Melancholy" as a description except inasmuch as it tends to be applied as if the New Wave writers were unaware of what they were doing -- as if the critic using the label has somehow discerned an unconscious shared motive we weren't able to see at the time. That's not the case. We were aware of what was happening, and we talked about it a lot.
CM: One of the things that fascinates me about Viriconium is the way that the setting gradually vanishes from view as you move through the series. In the first novel, The Pastel City, it is very much a real place, but in A Storm of Wings the invasion of the locust people begins to affect the reality of the city. By In Viriconium there is a real danger that the city itself will vanish completely. And in the short story, "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium," it has become some sort of lower class Narnia that you might just be able to get to through a painting hung in the restroom of a run-down café in Halifax.
MJH: By the time of the third Viriconium novel I was starting to explore how far you could push fictional structures, in particular those of fantasy, before they fell over and became something else. I was interested in undoing the mechanisms by which popular fiction manages space and time. I was interested in the idea that these things which seem so "real" are in fact cultural; that a particular view only exists relative to a particular instant in time, and that therefore you cannot say anything about before or after.
CM: Hence the locust people in A Storm of Wings. Their reality is very different from ours, and as their culture becomes more powerful it begins to invade Viriconium and affect human perceptions.
MJH: By the last volume, having done space and time, I had got into undermining the idea that we have fixed characters and that those characters provide "motives" which can be successfully interpreted to make our dealings with other people meaningful.
CM: As I recall, the poet, Ansel Verdigris, dies in A Storm of Wings, but is very much alive again in In Viriconium.
MJH: His reality, such as it is, is reworking itself. There is no fixed Ansel Verdigris, just as there's no fixed and dependable Viriconium. City and citizen have a possible presence, that's all. It's a quantum thing. The Viriconium characters may occupy similar niches in subsequent stories, but they aren't the same people. There is a kind of Viriconian space, in which you may expect certain types of Viriconian things to happen: but that's all. The whole idea was to un-anchor the reader from the things a fantasy reader can normally rely on. (I was also saying, "Here's the kit, make your own fantasy, just don't blame it on me." I wasn't prepared to take the standard position in which the author constructs the fantasy for the reader, thus becoming the infallible parental figure behind the text.)
CM: But of course having the world made for them is precisely what many readers want, and here we come on to The Course of the Heart. By this time Viriconium has faded completely. It is just an ideal that people might wish for. And we have Pam Stuyvestant, who is the ultimate comfort reader, desperately wanting these romantic stories and killing herself from want of them.
MJH: Exactly. My feeling about escapist fiction has softened a little down the years but it has never really changed. I think it's undignified to read for the purposes of escape. After you grow up, you should start reading for other purposes. You should have a more complicated relationship with fiction than simple entrancement. If you read for escape you will never try to change your life, or anyone else's. It's a politically barren act, if nothing else. The overuse of imaginative fiction enables people to avoid the knowledge that they are actually alive. (In fact, various evasions, various kinds of fantasy, seem to me to be a kind of bad politics in themselves, the default politics of the day, through which we maintain our Western illusions of freedom and choice.)
CM: The counterpoint to Pam's invented world is the magician, Yaxley, who is terrified of the British Museum because it is a place in which there are things that are genuinely magical and he's scared stiff of them. He won't go in there.
MJH: Yaxley runs along the interface. The way he does it, magic is not an escape. He tells Pam and Lucas and the narrator, "This is not a game. There are consequences. You knew that when you got into this, or at least you said you did. Too bad." Pam is trying so desperately to live in her fantasy. If you refuse to admit that you are alive then you don't have to admit that you are going to die. It takes all her energy to maintain that state of denial. Her misery is complete. Don't get the idea I don't feel sympathy for her. I do. She's me.
CM: The thing that strikes me most about this middle period in your career -- both The Course of the Heart and in Signs of Life -- is that they are books about wanting. Gary K. Wolfe wrote recently that fantasy fiction is about the narrative geography of desire, and that is never more so than in those two books. They are crammed full of people who are desperately, desperately wanting something that they can't have. My favorite example of that is from Signs of Life where Mick says to Christiana Spede, "You're an extraordinary person," and she snuffles and says, "I know, but what good is that when you can't have what you want?"
