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Assessment TaskNo 4: mini-thesis
Wordcount: 4000 words
Student Name: Leigh Blackmore
Student Number (3061577)

“Undoing the mechanisms”:

Genre Expectation, Subversion
and Anti-Consolation in the
Kefahuchi Tract Novels of
M. John Harrison.

“The idea is not to get a cosy ride. Why would you want
– (M. John Harrison, “Disillusioned by the Actual, 5.)

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“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”.

– M. John Harrison (interview by Cheryl Morgan)


M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract duology consists of Light (2002;

co-winner 2002 James Tiptree Memorial Award for Best SF Novel)

and Nova Swing (winner 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2008

Philip K. Dick Award for Best SF Novel). In this mini-thesis I argue

that Harrison’s novel sequence formally subverts notions of the

sf/fantasy and crime genres as “escapist”, in order to revitalise

them as valid literary forms. First I will briefly discuss some

definitions of science fiction (hereinafter abbreviated as ‘sf’) and

fantasy, and discuss the concepts of “consolatory fantasy” and

“escapism”, and define the subgenre of “space opera.” I will then

discuss the way Harrison views genre to delineate his subversive

approach in Light and Nova Swing, since I assert M. John Harrison

remakes/redefines genre sf as these texts constantly undercut

genre expectations. My argument will then focus on three principle

techniques used by Harrison – his vigorous resistance of cliché; his

insistence on a hyper-real style; and his literary use of

uncertainty/quantum theory. I will use thematic and rhizomatic

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methodologies to interrogate how these techniques play out in the

novels. I will also examine the notion of aporia and absence in both

novels, and touch on their problematic treatment of women’s roles.

(I feel it’s important to at least point to the need for a feminist

analysis, although a thorough one requires a separate paper). I will

demonstrate that Harrison, more concerned with writing about

people than hi-tech hardware, can both work within and redefine the

‘constraints’ of genre sf.

Definition of sf/fantasy ;“Escapism” and “Consolatory fantasy”;

Genre Expectation; “Space opera”.

Defining sf is no easy task – Wolfe (Critical Terms, 108-12)

provides four pages worth of definitions, and monographs have

been written on the subject (see, e.g., Freedman). Edward James

writes: “sf constitutes a bundle whose contents are constantly

changing, from decade to decade, from critic to critic, and from

country to country.” (James, 1) and “sf is a label that can be applied

to everything from heavy philosophy to invading meatloaf.” (James,

2). 1

Parrinder calls fantasy “ a branch of the historical romance in

which nostalgia for a lost age of individualism is accentuated by the

evocation of a quasi-feudal world of sorcerers and kings.” (Parrinder,

xv). “Consolatory fantasy” is a term describing certain types of

genre fiction (“commercial,” “generic” or “normative” fantasy/sf )

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which fulfil an obvious purpose, i.e., to provide the reader with a

secondary world (i.e., a diegetic time-space continuum) into which

they can “escape” while reading the book.

The sf/fantasy genre has therefore generally been seen as

“escapist”, therefore seductive but not “respectable.” Some

theorists don’t see this escapism as a pejorative, but as cathartic –

for instance, JRR Tolkien (see Kelly). According to Wolfe, consolation

was Tolkien’s term in “On Fairy Stories” (1947) for the effect of the

happy ending/Eucatastrophe -- one of four principal functions of

fairy stories, along with Fantasy, Recovery and Escape. (Wolfe,

Critical Terms, 21). Escape is, says Wolfe, “popularly (and loosely)

used to describe the appeal of much fantastic literature, and

referring to the presumed function of such literature as a kind of

psychological safety valve.” (Wolfe, Critical Terms, 31). 2

SF is frequently deprecated as a sub-par (because populist)

fiction. I challenge this notion generally and assert that the novels

by Harrison under examination prove otherwise. I submit that in

fact, modern sf and fantasy can displays an extreme theoretical and

narrative sophistication, as exemplified in in the work of writers

such as Harrison. 3

‘Space opera’, a subgenre of sf, is usually viewed as “a

melodramatic adventure-fantasy involving stock themes and

settings…evolved on the flimsiest scientific basis.” (Parrinder, 25).

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Contrary to this, I argue that in this subgenre writers such Harrison

are doing some of the most exciting and challenging work in


How Harrison views genre. “Consolatory fantasy” and “Anti-


“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”. – M. John Harrison (interview

with Cheryl Morgan)

There is no room here to detail the 1960’s British New Wave sf

movement, of which Harrison was the ideologue; though Harrison

helped construct what Parrinder calls its “tone of knowingness and

literary sophistication, with an almost obligatory commitment to

formal experiment.” (Parrinder, 17). However, Harrison has

expressly repudiated the idea of fantasy as nostalgia. 4

In Harrison

the tension between genre expectation and his subversion of it

arises because he resists the idea of genre. 5

Harrison has said:

“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.” (Harrison, interview with Cheryl Morgan). 6

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Harrison has consistently expressed detestation of

“consolatory fantasy,” vide Roy, 7

a tendency in his work which I

term “anti-consolation”. In promulgating his “anti-consolatory” sf,

Harrison argues that in recoiling from the complexities of industrial

civilisation, we should not seek refuge in the pastoral, the simpler,

supposedly more meaningful way of life conceived by writers of

“normative” fantasy to exist in the past.

