M. John Harrison is an author I’ve been enjoying rediscovering in recent years; I’ve blogged about his work here and here, and so when the year was chosen for this club week, I had a look to see if any of his work was from that particular one. I suspected there might be some, as I’d discovered that his first published short story was from 1967 – and indeed, there were three titles which came out in sci-fi magazines in 1968 so after a little bit of research on the rather wonderful ISFDB I searched them out.

Harrison is best known, perhaps, for his Viriconium novels and his more recent Empty Space trilogy, but he’s also a fine short story writer. The three I’m covering here are all excellent pieces of work, and the fact that only one of them has been anthologised in a book of Harrison’s makes me think that he’s crying out for a Complete Short Stories Collection. If Ballard and Aldiss can have one, then Harrison most definitely deserves one…

But to the stories themselves: the first 1968 title listed by ISFDB is “The Macbeth Expiation”, and this was published in “New Writings in S-F 13”. For some reason I seem to have obtained two copies – just don’t ask….

Set on a distant unnamed planet, “Macbeth” tells the story of four men who are on some kind of exploratory trip. Their characters are gradually revealed: the titular Macbeth, an aggressive, nervy type ready to shoot first and ask questions later; Edwin, described as resembling a schoolmaster; Boardman, notionally in charge of the expedition, and still suffering the effects of an unwanted divorce; and Retford, the ‘poet’, also nicknamed Jesus.

This rather ramshackle group is not one on a military mission; rather, on a business style reconnaissance, checking out planets. The first act of the story is when Macbeth takes fire at some bulbous aliens, apparently killing them. Yet the group is uneasy with this action and the tensions amongst them start to come out. When the alien bodies have disappeared the next morning this brings events to a head, and Macbeth’s actions, in particular, start to show traces of his classical namesake…

“Visions of Monad” was a story reprinted in the collection “The Machine in Shaft Ten”, which I read back in 2016. Set in what was contemporary London at the time, it relates events surrounding a man called Bailey who is obviously suffering from some kind of neurological disorder. Finding himself overwhelmed with the city, he seeks treatment by taking on a couple of weeks in a sensory deprivation tank. The vision this brings on is particularly singular and his grip on reality seems to depend on a woman called Monad, busily painting a picture, the subject of which is unclear, as Bailey lays around in her apartment in a vegetative state. The effects of the SD go deep and it soon becomes obvious that Bailey is tapping into another pivotal memory which is influencing his mental state…

He was considered cured. He did not remember being ill.

“Baa Baa Blocksheep” (which appeared in Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6), however, is a very different kettle of fish, and in many ways reminded me more of Harrison’s Viriconium stories. The writing is elliptical, elusive and allusive; the characters slip in and out of the narrative, and motivations are not always clear. The story is definitely more experimental than the other stories from that era (as stated in the introduction by Michael Moorcock) and I was left very curious by the hint that there would be more ‘block’ stories to come from Harrison – that’s something I need to explore myself with the help of ISFDB! The subject matter is not always pretty – vivisection and murder feature, for a start – but the writing is always hypnotic and intriguing, even if the meaning appears evasive.

So these are stories that on the surface don’t necessarily appear to have a lot in common; although there are threads running through them that can be picked out. In particular, both “Monad” and “Blocksheep” feature characters who cannot cope with the pressure of city living, whichever city that happens to be.

I hardly dare leave the studio; outside, it becomes impossible to choose from a thousand ways to go; I lose my identity immediately and travel blindly, in a frantic nightmare of Underground maps and back streets.

There are themes of alienation, either that of the travellers in physical space, or those in mental space, and also blurring of the lines between reality and hallucination. And consistent in all of this is Harrison’s writing, which can vividly conjure a landscape or a character quite brilliantly in a few words or lines.

As I said earlier, I really would *love* to see a volumes of the complete short works of MJH, because he really is a one-off – a unique writer who I think is totally underappreciated and deserves much more recognition than he gets (although he may prefer working in the cracks and margins of the mainstream where at least he can write what he wants). Meantime, I shall be checking my trusty list of uncollected stories to see which ones I can track down…

*****

Excitingly, Harrison has a new collection of short stories coming out called “You Should Come With Me Now” which I’m intending to track down when I have a moment to catch my breath. Not all of his writing is sci-fi, so even if you aren’t fond of that genre I still recommend you track down some of the work of this fine author!