MJH: That's an absolutely verbatim quote. In the notebook, from life.
Once you have understood escapist fiction and the culture of escape you begin to go further back and ask what it is they're based on. What they're based on is desire.
I'm as much a fantast as anyone else in our community. Despite rumors to the contrary, I'm a romantic and an idealist. What I write seems bleak, but it stems from my understanding of what people are: this raw, raging, aching bundle of desire. Of course we have to learn to handle that, both as writers and people. Evasiveness isn't a very dignified way of approaching the problem; traditional three-volume fantasy isn't a very good way of tackling it.
CM: We've talked about how the female characters in the two books are both desperately wanting something. Pam wants to be a fantasy princess; Isobel wants to be a bird. But their male counterparts are both wanting something as well. Lucas and Mick both want to give the women what they want, or at least somehow make them happy. And their desires are as unachievable as those of the women.
MJH: That's quite a good angle on it. Lucas, I guess, is totally desperate to support Pam, because his own fantasy is at stake. But Mick has a more complicated relationship with Isobel. He's not sure whether he should accommodate her operatic behavior or try to save her from it. And of course he wants to be happy, too; he wants what he wants. This is made clearer in the short version, which was written first. [And is available in the anthology, Things That Never Happen -- CMM] Mick ends his story, "She knew what she wanted. Don't mistake me: I wanted her to have it. But imagining myself stretched out next to her on the bed night after night, I could hear the sound those feathers made, and I knew I would never sleep again for the touch of them on my face." If she has one of the things she wants -- feathers -- she can't have another thing she wants: Mick. I think that's the beginning of a sort of post-feminist recognition that if we want relationships to work we have to negotiate.
CM: Both of the books are also about reality in some way, as is much of your short fiction. The best exposition I have seen of the idea is in the story "Egnaro," in which you write: "Is it possible that the real pattern of life is not in the least apparent, but rather lurks beneath the surface of things, half hidden and only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye?" It is a sort of Lovecraftian view, but rather better written.
MJH: Or a Platonic view. Or an ironic view.
CM: And then there is that van Gogh quote that you use in The Course of the Heart. He says, "we must not judge God by this world, it is just a study that didn't come off."
MJH: I very much like the notion, what if this is the best of all possible worlds? We keep wondering whether there might not be some better world that we can touch somehow, some Platonic region prior to our own fallen version of it. But what if the world that we have is the best you can get, and beneath our world somewhere there is this other reality that is even worse?
In both of what you call the "middle period" books (not to mention most of the short stories written after 1980) many of the fictional mechanisms are predicated on this almost Kleinian sense of loss. The yearning to know what the world "really is," or partake in that, is a good place from which to begin talking about desire. Children want things, and either they get given them or they don't. When you are an adult there is no one responsible for giving you the things you want. The hidden political assumption in my work from "Settling the World" on is that if you want things to be better than they are then you have to go out and build a better world. It's no good yearning; you have to take charge. Most of my characters don't, but you are not supposed to identify with them, you are supposed to feel pity for them, learn from their mistakes.
CM: To me Signs of Life represents the nadir in the Harrisonian view of the world. The Course of the Heart is full of depressed people, but Signs of Life has an entire depressed world. It has out of control biotechnology, misuse of genetic engineering, Russian gangsters. The atmosphere is reminiscent of John Brunner's eco-disaster novel, The Sheep Look Up. The entire world is going to Hell in a handbasket.
MJH: Well, I think it is quite a realistic picture of the world we have now. The whole of Western Society is based on the idea of "if I want it I should be able to have it." The world, we tell ourselves, much the way the Edwardians did, is now under control and all that remains is to guide it into the exact shape of our dream. Two things are wrong with that. The first is that our world is only under control because we ship our chaos and garbage elsewhere. The other, what control freaks never understand, is that you can't control the whole of a situation. It is like squeezing a balloon. Compress it in one place, it bulges out somewhere else.
