The Machine in Shaft Ten by M. John Harrison

Or maybe this post should more accurately be titled “Rediscovering M. John Harrison”; however, it’s his Viriconium stories that I’ve known and loved most over the years, and so I’ll stand by what I’ve put! I first read Harrison’s work in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when I stumbled across “In Viriconium”, the third novel about that world; I think I was probably drawn to it by the comparison with Mervyn Peake, who I’d not long before developed a passion for. Harrison, though, stands alone. He’s a remarkable writer, crossing a number of genres, from hard sci-fi through fantasy to more mainstream fiction. His voice is always a distinctive one, and I’ve returned to his books over the years. However, it’s too long since I read anything by him, and a post here on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations prompted me to pick up this volume, his first collection of short stories, originally published in 1975.

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Interestingly, as Joachim Boaz points out, many of these stories have not been republished since their collection in this anthology. Harrison’s early stories were often published in the sci-fi mags of the 1960s and 1970s (a very useful list can be found here), and although there have been several later collections of his shorter fictions, he chose to omit eight of the stories in “Machine…” It’s not clear why, and personally I think they do warrant seeing the light of day again. Another aspect of Harrison’s story-telling to be noted is that often his works are tweaked and revised on reissue; a prime example is “The Bringer with the Window”, which was initially published in a magazine and called “Lamia Mutable” then later apparently reworked as “Dancer from the Dance” in the collection “Viriconium Nights”. Similarly, “The Lamia and Lord Cromis” also turns up in “Viriconium Nights”, and when I had a quick look at the latter, it had a completely new opening!

Another fascinating factor of MJH’s fiction (or not, depending on the type of reader you are!) is its open-endedness. This is a deliberate ploy by the author, who’s stated “Like all books, Viriconium is just some words. There is no place, no society, no dependable furniture to “make real.” You can’t read it for that stuff, so you have to read it for everything else. And if its landscapes can’t be mapped, its threat of infinite depth (or at least infinite recessiveness) can’t be defused but must be accepted on its own terms, as a guarantee of actual adventure. Like the characters, the reader goes in without a clue. No character ever “survives” Viriconium: the best they can hope for after they have been sucked in is to be spat out whole (if changed). Recognise this procedure? It’s called life. This is one of Viriconium’s many jigsawed messages to the reader. You can’t hope to control things. Learn to love the vertigo of experience instead.” Viriconium is a fluid construct which seems to change with every work in which it features, and most readers of Harrison find this exhilarating. In fact, it’s not only Viriconium that constantly changes, as things cross over between several of the stories, with for example, the contemporary Earth-based events of “Machine” being referenced in “Events Witnessed from a City”. All very intriguing…

Anyway, to get back to “The Machine in Shaft Ten”; like many books I own, I’m not actually sure whether I’ve read it or not (!) so even if I have, this was like reading it for the first time. And sticking it into the genre of science fiction, as the publishers have, is really rather limiting as there’s a wide range of stories that could be loosely bracketed into a number of types.

Viriconium Stories

There are definitely three Viriconium stories in the anthology – well, as definite as you can ever be with MJH. I say the latter as one of the stories (“The Causeway”) features a character called Crome in a dystopian/futuristic setting, and although there’s nothing to explicitly link it with Viriconium, a character called Ardwick Crome does feature in other Viriconium tales. However, the three definite stories are “The Lamia and Lord Cromis, “Events Witnessed from a City” and “The Bringer with The Window”. Viriconium itself is a dystopian, decaying place and there is decadence, murder and monsters. I find it quite difficult to describe exactly what the Viriconium stories are about – I respond to them on an emotional level and in some ways you experience rather than read them – but their world of strangeness and mystery is *so* worth visiting.

The cause-effect relationship is distorted surrealistically among all these lives and thought-patterns. Nudge a man in Greek Street, Soho, and he falls off a pavement in Plumstead; drop a stone in the Serpentine and a ship goes down in an Adriatic storm; bombard your target nucleus with neutrons and happy anniversary Nagasaki. Every action presents myriad side-effects, which are unpredictable. I cannot make a decision for fear of its unnoticed, incalculable results.

‘Real Life’ Based Stories

Five of the stories could be categorised thus, being the title story, “The Bait Principle”, “Running Down”, “The Orgasm Band” and “Visions of Monad”. Although they feature the superficial trappings of 1970s life, each portrays a twisted way of living or series of events. In the title story, which starts off disarmingly enough in an almost Wellsian manner, humans discover a machine which has been constructed to harvest their emotions; in another, a misfit brings entropy with him wherever he goes, to such an extent that he disrupts nature itself; one tale tells of the delusions (or are they?) of asylum inhabitants; and another of the effects of sensory deprivation. Each story unsettles, and each story stays with you. The oddest, “The Orgasm Band”, is one I haven’t really worked out yet, but it seems rooted in the rock counterculture of the 60s/70s – with, of course, unexpected touches!

Dystopian Visions/Sci Fi

“Dystopian” seems to be the epithet often applied to Harrison’s work, though that implies certain things that aren’t necessarily present here. There are decaying worlds, strange landscapes, possible remnants of alien invasions and often insectoid life forms. But the simple post-nuclear landscape we see in modern narratives is missing, to be replaced by one that is much more nebulous; and instead there’s a more subtle, fluid and fascinating story being told. Four tales could fit here: “Ring of Pain”, “The Causeway”, “London Melancholy” and “Coming from Behind”. Several of the stories feature insect-like aliens, analogous with locusts or plagues, ravaging the Earth’s resources (and winged creatures will turn up again in the Viriconium novel, “A Storm of Wings”). The stories are bleak and stark, with the survivors struggling to escape their controllers, but there are hints of redemption.

Of the twelve stories in this collection, the three Viriconium tales have turned up in other collections (with variations – as I mentioned) and “Running Down” appeared in “The Ice Monkey and Other Stories” and the major anthology “Things That Never Happen”. The others seem to have disappeared without a trace and it’s a great shame – they’re varied and fascinating pieces of work and deserve to be republished; and if you’re a fan of Harrison’s work but don’t have this collection I really do recommend searching it out.

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It’s hard to pin down just what it is about MJH’s writing that’s so good – because it is *very* good. Maybe it’s his ability to drop you straight into a story with a location and characters you don’t know or recognise, and yet make it work. Maybe it’s his fertile imagination, which thinks up the most unusual plots and places and possibilities to intrigue you. Perhaps it’s his ability to produce what initially appears a throwaway line that suddenly grabs you with its brilliance. Or maybe it’s the fact that whatever he’s writing about is completely convincing, completely gripping and utterly believable. Whatever it is, “Machine” reminded me how much I loved his writing, dark as it can be, and how much I want to read and re-read more of it.

In many ways, Harrison is one of this country’s best-kept literary secrets; and he’s definitely a Marmite writer. If you love his work, you *really* love it, and if you don’t you never will. This is probably why he’s often bracketed with Peake; although the two writers really aren’t alike, they’re both completely individual. If you love great writing and storytelling, thought-provoking work, stories and characters that stay with you, and the work of a one-off talent, then you should most definitely read M. John Harrison!

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