The textual impulses of Harrison’s work since the 1960’s,

then, use sf as a particular discourse which is not escapist but

suggests possibilities for the real world. His undermining of

normative fantasy can be traced via the trajectory from his

somewhat middle-of-the-road The Pastel City (1971) through his

heavily deconstructed The Luck in the Head (1991) to Light and

Nova Swing, in which he continues to redefine sf’s function via

generic vehicles while bringing to bear an acute consciousness of

genre shortcomings and technical possibilities. Light is unqualifiedly

space opera, embracing genre trappings (it has, after all, a

spaceship on the cover); yet its themes and techniques, I contend,

transcend the standard sf formulas. Nova Swing is more accurately

a hybrid space opera/ noir crime novel, yet demonstrates similar

thematic concerns. Harrison consistently evinces a discomfort with

the escapist conventions of this sort of sf: “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.” (Harrison, interview with Cheryl Morgan). I posit

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that this concern with desire enables an authorial focus on what the

real world might be, as opposed to what the characters think they

value, which is a dreamlike, misguided notion about the real world’s

nature. Harrison, appreciating that people need to be more than

they are, in these texts examines how that plays out – the self-

deceptions that, for instance, lead Vic Serotonin to take Elizabeth

Kielar into the Event Zone, where she transforms horribly:

“At night she ran aimlessly back and forth across the faces of the dunes. It
was hard to say at what point she became something else. This thing – pivoted

sharply at the hips so that it could walk on all four limbs with the palms of its

hands flat on the ground, its head too small and streamlined, somehow, to

accommodate the great blue candid cartoon human eyes – called Vic’s name until

he put his hands over his ears and went inside.” (Nova Swing, 213-14.)

Harrison’s themes in these novels become, rather than the

‘escapism’ of which fantasy is often accused, cogently realistic,

concerned with the fantasies we all live with: dreams, desires, wish

fulfilments, power fantasies. 8

Harrison’s Subversive Techniques

Harrison says: “while remaining highly aware of the mainstream, [I’m]

trying to utilize elements from both sides…from fantasy and horror as well…to

make something personal, something that exists at the conjunction of a lot of

different sets at once”. (Harrison, “No Escape” , 69). His wish to subvert

and transgress sf genre tropes is predicated on the attitude that

“prior to any act of reading, we already live in a fantasy world constructed by

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advertising, branding, news media, politics and the built or prosthetic

environment…As a result, the world we live in is already a ‘secondary creation’.”

(Harrison, “Worldbuilding”, 3)

I contend that both Light and Nova Swing subvert elements of

crime fiction as well as of sf. In Light, Ed Chianese, in his virtual

reality tank, lives out a fantasy as a Chandleresque private eye, a

gumshoe with an eye for ‘dames’. Nova Swing was aptly termed by

some reviewers “space noir.” 9 In the novel, someone carries out

murders, tattooing the victims. Detective Lens Aschemann,

dedicated to combating ‘Site crime’ (people who extract artefacts

from the Event Zone) also seeks to solve his wife’s murder. Harrison

subverts crime genre convention (largely predicated on mystery-

solving) by providing no solution to the tattoo murders or to the

murder of Aschemann’s wife. For Harrison, the world is not solvable,

either in ‘reality’ or in fiction. Light and Nova Swing are political – by

subverting genre expectations attached to sf and crime, Harrison

shows that fantasy needn’t be an evasion by which we are content

to have the world made for us. By dismantling sf’s discourse from

within, I suggest, he amplifyies and extends the effects available to


Harrison continually manipulates reader expectations of sf.

Light, for instance, deals in part with gene-splicing, a ‘cool’

technology that could serve as decorative narrative window-

dressing; but Harrison refuses to prettify it:

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“On the face of it, Uncle Zip was solid. He dealt with the passing trade;
cultivars for pleasure, sentient tattoos, also any kind of superstitious hitch and

splice, like ensuring your firstborn gets the luck gene of Elvis…In the lab, though,

he cut for anyone. He cut for the military, he cut for the shadow boys. He cut for

viral junkies, in for the latest patch to their brain disease of choice. He didn’t care

what he cut, or who he cut as long as they could pay.” (Light, 47).

Light’s region of The Tract known as The Beach functions as

an ironic and subversive metaphor. To “go on the beach and relax”

– Harrison never wants to do that.

Resistance of Cliché: Realism and Anti-Consolation in SF/Fantasy

“I still believe that sf needs to be radically changed from the

inside by people who will not compromise. [I] am still committed to

a concept of non-compromise with mediocrity.” (Harrison, “The Last

Rebel”, 7).

Mainstream critics’ genre expectations say sf is too often plot-

driven, with minimal characterisation. But in these texts it operates

differently due to Harrison’s crucial concerns with characterisation

and fluidity of genre. I assert that Harrison’s determined resistance

of cliché in them produces original, sophisticated effects. Moreover,

both these novels are about the rejection of lived experience. 10

Harrison depicts characters who are wounded in their sexual and

emotional cores, who have chosen safety over experience, the

virtual over the actual. Because Harrison disbelieves in heroes, he

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draws characters in these novels who subsist on the need for a

dream rather than engage with real life. 11

Such characterisations

play against the heroic stereotypes of many sf/fantasy genre novels,

bringing the reader in touch with fresh (though uncomfortable)

realistic characters. 12

Furthermore, all are culturally and emotionally displaced,

living a prolonged adolescence which can be read as symptomatic

of Western culture’s parlous condition, with its cultural imperialism,

and dreams of self-transformation through commodity acquisition.