The world is not a L'Oréal ad. We do not live inside our own advertisements. "Egnaro" was a recognition of the West's tendency to swan-dive into its own mythology. "Egnaro" is the beautiful world of the corporate ad, in which dolphins swim alongside our car, simultaneously delighting and blessing us, and making us feel "natural" even as we wipe them out as a species. Excuse me, we don't live in a world like that. We are not going to be able to live in a world like that. The promise that we can live in a world like that is the same lie Isobel Avens tells herself. The real world of Signs of Life, the world of greed and pollution, of genetics used for the worst and feeblest of purposes, is the world that we have saddled ourselves with as a result of wanting to drive with the dolphins.
This is politics. Politics is all about dreaming, and the people who win in politics are the people who dream hardest.
CM: Do the talking cats come into this at all? At the same time as you were writing Signs of Life you were also co-writing the Gabriel King books.
MJH: Not really, no. The Gabriel King project was clearly labeled, through the use of the open pseudonym, as "not M. John Harrison." Gabriel King isn't a serious writer, and M. John Harrison is. Which is not to say that the cat books weren't fun. Parts of them I enjoyed writing very much indeed. I liked the sentimentality of it. And I liked doing the cat shows afterwards. We sold books and saw some pretty class acts. I could stand all day looking at Oriental Whites.
CM: Let's move on to Light, then. And suddenly Viriconium is back out there. It might be in the far future and far out in space, but there is this huge construct of stars and nebulae; and everything is there, everything is possible around it. Suddenly all our dreams can come true. We, the readers, might not be able to see that, because we are stuck in our time with Kearney and Tate, but somewhere out there in the space opera parts of the book the dream is real and available.
MJH: If you're an idealist, the bad things you know about the world don't exclude hope. I can't see how you could do a space opera without hope. Science is a fantastic tool, both for finding things out and for causing change. In a sense what matters is not that we actually achieve our potential, but that the potential be there. We are harried by desire, but the universe is big, and seems wide open. Light takes up every possible position I could think of around that arrangement. It's ironic and hopeful at the same time.
CM: One of the things that strikes me about Light is that the Afternoon Cultures are still there, but they are no longer us. In the Viriconium books we are at the end of our history looking back with sadness on our decay, but in Light we are the newly evolved monkeys scrabbling on the beach and thinking, "wow, look at all this cool stuff!" It is a new cycle.
MJH: Two or three people have written to me and asked whether this is the first move towards joining our time to the time of Viriconium, via the Afternoon Cultures, in a vast future history.
CM: Ah, enough for a ten-volume trilogy!
MJH: I wouldn't live long enough to finish it, would I?
The delight of Light, for me, lies in its combination of opportunism and optimism. What we don't want to see is Business Universe, the stars for profit. Hence the science-as-beachcombing idea. When the book opens the human race is stranded on the beach, essentially collecting another race's old rubbish to sell, under the impression that science has to support an economy; by the end, science has been used to do something much more liberating -- slingshot humanity into a totally debatable, totally crazy adventure.
A repeating line in Light goes: "All the things it might be, the one thing it is." One of the problems of desire is choice. At the point of choice, there is this sense of falling forward into all possible futures at once; but in the moment of doing that you find that you have chosen one of them. Offer a child three chocolate bars and she'll try to choose all of them, or, in grabbing for one, fail to recognize that she has done herself out of the other two. That's why adults are always trying to explain, "You can only have one, dear," to an armful of furious toddler. Fiction can produce a clever little lie about that. You can end a book at the point where everything shifts forward into the act of choice, but that act of choice hasn't actually been completed, and that's precisely what Ed Chianese represents in Light. Ed is this act of choice we don't see the end of. As a result we can still feel optimistic about it. We still feel that we can have everything on offer.
CM: Is that why in Light all of the possible versions of hyperspace drive work, because we haven't decided which of the possible futures we are going to move into yet?
MJH: The book is taking a tour round themes of that sort, yes. And of course all of this stuff about choice is metaphorical of the quantum realm; and vice versa.
