Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Harrison, M John

(1945-    ) UK rockclimber and writer who began to publish work of genre interest with "Marina" as by John Harrison for Science Fantasy #81 in February 1966, though it was the sister journal New Worlds – where his sf debut was "Baa Baa Blocksheep" in November 1968 – with which he soon became closely identified. He wrote stories for the Jerry Cornelius Shared World created by Michael Moorcock, and – usually as Joyce Churchill – contributed book reviews to the journal; for a time he also served as its literary editor. Some of his work has been sf, but he has written relatively little in that genre since the 1970s, though Signs of Life (1996) has an sf premise.

The central argument of MJH'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 worlds (MJH is increasingly disinclined to differentiate between fictional inhabitants of fantasy worlds and readers of fantasy texts) are themselves creatures whose grasp on reality is dreadfully frail. If they suffer some form of Amnesia – many behave as though they do – their affliction may be defined not as a failure to remember who they were, but as a failure to remember – or to see – where they are. Most of MJH's characters are, consequently, locked to the useless past; and are incapable of making any move into the world. Escapism is, for MJH, Bondage.

In retrospect, these propositions seem built into the Viriconium sequence from its very beginning, though MJH has revised some of the tales, and the inevitability of the movement of the sequence, from Secondary World to the salutary mundanity of this world, is in part an artifact of hindsight. The sequence comprises The Pastel City (1971), A Storm of Wings (1980 US) and In Viriconium (1982; vt The Floating Gods 1983 US), plus Viriconium Nights (coll 1984 US; very much rev 1985 UK). The latter's revision is radical; one story from the new version later appeared as The Luck in the Head (1983 Interzone; graph with rev text 1991 illus Ian Miller).

The Pastel City is set in a fairly conventional Dying-Earth venue. Viriconium, the City of the title, lies at the heart of a world littered midden-like with the detritus of aeons; it is ruled by a queen, surrounded by enemies, and defended by Lord tegeus-Cromis, who is (like most of MJH's protagonists) a Knight of the Doleful Countenance: his weapons fail to be Magic and he ultimately turns his back on the war. A Storm of Wings is a kind of visual pun on the first book, repeating the basic story but this time in Crosshatch terms, with the giant insectile invaders' Perception of the world literally vying with humans' perception of the same terrain. In Viriconium completes the process; through a Parody of Arthurian motifs like that of the Fisher King and the Waste Land, it conveys a sense of the uselessness of Story or Underlier when the Land itself is a phantasm, otiose and paralysed with entropy. But here – unlike the ultimate refusal of Despite which redeems the land in Stephen R Donaldson's first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (1977) – the proper response is, precisely, a kind of Despite. Unless Viriconium is refused, the souls who manufacture it out of their own refusal to see the true world have no hope. At the end, marking some kind of exit from dolour, the painter Audsley King abandons his Fisher-King-like pose and begins to paint that real world, which is ours. The tales in the revised version of Viriconium Nights continue the movement away from fantasy; in the last of them, "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium", nothing remains of Viriconium in this world but accidents of perception.

MJH's only other fantasy novel – Climbers (1989) is set entirely in the contemporary UK – is The Course of the Heart (1992), which may be his finest single title. The relationship between this world and an imagined (or real) other one here becomes more complex. Between this world and the "Pleroma" – which the protagonists have gained sight of during a disastrous college Ritual under the guidance of a fake Magus – lies an Imaginary Land created by two of those protagonists, and through which they construct a precariously meaningful shape to their lives. The third protagonist – another Knight of the Doleful Countenance – fails to grasp that meaning, and his life turns into a profoundly depressing cul-de-sac. The stories assembled in The Ice Monkey and Other Stories (coll 1983) variously gnaw at similar failures (and very occasional, very partial successes) in the task of living real lives.

In his 1990s work MJH shows some signs of not punishing his protagonists for their attempts to make sense of things. If this pattern evolves, both MJH and his protagonists will have earned any dream to which they can hold. [JC]

other works (sf): The Committed Men (1971); The Centauri Device (1974 US); The Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories (coll 1975).

Michael John Harrison


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.