Light and Nova Swing implicitly criticise this Western fantasy

culture, where our choice is

obsessive. 13

In Light, Harrison does utilise some standard sf genre tropes --

”standard-issue fantasy-kit devices” (Green) -- ‘Big Dumb Objects’

(alien artefacts), faster-than-light travel, spaceship battles – but his

resistance of cliché is demonstrated through his subversive use of

modernist narrative techniques including recursion (discussed

further on p. 9).

Genre fiction has an imperative to closure which Harrison

defies; Iain Banks has aptly referred to this as “closure-denying

restraint.”(Banks, ‘Into the 10th dimension”). Both Light and Nova

Swing end on an ‘open’ , ‘unresolved’ note. In Light, the humans all

die and the Shrander poses unanswerable questions in the almost

metaphysical closing chapter. In Nova Swing, the Event Zone’s

mystery remains unsolved, and although some of the characters

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leave Saudade, most finish with their fantasies of “mapping” the

Zone unfulfilled. Thus we can continue to read both texts

rhizomatically, mining them for further subtexts which, however, will

never lead to an ultimate ‘resolution’.

Hyper-real style in Light and Nova Swing

“I see no technical distinction between the world-building of

the representational writer – the travel writer or memoirist – and the

worldbuilding of the fantasist.” (Harrison, “Worldbuilding”, 1).

Harrison’s attention to detail in these novels is painterly,

verging on “hyper-real,” whether what he describes is confronting,

painful, ugly or beautiful. In Light, the specificity of his observation

is visible in the exactingly captured settings, and in imagistic scenes

which Harrison has referred to as “accented moment-signs”

(Harrison, “The Last Rebel”, 9) such as the meticulously-described

coin spinning on its edge (Light, 78) to the descriptive detail which

portrays for us the disturbingly fantastic creature known as the

Shrander: “Whatever drove him like this to the waste ground of life had, by the
age of eight, Already made Kearney vulnerable to the attention of the Shrander. It

swam with the little fishes in the shadow of the willow, just as it had sorted the

stones on the beach when he was two. It informed every landscape. Its attentions

had begun with dreams in which he walked on the green flat surface of canal

water, or felt something horrible inhabiting a pile of Lego bricks... The Shrander

was in all of that. (Light, 27). It is the specificity of these details, not

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simply his economic word choice, that enables the reader to

discover what Harrison considers the deep truth about life.

Another example from Light, as Kearney visits a Kilburn


“Inside nothing had changed. Nothing had changed since the 1970s and nothing
ever would. The walls were papered a yellowish colour like the soles of feet. Low

wattage bulbs on timers allowed you twenty seconds of light before they plunged

the stairs back into darkness. There was a smell of gas outside the bathroom,

stale boiled food from the second rooms, Then aniseed everywhere, coating the

membranes of the nose. Near the top of the stairwell a skylight let in the angry

orange glare of the London night.” (Light, 193).

Such grim descriptive setting, couched as direct reportage,

undercuts the sf genre expectation of every space opera being filled

with shiny spacecraft and easily digestable sf ‘props’. Nevertheless,

despite his rigorous hyper-realism, his prose’s particularity, Harrison

still attends to big themes – sexuality as an outworking of

characters’ fantasy lives; the implications of genetic engineering;

the complexity of both exterior and interior space. I posit that his

focus on the intensely personal through hyper-real description and

dialogue enables him to illuminate also the intensely universal:

“She challenged him: ‘What good’s your life been? Honestly, Michael: what
good has it been?’

Kearney took her by the shoulder as if to shaker her; looked at her instead.

Began to say something ugly; changed his mind.

‘You’re being ridiculous. Go home.’

She set her mouth.

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‘You see? You can’t answer. You haven’t got an answer.’ “ (Light, 211-


Quantum theory as a Rhizome in the Kefahuchi Tract Novels

“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.” – M. John

Harrison (interview with Cheryl Morgan).

Rhizomatic theory states that the critic always inhabits the

argument. Similarly, an observer always inhabits the quantum

experiment, and observation of a quantum state always changes

the outcome. I suggest Harrison’s narrative in these texts is itself

rhizomatic, primarily due to the use of quantum theory metaphors

which spread throughout the texts like Deleuze and Guattari’s

rhizomes, connecting each narrative and thematic point to each

other point. (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus).

Furthermore, both novels draw on earlier stories of Harrison’s,

chunks of text showing up here via different “pathways” and

contexts, like rhizomatic roots with tendrils extending throughout

his oeuvre. 14
Such rhizomatic and recursive ploys lend these

narratives a Chinese-box-like effect, echoes of previous incidents

and imagery working to knot Harrison’s oeuvre together.

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The formal structure of both novels depends on interweaving

strands which can be considered akin to narrative DNA. 15


narrative stranding functions as a metaphor reminding the reader

that science underpins the diegesis. Harrison appreciates that the

reality we know emerges from quantum broth; therefore the

universe is neither fixed nor dependable. Quantum metaphors make

this explicit by providing the textual substrate. Liv Hula’s bar in

Nova Swing is called The Black Cat White Cat, refeferencing the

Schrödinger’s Cat theory and linking the book back to Kearney’s

quantum experiments, the White Cat sentient spaceship and the

Black Cat spaceship that Ed Chianese piloted into the Tract’s heart

at Light’s end. The quantum indeterminacy imagery helps

metafictionalise Harrison’s text, forcing the reader to ask “is this

fiction or is this happening to me as the reader? Or am I

constructing it from the text?”