CM: The contrast with the previous two books then, is that they are all about wanting things that you can't have, whereas in Light you create a universe in which you can not only have what you want, but anything you might possibly think of wanting.
MJH: It would seem so, by the end of the book. For about twenty minutes after reading the last sentence you are left in this warm space where you feel that anything is possible. After that -- or even before -- I would hope that you take the tour of the ironic complexities involved in Ed's optimistic act. All the things it might be, the one thing it is.
CM: One of the obvious features of Light is that it does have this split. Half of the story is told in the real world with the Kearneys and Tate, and half of it is told in the far future with Seria Mau and Ed Chianese. Somehow these have a relationship to each other.
MJH: That relationship is sort of emergent, sort of historical, sort of quantum-complex, sort of all three at once. It's partly cued by the cats, who are either white or not white. Cats and binary states, two obvious clues to the types of causality presented. The idea was to continue the sleight of hand I started in "Egnaro," which goes to the reader: "Now you see it, now you don't. This is happening; no, it is not happening. Is this a fiction; is it your fiction? Is it a fiction that the author is presenting to you? Or is it a fiction you are constructing from the text?"
CM: And it works very well. If you just think baldly of the idea of setting a book half in our very real world and half in a far future space opera world your first reaction is that it isn't going to work, but it does.
MJH: Sometimes in writing things just work, not by accident, but because all of the contingencies fall out right. While I was writing it I would just see set-pieces I could do, and do them, and they worked. I was on fire. It was so much fun. I'm not sure that I could repeat that; I'm not sure I would want to. Once you learn how to do something, and are able to repeat it at will, you should cut off your best hand and take up a completely different trade. Writing should always be on a learning curve. Light was on the curve, right up to the conclusion, which was in itself a departure. I don't think I've written more than two optimistic conclusions in my entire life. That was new for me. How should I handle that? In the end I went for humor.
CM: Oh, that's very British, you are embarrassed about how optimistic you are being so you have to laugh at yourself.
Of course, although the book has a happy ending, many people have been deeply disturbed by it. The obvious thing is that one of the major characters, Michael Kearney, is a serial killer of women. But if you look more closely the entire main cast is continually flirting with death, and there is this complex series of relationships between them. Kearney is a serial killer, and his wife, Anna, is a serial failed suicide. Seria Mau, the pilot of the cat-like warship, White Cat, is a serial destroyer of anything that catches her interest, whereas Ed Chianese is into adventure sports and is constantly risking his life in search of thrills. Anna and Michael are obsessed with death because they are depressed and frightened; Seria Mau and Ed play with death for fun. In our time it is the male who kills and the female who risks her life, in the future world those positions are reversed.
MJH: Yeah, all those pairs of opposites, dealt with across the various narratives. Someone asked me the other day, had I noticed that Annie Glyph's narrative trajectory was almost a parallel of Anna Kearney's? I said, "yeah, that's why they've got almost the same name." I always construct in parallel and opposite. It's a classic 20th century technique which I got from Katherine Mansfield. You explore your themes by constructing sets of analogies and homologies. The uncertainties of quantum mechanics were perfect for that. Context shifts black from being the opposite of white to being the same as white: both can be opposed to something else. It's one of those things that human beings do naturally and, interestingly, that computers don't seem to be able to do at all yet.
CM: They are too binary. Things to them are either right or wrong.
MJH: Which is why Light needed quantum computers and massive parallel processing.
CM: Every time I hear you talk about your writing you make reference to your admiration for Katherine Mansfield. What impresses you most about her work?
MJH: Oh God, what doesn't? Mansfield went all the way underground in the text. She called it "muted direction." She wouldn't say, "Look here, this is the evil character; look here, this is the good character; look here at what the evil character does to the good character, isn't that so evil? And look how good the good character has been about it!" Katherine just seemed to show you people doing their stuff. If, as the reader, you drew moral conclusions about them, if you drew conclusions of any sort, they were yours. Of course she was cheating. She wasn't absent from the text. She had gone underground and you were hearing her voice speaking from every part of the fiction, even the furniture in the central character's front room. Of course, she got pilloried for being "amoral" and "cold." That was to miss the point -- the reason you were horrified was she had done her work right!
