Deconstructing the Light – The Work and Expertise of M. John Harrison

I’m starting to get exactly what M. John Harrison is trying to do with his books. He basically picks a genre, or even a sub-genre, and then proceeds to deconstruct not the entirety of it but a certain assumption or set of assumptions. Unlike most deconstructions, he doesn’t have hubris; he doesn’t attempt to deconstruct the whole genre or setting but just an interesting, or especially irritating, aspect of it.

This has two consequences: one, his narrative gets very repetitive. Since he is a wordsmith of the highest degree this isn’t that bad, though it can be tiring at times. Word choices are varied but the overall theme and feel of a story is often iterated upon without any real need. Most of all, thematic motifs are constantly utilized, sometimes with the exact same wording. A turn of phrase, an aesthetic detail or even a dialogue can appear numerous times, without any respite.  By focusing on a specific set of features, he grinds away at their descriptors and place within the bigger picture. That can get very tiring, especially across several books.

The other consequence however is well worth his sometimes repetitiveness: by focusing on just one set of aspects, he gains a potency which is often lacking in deconstructions. That is, he goes beyond simple dismantling and into a complete assault on the epistemological presuppositions needed for the genre to work, for that integral set of attributes to exist.

Take for example his Nova Swing. It takes place within his space opera universe but targets noir cop/criminal/detective stories. It has a sweaty city on the shore, murder mystery, smuggling, bars, 20’s culture and all the rest of the tropes of noir. However, this is a deconstruction: we expect a chipping away at these elements and we are, initially, served what we expected. The tone is exaggerated, giving us an exact idea of how seriously, or not seriously at all, the author takes the genre and its pretense.

However, instead of attacking the tropes themselves, by placing a different character as the detective let’s say or omitting an integral character all together, Harrison attacks the supposition at the base of all such plots: that the data is given to the detective, that it is possible to know the facts pertaining to the case. It’s simply a matter of digging them out and then applying the detective’s extraordinary/quirky intelligence to them. It’s a puzzle, but all the pieces are on the board and they follow the physical sense you’d expect them to.

Harrison attacks this by denying his police the ability to actually know what is happening. Their surveillance equipment always fails when they need it. Their suspects are intransient in reality (still sci-fi, remember). The very physics of the city they operate in changes. They themselves are broken, not simply corrupt or weak or morally reprehensible as is the habit in the genre. They are unable to know: they are too focused, not focused enough, insane, psychotic or ostracized. Their basic tools for figuring out their problems do not function.

This leads to a completely different challenge for his characters and thus, to a wholly different narrative structure. Instead of a search for knowledge, a careful unearthing of data and the piecing of those data together, his characters are gripped in the search for a way to know. Knowledge itself is almost useless to them; they don’t have the tools to understand it themselves and even if they do, they don’t have the ability to articulate it to others or to themselves.

This, understandably, leads to introspection. This is indicative of much of Harrison’s writing, which is a good thing; his powers of insight and inner articulation are well suited to the task. In an interesting loop, this focus on introspection is very much in keeping with the general attack on noir. The introspection usually featured in the genre can be very superficial: the hero struggles with his dark side and his past. The criminal/victim rails against society. The innocent tries to understand what has befallen him (usually her). But, much like the rest of his work, Harrison’s introspection is completely different: it is an introspection whose goal is to understand a fundamental part of life and an attempt to cope with the ruin one finds there instead of the order one might have expected.

And ruin it is. Wherever you go in Harrison’s worlds, whatever attempt at an episteme we or his characters try to cling to, no order is forthcoming. Indeed, order seems to be anathema in his worlds; when it is encountered it is quickly defaced.  In Viriconium, his sci-fantasy series, he does it to space. The maps of his world are nothing like Tolkien‘s or Jordan‘s: well lit, well formed spaces where you always know where you’re going. Evil is that way, good is that way and in between is the shadow lands where we must fight. In this sense, perhaps Harrison draws on Zelazny‘s Amber with its complete assault on that pattern. Heh, see what I did there? His maps shift the more you look at them; they don’t fit at the edges and where they do, those edges change. Nothing is clear and everything and everywhere is not just confusing, it’s confused. As a result, his characters themselves are confusing and confused: they refuse to stay put, they exchange roles constantly, often in the same story arc. Outside the arc, chaos rules and the space of the literary work itself is ill defined and perhaps non existent. Chronology, linear narrative space and the maps to a character’s personality, all fade away.

In Light, his space opera, he does it with motivation, free will and space travel. His characters aren’t even pawns pushed against their will; they’re not even on the same board where the real game is being played. They have no way of navigating the events which take place around them, buoyed along in a universe that shouldn’t even exist. Their tools to fight these events don’t exist themselves; imagined lives, physical principles that contradict each other and ships created by precursor races operating on the cosmic scale. All that’s left to these characters are the lies they tell themselves, the cheap, OCD-like tricks that they us to try and make the universe make some sense. These tools of course, as in real life, completely fail and only lead the characters quicker to their doom.

In Nova Swing, as we’ve said, he does it with knowing. The gaze he turns to these subcategories of his worlds (in a literal sense, the categories beneath his worlds) is acrid: it corrodes and erodes these sub-categories and depicts the characters that have to live with such an erosion. The characters are of course, if you will allow me the cliche, us. To tie the knot on this short article, Nova Swing perhaps gives us the strongest use of this technique, the strongest look into what happens if and when our categories for operating are taken away. It also displays to us several examples of how to cope: the detective-poet and his mind games, the self destructive criminal and his day to day insanity, the blind has-been with her dreams of escape. All of these are models of futility, are ways in which we ourselves try and be in our daily lives. They are models of how we cope with the collapse of knowledge in our own lives. Ways in which we fail to do so.

By doing this, by painting these stark models, Harrison exercises the power of all deconstruction: to shine a light on the construction and make us consider it. The genius of his work becomes apparent then: his deconstruction calls us to look not at the structures of the literature but at the structures that enable those structures. That term should tell you sharp eyed Foucault students out there something. While the subversive aspects of his work have yet to reveal themselves to me, I feel that they are there. Perhaps the gaze turned towards the underlying structures of our lives is subversive in itself, but I’d like to think there’s a more positive message that lies somewhere in his work ((in the sense of a call to action, not any uplifting morals). I’ll keep searching and hope that, unlike his characters, some possibility of response and reaction is still available to me.


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