“Who knew how many of those cats there were? Another thing, you never
found so much as a tabby among them, every one was either black or white.

When they poured out the zone it was like a model of some chaotic mixing flow in

which, though every condition is determined, you can never predict the outcome.

Soon they filled Straint in both directions, bringing with them the warmth of their

bodies, also a close, dusty but not unpleasant smell.” (Nova Swing, 13).

The quantum world is also about choice. The texts’ imagery is

metaphorical of the many choices characters might make;

nonetheless, Harrison stresses that in the end life is about the single

choices they do make. Light’s repeating motif is: “all the things it

might be, the one thing it is”. Rhizomatically, both characters and

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reader have to make choices in these texts; the characters about

their lives, the reader in determining whether journey or end is more

important. (Harrison suggests journey, by resisting plot closure in

both novels).

The Beach (a region of the Tract) also functions as a metaphor

for science as opportunism, as ‘beach-combing’. In Light, the

human race ‘beach-combs’ a string of worlds, selling another race’s

old rubbish for profit, expressing Harrison’s disdain for current

science as simply an entrepreneurial economic pursuit.

‘Hypermarket of the meaningless’: Absence and Aporia in Light

and Nova Swing

“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.” – M. John Harrison (interview with Cheryl Morgan)

Harrison has described his work as “a deliberate intention to

illustrate human values by describing their absence” (Harrison, “No

Escape”), which provides a philosophical “gap” or “lacuna” in his

texts which ties in to his works’ central aporias16 . In Light, the

Kefahuchi Tract, a vortex of dark matter, operates as a site of

aporia, literally and metaphorically a site of Otherness and


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“The Kefahuchi Tract almost filled the sky, always growing as you
watched, like the genie raging up out of the bottle, yet somehow never larger. It

was a singularity without an event horizon, they said, the wrong physics lose in

the universe. Anything could come out of there, but nothing ever did. Unless, of

course, Ed thought, what we have out here is already a result of what happens in

there…” (Light, 237).

Light’s tortured, amoral Michael Kearney glimpsed reality on

another beach in our world: “Some shift of vision had altered his
perspective; he saw clearly that the gaps between the larger stones made the

same sorts of shapes as the gaps between the smaller ones. The more he looked,

the more the arrangement repeated itself. Suddenly he understood this as a

condition of things…there it would be, a boiling, inexplicable, vertiginous

similarity in all the processes of the world , roaring silently away from you in ever-

shifting repetitions, always the same, never the same thing twice. In that moment

he was lost.” (Harrison, Light, 13)

In discovering reality’s quantum nature, Kearney is caught in

the aporia of the world’s meaning, as well as perceiving the literal

“gaps” that exist between stones and molecules. The Shrander, too,

is a malignant being of sheer Otherness (though it is suggested it is

an aspect of Kearney’s warped fantasy life) whose presence in the

text operates via aporia, making the reader question the realities of

the basic narrative:

“He took in the tubby figure, the maroon wool coat with its missing
buttons; the head like a horse’s skull, the eyes like pomegranate halves.

‘Whoa!’ he said. ‘Are you real?’

He felt at himself with his hands. First things first.

‘Am I real?’ he said. “ (Light, 313)

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This suggests Harrison uses aporia as a conscious strategy to

induce in the reader a sense of fantastic strangeness even while

using hyper-real description to provide authenticity. 17

In Nova Swing, the protean Event Site is a place where part of

the Tract fell to the ground in Saudade, a city or planet along The

Beach (a string of worlds near the Tract). The city’s name, Saudade,

echoes the concept of the Event Zone, for it means “a nostalgia

after things irretrievably lost”. The Event Zone is a place of twisted

physics, warped geography, psychic emanations; from it emerge

biological artefacts which emit the malignant “daughter-code.” In

the world of 2444 AD people are used to living with otherness, but

as the “daughter-code” spreads, infecting Paulie DeRaad and

others, the otherness in the world is further highlighted:

“It was about eighteen inches long, and as the rag came off it seemed to
move. That was an illusion. Low-angle light, in particular, would glance across the

object’s surface so that for just a moment it seemed to flex in your hands… He

had no idea what it was. When he found it, two weeks before, it had been an

animal, a one-off thing no one but him would ever see, white, hairless, larger than

a dog…How it turned into from an animal into the type of object he finally picked

up, manufactured out of this wafery artificial substance which in some lights

looked like titanium and in others bone, he didn’t know. He didn’t want to know.”

(Nova Swing, 38).

The Event Zone operates in this text as an aporia, a locus of

Otherness, an ever-shifting literal/metaphorical variable hole in

Saudade around which all the characters revolve. The state of

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puzzlement and doubt produced by the Zone, makes the characters

unsure of the Event Zone’s implications for their various lives.

“The landscape continued to change, one moment residential and

deserted (though you saw women waiting expectantly at a corner in their best

clothes, they were gone as soon as you reached them); the next industrial and

derelict. Flares rose from something like a coking plant in the distance, but

everything close at hand was fallen down and overgrown. Old separation tanks

became shallow lakes, with mudbanks streaked a dark chemical maroon …It was

a hypermarket of the meaningless, in which the only mistake—as far as Vic could

discern – was to have shopping goals. (Nova Swing, 197-98).