When I first bumped into her stuff in the late '70s I was gobsmacked. As a result, there's no comparison between A Storm of Wings and The Ice Monkey. That's the pivot point. They aren't even in the same county, those two. In Viriconium works a bit better. It's lighter, freer; it skates across its own surface to make itself. (That's another thing KM taught me. The surface makes what's underneath, it's all you have to work with. Also, if you move the structural elements into the right places, they tell the story. The first time I tried that was "The New Rays." I didn't dare write any notes, in case they literalized the story. I held the whole thing in my head for three weeks, not knowing if it would make anything when I'd finished. Scary. I can do that with reasonable facility now -- I didn't turn a hair at "Entertaining Angels Unawares" -- so I guess I should move on and try something new.) But I didn't write a good novel until Climbers.
CM: You were talking about evil characters, and people will probably immediately latch onto Michael Kearney as an evil person. He commits all of these cold-blooded murders. But the way I saw him was more like a frightened monkey staring at fire for the first time and thinking, "Oh no, there must be some really powerful gods around here, I'd better do something to appease them."
MJH: He's scared. From the age of three, or whatever, he has this grasp of complexity, and it terrifies him. Later someone tells him his problem is that he is frightened of what he knows. But I'd express it another way; for me Michael Kearney is frightened of being alive. His distraught sexuality is a result of him being terrified of other people. The girls he ran away from when he was 11 were too much for him. Too lively, too real. To admit their interest in him -- and his interest in them -- would be to admit that he was alive. Admit you're alive and you're admitting you'll die. The horse's skull motif in Light represents death: denial of death drives Kearney to kill. Farah Mendelsohn put it that he is a monster because he knows what he's doing but he can't bring himself to ask for help. To ask for help would also be to admit he was alive. . . .
Denial drives all four main characters. Seria Mau decides at age 11 she doesn't want to be an adult. Anna Kearney sees it as her specific tragedy that she hasn't been allowed to remain 13 all her life. Ed Chianese spends his time in a tank participating in juvenile VR fantasies. Seria Mau lives in a tank too (you should be aware of the pun there: the White Cat is the most powerful military device in the universe: Seria Mau lives in a tank and she is a tank). Armor yourself against the knocks of being alive, insist on "being in control," and you will be able to hide from the fact that you are a real, vulnerable being in a contingent universe. But you will have a trapped, shitty life, and you will export your unhappiness to other people, which is exactly what she does. Kearney also.
Light never denies that Michael Kearney is a monster (or that the future world he helps create is a cruel one). Discovering that about him doesn't allow you to claim a prize, or boast a more heightened moral sensibility than the author. If you didn't think he was a monster there'd be something very wrong with you. Given that, I can't entirely see what the fuss is about. More worrying is the number of adults I meet who think it would be clever to be the White Cat.
CM: Of course the fuss is being made by people who don't want to read books about people who are that awful. They would rather read books about artificial, stylized bad guys like Sauron who in many ways are wimps in comparison.
MJH: The horror of Kearney is: we know him. Kearney is upsetting because human beings are capable of acting like that. But if Kearney is a serial killer, Anna is a serial victim. They're a sad pair. Most of my characters are morally dyslexic at best. They're designed to demonstrate a value by showing its absence. You aren't supposed to identify with them. Into the vacuum of their despair, the reader is forced to put forth hope; into the vacuum of their selfishness, care.
CM: To return to an earlier theme and elaborate a bit, whereas in The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life, the message was, "you can't have everything you want," in Light the message is, "well actually you can have whatever you want, but you have to be prepared to accept the consequences."
MJH: You have to be careful what you choose. My old granny used to say to me, "Be careful what you wish for. More than likely you'll get it." It's necessary to accept the consequences of choice. That's a political statement as well as a personal one. It can be very easy to get what you want, but more often than not you are going to get it at the expense of other people. That's one of the ways Mick fails Isobel in Signs of Life. Her whole act is predicated on the slogan "Because I'm worth it!" and he never has the moral courage to tell her things are more complex than that.
