Settling the World: Selected Stories by M. John Harrison

M. John Harrison should need no introduction here, as he’s an author I’ve regularly lauded on the Ramblings. I first read his work back in my early twenties, when I was looking for something else which would feed my addiction for anything like Mervyn Peake. A random review sent me in the direction of the Viriconium books (which I don’t think are anything like Peake, to be honest – nothing is like Peake…), and I was an instant Harrison obsessive, gathering everything I could by him – which was not so easy at the time. As you’ll be able to see from a picture further down this post, I have any number of old crumbly editions of his work, picked up with great excitement in second hand shops in those pre-Internet days, plus quite a few sci fi anthologies featuring his stories. I’ve been reading him ever since, and took great joy in reconnecting with his work on the blog back at the start of 2016. A number of his works have appeared here since, most recently his latest novel “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again”, which I covered for Shiny New Books.

I was naturally very excited, therefore, when I heard that Comma Press were issuing a selection of his short stories (particularly as I rate his work in this form very highly indeed). They’ve previously released a marvellous collection called “You Should Come With Me Now” back in 2017, gathering recent stories; however, the new book is a ‘selected’ volume entitled “Settling the World”. Crucially, this is a career-spanning anthology, and I was delighted when the publishers kindly provided a copy for review!

Harrison’s work first began appearing in print in the 1960s, initially in magazines and anthologies; the first published collection was “The Machine in Shaft Ten” in 1975 (which I reviewed here). Harrison is a prolific writer of short works, and actually keeping track can be complicated as there are so many, and published in many different places. I have a sort of checklist but it’s by no means complete. Add in that the stories have often changed over the years depending on where they appear, and you can see that reading M. John Harrison is always an interesting experience!

Anyway! Enough waffle and on to the book. “Settling the World” contains seventeen stories; the earliest is “The Causeway” from 1971, and the most recent are from our current very troubled year of 2020. The book helpfully gives at the start the original publication date and location, and it fascinates me to see how during a career of over 50 years of writing, Harrison has produced work of such quality which never fails to intrigue and unnerve.

Every day, as we ingest our untailored paste of environmental microplastics, hormones and other transformative pollutants, we move a little further in, losing a little more of what it used to mean to be human and gaining a little more of what it means now.

I was, of course, particularly pleased to see some stories from “Machine…” resurface, as I rate that collection very highly. However, the collection “The Ice Monkey” from 1983 is well represented too, and these stories are particularly stunning. The title story is especially memorable, mixing elements of the unexplained and climbing, two strands of interest in Harrison’s work which often converge. To be honest, he rarely writes what would be called a conventional narrative (which is one of the things I love about his work); and even when something starts out like that (“The Course of the Heart”, perhaps) it doesn’t stay like that. I was also really pleased about the inclusion of the excellent and rather spooky “Doe Lea” which I read and reviewed in chapbook form last year; it’s a wonderfully disconcerting piece of work and deserves a wider audience.

The stories here, like all Harrison’s work, defy classification; there are sci fi influenced stories like the title one, where God has been rediscovered and towed back to Earth, but is not what you might originally think; or “The Crisis” from 2017, which features a kind of jelly-like alien entity focusing its visits to our world on the financial centres. Then there are tales like “The Incalling” from 1978 with strange occult undertones and unexplained rituals; or “The East” from 1996, a story centred on a refugee – but from *what* ‘East’? Then, of course, there is “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, a story which has appeared in numerous MJH anthologies or collections, and even been subject to a change in title and focus which might be considered startling…

The rest of my MJH collection (apart from a Viriconium anthology currently loaned to Eldest Child…)

Well, you get the picture. The joy of reading M. John Harrison is that nothing is ever what it seems, and even those stories which could notionally be called sci fi are never that straightforward. Interestingly, reading this wonderful mixture of old and new I sensed resonances between a number of the stories and other works by MJH. “The Incalling”, for example, hints at events in “The Course of the Heart” and seemed to me to have echoes in “The Sunken Land…

Much of the crescent was untenanted. In company with the surrounding streets it had been built as a genteel transit camp and matured as a ghetto. Now it was a long declining dream. I stood at the door of Mrs Sprake’s house, staring at the cracked flags, the forgotten net curtains bunched and sagging like dirty ectoplasm, the tilted first-floor balconies with their strange repetitive wrought-iron figures, and wondering if it might not be better to leave now before anyone had time to answer the bell. All the other doors were boarded up. Old paint hung like shredded wallpaper from the inner curve of an arched window. Across the road one whole building was missing from the terrace – fireplaces and outlines of extinct rooms clung to the walls of the flanking houses.

And one element I picked up on whilst reading this stories was the sheer skill of Harrison’s writing. His prose is excellent, often stopping you short at some marvellous juxtapositions; but I particularly noticed his sense of place and the landscapes he uses in his stories. His characters often occupy marginal spaces, parts of cities or places which are often in a state of complete entropy. Harrison lived in London during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when areas of it were still being rebuilt (and the pre-gentifrication areas are conjured brilliantly). In fact, as someone who can remember the 1970s well and the 1960s a bit, I recognised these outlands; the edges of towns and cities where the old tenements were being demolished and replaced by tower blocks; and those almost primitive, decaying areas are vivid settings for his stories.

In truth, this exemplary collection could more accurately be titled “Unsettling the World”; Harrison’s stories disturb our everyday placidity, and his characters, existing in liminal areas which seem to straddle our world and another stranger one, often experience unexplained events which are the stuff of nightmares. “Settling the World” is a marvellous collection in every sense of the word; it’s an excellent introduction to the range of M. John Harrison’s writing over the length of his career; and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

(Review copy kind provided by Comma Press, for which many thanks! You can get a copy of the book direct from the publisher here)