The trafficking of alien artefacts, black market tourism, the

impinging strangeness of the Event Zone into the text’s narrative

space as well as into the city’s literal space, destabilise the

conventional functioning of a sf novel:

“…streets transposed on one another, everything laid down out of sync

one minute to the next. Geography that doesn’t work. There isn’t a single piece

of dependable architecture in the shit of it. You leave the route you know, you’re

done. Lost dogs, barking day and night. Everything struggling to keep afloat.”

(Nova Swing, 214).

The unresolvability of the text’s self-contradictory meanings

produces aporia. Whereas the Event Zone literally warps reality, its

impact on the characters warps the text, telling the reader there are

no easy answers. Selves are absorbed by the Other and spat out

again, but everything that goes in comes out changed. That’s not sf,

or fantasy, that’s life, Harrison is saying – it’s messy, complicated

and unresolved.

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Gender Construction in Light and Nova Swing.

While Light won the Tiptree Award18, it veers close to

misogyny in its depiction of female characters. Kearney is a serial

killer of women, which plays to the dominant patriarchal discourse

of ‘power-over’ which often operates in popular fiction and film. A

less sexist way of utilising an unpleasant serial killer as a main

character would be to have Kearney killing men as well; but

Harrison has him kill only women. Indeed, all the characters

(including the females) in Light kill women.

Kearney’s wife Anna is a serial failed suicide. Very sick women

abound in Harrison’s fiction; he seems reluctant to question this. 17

On a feminist reading, this may indicate an unconscious misogyny

on Harrison’s part. While the fact many of Harrison’s male

characters are also dysfunctional partially ameliorates the

distancing with which Harrison draws his female characters, it does

not produce a sense of gender role equality in these novels.

Harrison is well aware of feminism, so it would be inaccurate

to level accusations of gynophobia at these novels. 18


some of his female characters are distinguishable mainly by their

Otherness; for instance, Light’s Seria Mau, whom Harrison has said

is based on a case of a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder

(Harrison, “No Escape”, 69). There can be no question Harrison

deliberately portrays her as a psychopath. Annie the Rickshaw Girl

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in Light, though genetically modified, is probably the character most

sympathetically depicted. In Nova Swing, Barkeep Liv Hula and

Edith Bonaventure are play strong roles. evertheless, the leading

roles played by characters such as Elizabeth Kielar, Nova Swing’s

femme fatale, who wants Vic to take her into the Zone, & has

possibly originated there , produce a strong implication that woman

is eternally Other. 19

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In conclusion, I must agree with Clute, who writes of Harrison

“The central lesson to be extracted from his work [is that] any

personal escape from the world must be earned by attending to that

very world, for only when self and city and rockface are seen with

true sight do we know what it is we wish to leave” (Clute,

Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 548). In this essay I have

demonstrated by providing detailed evidence from the texts that

through constantly resisting cliché, bringing intense realistic

description to bear on fantastic subject matter and utilising

quantum theory as a powerful metaphoric device , Harrison

succeeds in his Kefahuchi Tract novels in reinvigorating a genre too

often thought (and sometimes actually) reductive and imitative.

Harrison’s themes of loss, hard-earned wisdom, and reclaiming the

alien from the everyday have been shown to be complex and non-

formulaic. Twisting the conventions, “undoing the mechanisms”,

provides Harrison a means to construct work which reinvigorates

sf/fantasy, allowing the reader to participate in worlds which though

at times unpleasant, difficult and uncomfortable, are authentic and

convincing though “fabulous”. He thus revitalises these popular

fiction genres as valid literary forms.

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1: Some writers who have defined the sf genre stress the

scientific over the human content, as J.O. Bailey (1947): “A narrative
of an imaginary invention or discovery in the natural sciences and consequent
adventures and experiences.” M. John Harrison, however, would prefer
Theodore Sturgeon’s definition (1951): “A story built around human
beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have
happened at all without its scientific content”. (Both quoted in Wolfe,
Critical Terms). Most definitions of sf agree it is a subset of fantasy,
with sf’s ground rules (in Wolfe’s words) “being those of the physical
universe, while the ground rules of fantasy are considered to be
limited only by internal consistency and not necessarily related to
experience.”(Wolfe, Critical Terms, 108).

2: Wolfe quotes C.S. Lewis’ comment (from his Experiment

in Criticism, 1965) that ‘escape” is a criticism of the reader rather
than the work, and many readers might well “escape” into realistic
fiction. James comments on the perception of sf and fantasy as part
of a range of popular fictions dealing with “escapism”: “fantasy draws
its inspiration from mythology and folklore and from popular images of medieval
or pre-industrial society, and often appeals to nostalgia and conservative values;
much sf is concerned with the future and with the possibilities presented by
scientific and technological change…you, the casual browser, might think of all
these brands of popular fiction as escapism, and might think sf and fantasy were
the most escapist of all…if you thought about it you might see that sf (and, to a
lesser extent), because they deal with imaginative and thus alternatives to the
real world, also frequently offer criticism of that world – may, in short, be much
more subversive than anything else … marketed as ‘popular fiction’. (James, 3).

3: In support of this view of sf’s aesthetic significance and

its legitimacy as a branch of literature, Attebery writes: “Fantasy is a
sophisticated mode of storytelling characterised by stylistic playfulness, self-
reflexiveness, and a subversive treatment of established orders of society and
thought. Arguably the major fictional mode of the late twentieth century, it draws
upon contemporary ideas about sign systems and the indeterminacy of meaning
and at the same time recaptures the vitality and freedom of nonmimetic
traditions traditional forms such as epic, folktale, romance, and myth”. (Brian
Attebery, “Fantasy as Mode, Genre, Formula” in Sander, 295).