All relationships are power relationships, and the only way either party can make a relationship work is to deal. Isobel and Mick's relationship, and the Kearneys' relationship, are inauthentic. In bad faith. They are based on manipulations that never come to the surface and, as a result, poison everything.
CM: The trouble is that these relationships are not really dysfunctional. In particular with the Kearneys they are both getting what they want out of the relationship in their own, sad ways.
MJH: Someone said to me the other day, had I considered that one of Anna's goals might be for Michael to murder her?
CM: Sorry, wasn't that obvious?
MJH: I take it in part as a sexual metaphor. She doesn't really want him to kill her: what she wants is penetrative sex, which he is afraid of. In her case, death equals acknowledgement. How sad is that?
To go back to Katherine Mansfield: if you just present the events to the reader (or appear to), then the complexity of human motive will spin off that. If you try too hard to determine the way the reader sees character and motivation, you will actually restrict the reader's interpretive opportunities. By limiting the amount of guidance you give, you automatically get the depth and complexity of interpretation you want. Because that's what we readers do in real life -- we interpret people's actions and thus assign them "motive" and "character."
CM: But that's all part of the skill of being a writer, right? It takes a lot of hard work to be able to get to the point where you are presenting characters that are that real and complex.
MJH: The confidence to do that comes on the back of skills that are in themselves only acquired by experience. But there's more. A lot of the writing isn't actually done. It emerges, from the reading process. You have to learn how to trust that mechanism and let the reader do the work for you.
CM: You were on a panel about writing techniques at the recent British National Science Fiction Convention, and listening to you talk I was reminded of trying to ride a bicycle. In the beginning you are wobbling all over the place and can't do anything. Then it becomes natural to you and you gain confidence, and a lot of writers stop there. But you want to do more, you want to get on a mountain bike and do wheelies down precipitous slopes.
MJH: First you need to make your technique unconscious, so you can do it without thinking about it. Then you choose to make it conscious again, and that gets you back on the learning curve. Your goal is to make fiction seem as if no effort has gone into writing it; also that no effort is required by the reader. That kind of transparency is produced only by practice and hard work.
But you are right, confidence is important. Most F/SF writers lack confidence in their technique. This causes them to over-steer the reader. They're always reminding you of stuff. No one needs to do that. You mention something once, and if you've done it right the reader will get it.
Henry James said, "What is character but the basis of action; what is action but the illustration of character?" They're constantly shaking hands, those two things. If you want to show an action, that's what you show. If you want to show the moral character of the action, you still only need to show the action. Readers are not autists; they are not from Mars. If anything, SF/F editors show more anxiety about this than writers. Desperate not to lose a single reader, they assume a three-sentence attention span, and have you reminding the reader who the central character is (and more importantly, what her characteristics are) every other (very short) paragraph. It's such crap.
CM: Isn't there a problem that if you present things like that to the reader then they have to be good at interpreting character to see what is going on. If you spoon-feed them by pointing out who is the good guy and the bad guy then at least they can go away happy that they have understood your message.
MJH: Absolutely. Writers who misrepresent the universe that way don't have to develop any technique. If you're the sort of reader who prefers to have the universe misrepresented to you then I can't, personally, do anything for you.
I don't think of this as being a good writer or a bad writer. I think it is a case of being a writer or not being a writer. I don't think of myself as being particularly skillful. I'm just somebody who has tried to learn how to do it. People who spoon-feed the reader in the way we are talking about are people who haven't bothered to learn how to write, and readers who prefer that sort of thing haven't bothered to learn how to read.
If you've got a talent for something, you should try to get better at it. Otherwise you're short-changing everyone involved, including yourself. Of course, there are other objectives for a writer: selling in vast numbers, for instance. That might require you to minimize your interest in writing itself, and go for the easiest thing that seemed to work. I admire that, in a way: but I could never do it. I'm happy to leave being David Eddings to David Eddings.