4: “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”. (Harrison,
interview with Cheryl Morgan).

5: ”I’m rather against the impermeable boundaries of genre. I could never

write a pure generic work.” M. John Harrison (interview by Marisa

6: John Clute writes: “The central argument of [Harrison’s] fantasy can be

reduced to some fairly simple propositions: that the worlds of fantasy are a
distortion and denial of reality; and that those who inhabit or imagine those

Dr Joshua Lobb Page 22 of 34


worlds are themselves creatures whose grasp on reality is dreadfully frail. …

Escapism is, for [Harrison], bondage”. (Clute, Encyclopedia of Fantasy,
453). Such a view situates Harrison’s work as straddling the
boundaries between mainstream and genre fiction, and as fiction
which seeks to break from formulaic notions of what sf is and can
This is not to say Harrison is necessarily against ‘populist
work’ (novels such as his The Centauri Device (1974) and the
various novels comprising his ‘Viriconium’ sequence have been
extremely popular and much reprinted; but he long ago condemned
the ‘series mentality’ characteristic of modern fantasy publishing
(Cawthorn, 188).

7: “[Tolkien] wrote that the function of fantasy was 'consolation', thereby

making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.
That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have
ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps - via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael
Bulgakov and Stefan Grabinski and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M.
John Harrison and I could go on - the best writers have used the fantastic
aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine
expectations.” (Roy, “Steampunk”, italics mine). The notion of fantasy
as subversive can be explored further in texts by Hume and Jackson
(see Bibliography). Indeed, Hume and Jackson both deal more
extensively with fantasy literature’s marginalisation due to its
deliberate departure from ‘reality’; Hume argues fantasy is an
impulse as significant as Plato and Aristotle’s mimesis. Jackson’s
approach extends Tzvetan Todorov’s structural approach to fantasy
to include aspects of psychoanalytic theory in order to define
fantasy as a historically determined form whose ambiguities are
seen as expressing cultural unease.

8: “This is what we fantasy and sf writers should be writing about, because

we know how to talk about the paradox of the successful escape, the failed
escape, the drive to escape in the first place, the inadvisability of escape, the
impossibility of escape, and so on”. (Harrison, ‘No Escape”, 7).

9: See, e.g., Anon, “Sci-fi prize for space-time rupture novel”.

Indeed, Harrison’s US publishers Bantam-Dell have promoted it as
such (Nova Swing trailer on YouTube).

10: On the way many of his characters reject lived experience and
retreat into self-destructive fantasy, and reflecting on how the writer
can also (unless careful) be drawn into this way of thinking, Harrison
has said “I don’t want to live in models, fictions, possibilities, alternate realities
or multiverses: that’s for kiddies. I want to live and die as a human being in what
is.”(Harrison, “No Escape”, 3) and “If you write a lot of fantasy and sf, it’s
very easy to get divorced from the idea that you’re actually alive. It’s like doing a
lot of computer games: you begin to forget that being alive has consequences.”
(Harrison, “M. John Harrison: No Escape”, 7).

Dr Joshua Lobb Page 23 of 34


11: In Light, Ed Chianese and Michael Kearney are deeply in

denial , confused by their own rejection of adulthood. Anna Kearney
wants to remain a child, as does Seria Mau, merging her
neurobiology symbiotically with her K-ship in a bad dream of
immortality. Ed lives out puerile fantasies in a sensory immersion
(VR) tank. Kearney, terrified of his own knowledge of complexity,
denies his own sexuality, becoming a serial killer who (in an explicit
reference to Luke Rhinehart’s existentialist ideas) uses dice to make
decisions. Although they can live in a VR tank as does Ed, or visit a
‘chop-shop’ where gene-tailoring will transform them into someone
new, they cannot escape their dreams, their desires, their pasts. In
Nova Swing, Vic Serotonin, running illicit tours into the Event Zone,
is also trapped in unfulfilled dreams. Shady club owner/mobster
Paulie DeRaad, with his marauding pack of raincoat-clad mercenary
seven-year-old ‘gun-kiddies’, is addicted to power-play fantasies,
but is undone when an artefact from the Event Zone infects him.
Emil Bonaventure, failed Event Zone explorer, is dying and will
never fulfil his dream to solve the Zone’s secrets.

12: Certain themes in Nova Swing can be traced to the influence

of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s sf classic Roadside Picnic, in which
a young man spends his life risking his life in bizarre expeditions to
remove and black-market artefacts from an alien visitation site; and
I contend that by referencing superior and salient examples of the sf
genre such as Strugatsky’s, Harrison is emphasising his refusal of

13: Harrison has called this essentially “a politics of masturbation”

(Harrison, interview with David Matthew, 2), clearly tying his
subversive concerns in his fiction with this-world politics.

14: In Light, the magician Sprake (from his story “The Incalling”
and his novel The Course of the Heart) plays a crucial role Chapter
16. The many other examples include the stripped horse’s head, a
symbol representing death and which here stands in for the
creature known as the Shrander, which we have encountered in
Harrison’s work from the Viriconium series to stories like “The Horse
of Iron, How We Can Know it and be Changed By it Forever.” In
Nova Swing, degrees of self-referentiality include the reappearance
of the melancholy detective Aschermann, from the story “The Neon
Heart Murders”. The Event Zone disease recalls the citywide plague
of Harrison’s novel In Viriconium (1982), and the toxic chemical
dumps of Signs of Life (1997).