CM: The most recent project that you have been involved in is the Conjunctions #39 anthology, the so-called "New Wave Fabulists" collection. How did you find that?
MJH: I was delighted to be involved, but a bit perturbed by some in-genre reactions to the result. There was this idea that some of the contributors had tried to appeal to mainstream sensibilities rather than write "proper" fantasy? That annoyed me a little. The only people who have ever required me to change the way I write have been fantasy and science fiction editors. Peter Straub came to me and asked for a story. I very rarely write to commission, so when someone makes a request like that what they get is what is in my desk drawer at the time. I'll say, "Look, I've got this, if it fits you're welcome to it."
Peter didn't have a problem with that, but many science fiction and fantasy editors have very fixed ideas of what they want. They specialize in the themed anthology, which is a fairly blatant way of directing what authors write. And of course, I've had 20-page letters from people advising me as to how I should re-write the Viriconium novels so that they became proper fantasy stories.
CM: <laughter> What they mean, of course, is how to make them very commercial. How to make them fit into the mold that the marketing department wants.
MJH: Exactly. Most of my short stories these days are on the cusp between what you might call fantasy and what you might call mainstream. Part of what I'm doing is to see how far you can push things before the stories fall down on one side or the other of that divide. Or, coolest of all, if you can get them to hang there, without visible means of support, and not fall either side.
CM: I'm not sure that the charge of trying to appeal to the mainstream was leveled at you personally. I think that it was more a case that many of the writers involved did the same thing, and what they did was write stories that were very approachable, that didn't require that you be steeped in fantasy tropes before you could start to read them.
MJH: This is the content thing. When I started writing, in 1965 or '66, I would get letters from editors saying, "there isn't enough fantasy content in your story." Meaning of course that it wasn't saturated with swords & sorcery. But in fact there's a whole tradition of fantasy in which the tiniest wrench -- or invasion -- of reality will do the trick. Look at any M.R. James story. Or any Robert Aickmann story. Nobody says these are "not ghost stories."
CM: Minimum intrusion, maximum effect.
MJH: Yeah, and that comes back to our discussion about writers and writing. For me "economy" is the word.
CM: Economic efficiency. How very Thatcherite!
The point of "Entertaining Angels Unawares," my contribution to Conjunctions #39, was to write a story completely about real people, but which undermined the reader's sense of reality. I can't think of a better definition of fantasy. In addition, I require my stories to talk about fantasy. I don't mean written fantasy, but the acts of fantasy that we all do daily, and which are never written down -- dreams, desires, wish fulfillments, the upwelling of unconscious material which directs our conscious actions. "Entertaining Angels" is about the power fantasies of the narrator. He wants to be the Angel of Death. He wants to kill children. How sick is that? What caused him to be like that? Is he already a killer, but can't admit it to his friend? Has he lost a child himself and hasn't been able to get over it?
Anyway, the reaction to Conjunctions #39 seems protectionist. I wonder if that might be because, suddenly, out there in the mainstream, they are getting interested in us? I can understand closing ranks against a literary establishment which treats you with contempt. But why close ranks against an establishment that is beginning to welcome you? What vested interests are involved in that gesture?
CM: Perhaps people like living in a genre ghetto because it is small and safe and they are big fish there even if it is a small pond.
MJH: I'm for the melting pot. I think we should all write fiction, we shouldn't call it anything except "fiction," and it shouldn't be promoted in categories. Long ago when SF was genuinely a ghetto there was considerable pressure from outside to keep the fence in place. That's no longer the case. They are interested in what we do, partly because what they do is running out of road, and partly because they are always looking for the next big thing. Whatever. I don't care on what terms the barriers come down. I just know that when they do the result will be some brilliant fiction, and that's what we are here for.
Copyright © 2003 Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan's native habitat is the U.K., but the species has also been found in Australia and California. Naturalists believe that the species is migratory and that it follows the publication patterns of science fiction novels. Ms. Morgan is also the editor of the Hugo-nominated online science fiction and fantasy book review magazine Emerald City and is an occasional reporter for Locus and reviewer for Foundation. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.