15: In Light, one strand deals with Michael Kearney in our own
time; the other two strands deal with Seria Mau and Ed Chianese
and how their fates intertwine to produce a powerful, optimistic
conclusion. In Nova Swing, the narrative strands centre around Vic
Serontonin, aroudn Llens Aschemann and around the results on

Dr Joshua Lobb Page 24 of 34


Paulie DeRaad of the Event Zone disease resulting from the artefact
extracted from the Event Zone.

16: Aporia is a rhetorical term “used in the theory of deconstruction to

indicate a kind of impasse or insoluble conflict between rhetoric and thought.
Aporia suggests the ‘gap’ or lacuna between what a text means to say and what it
is constrained to mean.” (Cuddon, J.A. Penguin Dictionary of Literary
Terms. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 2000, 4th ed).

17: The spatial region of The Beach, inhabiting the Tract’s edges,
full of age-old abandoned alien technologies, also serves as an
aporia, a symbol of absence and of disputed margins.

18: The Tiptree Award is named for James Tiptree Jr, the pseudonym
of a feminist female sf writer (Alice Sheldon Bailey) who famously
kept her identity as a female writer secret for many years.

17: “Since she comes up from very deep in my imagination , and I think that’s
why I’m engaging with her, I find her difficult to explain except by writing her.”
(Harrison, interview by Anon, at ph-uk online).

18: In an interview he remarks of one of his other novels: “I think

that’s the beginning of a sort of post-feminist recognition that if we want
relationships to work we have to negotiate”. (Harrison, interview with
Cheryl Morgan).

19: The fact that the “wrong physics loose in the universe” known
as K-code is also dubbed “daughter code” by failed Event Zone
explorer Emil Bonaventure could be read as misogynistic. This
perpetuates the sort of power relationships against which feminism
speaks out, and may provide a field of research for future writers on
Harrison to explore in more depth.

Dr Joshua Lobb Page 25 of 34


Bibliography of Works Consulted.

Anon. “Great SF and Fantasy Works by M. John Harrison”, online at: (Accessed Oct
27, 2008).

Anon. Review of Light. Online at: http://www.complete- (Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

Anon. “Sci-fi prize for space-time rupture novel.” The Guardian (May
3, 2007). Online at:
awardsandprizes (Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

Aranaga, Carlos. Review of Nova Swing. Online at: (Accessed
Oct 27, 2008).

Banks, Iain. “Into the 10th dimension”. The Guardian (Nov 2, 2002).
Online at:
andhorror.iainbanks. (Accessed October 27, 2008)

Bould, Mark. “Let’s Make a Little Noise, Colorado: An Introduction in

Eight Parts” in Mark Bould and Michelle Reid, eds, Parietal Games:
Critical Writings By and On M. John Harrison (London: SFF, 2005).

Broderick, Damien. Review of Light. Locus (July 2004).

Cawthorn, James and Michael Moorcock. “M. John Harrison, The

Pastel City” in their Fantasy: The Best 100 Books. NY: Carroll and
Graf, 1988, pp. 187-88.

Dr Joshua Lobb Page 26 of 34


Cleaver, Fred. “Harrison may get his due.” (review of Light). Denver
Post (26 Sept, 2004). Online at:,1413,36~26~2422372,00.htm
l (Accessed
Oct 28, 2008).

Clute, John. “M(ichael) John Harrison” in John Clute and John Grant
(eds) . The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London: Orbit, 1997, pp 453-
--“M(ichael) John Harrison in John Clute and Peter Nicholls (eds). The
Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit, 1993, pp. 545-46.
--“10,000 Light years from home” (review of Nova Swing). The
Guardian (Nov 11, 2006). Online at:
dianreview22. (Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

Coyle, William (ed). Aspects of Fantasy: Selected Essays from the

Second International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and
Film. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,1986.

Cuddon, J.A. Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms. Harmondsworth,

UK: Penguin, 2000, 4th ed).

Deighton, Jack. Review of Nova Swing. Online at: (Accessed
Oct 27, 2008).

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. London &

New York: Continuum, 2004.

Eve’s Alexandria [collective]. “A Woman walks into a bar…” (review

of Nova Swing). Online at:
an_walks_i.html. (Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

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Foss, Karen A; Sonia K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin (eds). Readings in

Feminist Rhetorical Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications,

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover, NH:

Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

Gevers, Nick. Review of Light. Locus (Dec 2002).

Green, Paul A. [review of Light]. Online at: (Accessed Oct
28, 2008)

Greenland, Colin. The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the

British “New
Wave” in Science Fiction. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1983.

Harrison, M. John.

-- M. John Official Website:

(Accessed at various times from July-October 2008).

-- “Comments” in Jay P. Pederson, (ed) The St James Guide to

Science Fiction Writers (4th edition). Detroit, MI: St James Press,
1996, pp. 421-

--“Committed Man: M John Harrison” (interview by Nicholas Royle).

Interzone (Aug 1997)

--“A Conversation with M. John Harrison” (interview by Gabriel

Chouinard). Online at:
(Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

--“A Conversation with M. John Harrison, author of the award-

winning Nova Swing” (interview by Jeff [no last name given]). Online
(Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

--“Disillusioned by the Actual: M. John Harrison” (interview by Patrick

Hudson). Zone No 4. Also online at: (Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

--“Entrevista a M. John Harrison” (interview by Ignacio Illarregui and


Dr Joshua Lobb Page 28 of 34


Villarubbia). Online at:

edi=6&cod=251. (Accessed Oct 28, 2008).

--“The Last Rebel” (interview by Christopher Fowler). Foundation 23

(Oct 1981).

-- Light. London: Gollancz, 2002.

--“M. John Harrison” (interview by Anon). Online at: (Accessed Oct 28, 2008).

--“M. John Harrison” (interview by Marisa Darnel). Online at:
(Accessed Aug 21, 2008).

--“M. John Harrison” (interview by Paul Kincaid). Interzone 18 (1986)

--“M. John Harrison” (interview by David Matthew). Online at: (Accessed Oct
27, 2008).

--“M. John Harrison” (interview by Cheryl Morgan). Online at:
(Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

--“M. John Harrison – No escape” (interview, uncredited) . Abridged

version at Locus online at: (accessed
Oct 27, 2008). Full version in Locus (Dec 2003) .

--“M. John Harrison interview” (interview by David Kendall). The

Edge No 7 (1998)

-- Nova Swing. London: Gollancz, 2006.

--Nova Swing trailer on YouTube:


--‘Old, Mean and Misanthropic: An Interview with M. John Harrison “

(interview by Mark Bould in Mark Bould and Michelle Reid, eds,
Parietal Games: Critical Writings By and On M. John Harrison
(London: SFF 2005).

Dr Joshua Lobb Page 29 of 34


-- Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison.

London: Science Fiction Foundation, 2005. (This volume, edited by
Mark Bould and Michelle Reid, collects Harrison’s critical and
reviews work between May 1968 and Sept 2004; also includes
critical essays on MJH by Rob Latham, Graham Sleight, Rjurik
Davidson, Graham Fraser, Mark Bould, John Clute and Farah
-- “The Profession of SF 40: The Profession of Fiction .” Foundation
46 (Autumn 1989).

--“Questions for M. John Harrison” (interview by anon). Online at:
Harrison/dp/0575070277. (Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

-- “What It Might be Like to Live in Viriconium.” Online at: (Accessed Oct 27,

--“World-Building: Further Notes”. (Dec 21, 2007). Online at Uncle

Zip’s Window (the M. John Harrison blog) at: (Accessed
Oct 30, 2008)

Hughes, Rhys. “Climbing to Viriconium: The Work of M. John

Harrison”. Online at (Accessed Oct
27, 2008).

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in

Western Literature. London: Methuen, 1984.

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Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London:

Methuen, 1981.

James, Edward. Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. London:

Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kaveney, Roz. “Poet of decay gives voice to the doomed of a

second-rate humanity” (review of Nova Swing). The Independent (9
Nov, 2006). Online at:
423576.html. (Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

Kelley, George. “M(ichael) John Harrison” in Jay P. Pederson, (ed)

The St James Guide to Science Fiction Writers (4th edition). Detroit,
MI: St James Press, 1996, pp. 421-22.

Dr Joshua Lobb Page 31 of 34


Kelly, Tony. “Faith seeking Fantasy: Tolkien on Fairy Stories” at
(Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

Kincaid, Paul. [review of Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on

M. John Harrison]. Online at:
(Accessed Oct 28, 2008)

Kleffel, Rick. Review of Light. Online at:
(Accessed Oct 28, 2008).

Kurtz, Durstin. Review of Nova Swing. Online at:
harrison.html. (Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

Lane, Joel. “M (ichael) John Harrison” in David Pringle (ed). The St

James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers. Detroit, MI: St
James Press, 1998, pp. 252-54.

Latham, Rob. “M[ichael] John Harrison” in S.T. Joshi and Stefan

Dziemanowicz (eds). Supernatural Literature of the World: An
Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005 (3 vols),

McAuley, Paul J. “M[ichael John Harrison” in David Pringle (ed). The

St James Guide to Fantasy Writers. Detroit, Mi: St James, 1996, pp

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Moorcock, Michael. Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic

London: Gollancz, 1988.

Morgan, Cheryl. “In Search of Viriconium” [review of Parietal

Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison]. Online at:
http://www.emcit.com127.php?a=23 (Accessed Oct 28, 2008)

Murray, Charles Shaar. “Light and death in the 24th century”.

London Independent (Dec 9, 2002). Online at:
(Accessed October 27, 2008)

Nussbaum, Abigail. Review of Nova Swing. Online at:
(Accessed Oct 27, 2008).

Parrinder, Patrick. Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching.

London: Methuen, 1980.
Pringle, David. “M. John Harrison A Storm of Wings” in his Modern
Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. NY: Peter Bedrick Books, 1988, pp.

Pringle, David (ed). “M. John Harrison” in his The Ultimate

Enyclopedia of Fantasy: The Definitive Illustrated Guide. London:
Carlton, 1998, pp. 146-47.

Roberts, Adam. Review of Light. Online at: (Accessed Oct
27, 2008).

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Roy, James. “Steampunk – the new genre” . Online at: (Accessed Oct 27,

Sandner, David. Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader. Westport,

CT: Praeger, 2004

Soyka, David. Review of Nova Swing. Online at: (Accessed Oct 27, 2008).
VanderMeer, Jeff. Review of Light. Online at: (Accessed Oct 28, 2008)

Wolfe, Gary K. Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A

Glossary and Guide to Scholarship. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,
-- Review of Light. Locus (Nov 2002).
-- Review of Nova Swing. Locus (Nov 2006).

Dr Joshua Lobb Page 34 of 34