M John Harrison is a much-celebrated multi-award winning veteran writer of science fiction and speculative fiction. He recently won the 2020 Goldsmiths/New Statesmen Award for The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. Here, he talks to Writers Rebel co-founder, and writer Monique Roffey, whose novel The Mermaid of Black Conch was also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize. The writers met on 11 October 2019 at the writer’s marathon in Trafalgar square.
I’m a big fan of the use of intertextuality in novels, i.e., books referencing and sampling the narratives of other books into the stream of the narrative. Can you talk a bit about how and why Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies plays an integral role in your new novel? Did it weave itself in at some point later on, or was it a key idea your novel sprang from? The Kingsley book is pro-Darwin’s theory of evolution and tracks the moral education of a young boy. Can you say more?
While I was writing, it grew from a reference point among reference points – including Herbert Read’s The Green Child, William Burroughs’ “green fish boys” and the obvious HP Lovecraft allusions – via Roger Deakin’s invention of wild swimming and Rupert Brook’s “swimmers into cleanness leaping” – into a theme in itself, which was then threaded through the book as the implied ur-text (or perhaps the origin-story) of a kind of Farragist conspiracy. It’s played for absurdity until the last chapter, when the metaphor becomes plain.
Proust, HP Lovecraft, Jonathan Coe, reviewers have both compared you to these writers and also say you are as a writer in your own league; sorry for such a corny question, but which writers do you love most and who do you think has most inspired your writing. If you had a writing lineage, who’s there in your writerly DNA?
I’ve read a million books, as have we all, and admired quite a few of them. At the moment I love the Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez’s politically-driven horror stories, a new collection of which, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, will be out from Granta early next year. I was in awe of Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, and sad that it didn’t win the International Booker. Gore Capitalism, by Sayak Valencia, changed my understanding of contemporary global capital flows a year or two ago; and Clare Cronin’s Blue Light of the Screen (Repeater Books) is changing my perspective on the eerie this week.
Orhan Pamuk in his essay ‘The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist’ talks about all substantial novels having not so much a plot but a ‘secret centre,’ by which he means we write towards, one thing, one idea…can you talk about the ‘secret centre’ of your new novel?
The secret centre is apt for a novel which features both conspiracy and conspiracy theory. At the heart of The Sunken Land are themes of explanatory or epistemic collapse. The two central characters are each so focussed on their own anxieties that they not only fail to make a relationship, they fail to notice the elephant in the room, the hyperobject in the world. In their case it’s a struggle between ancient human lineages with watery origins. In ours, it’s all the things we were a bit too preoccupied to notice until 2015 or so: Trumpism, Farragism, Brexit, the damage we’re doing to the world and thus to ourselves.
You’ve won numerous awards for your writing in the past, congratulations on winning the 2020 Goldsmiths/New Statesman Award for The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s a prestigious literary award to win and you were in great company and we in yours! How are you feeling in the aftermath? Why is this award so important?
Thank you! I still feel rather astonished and pleased to have been on the shortlist! I was just delighted to find myself in the same Zoom-room as Monique Roffey, Anakana Schofield, Xiaolu Guo, Paul Griffiths & DBC Pierre. Now I feel as if it will take me a week or two for it to sink in – if it ever does. The Goldsmiths is so important because the mainstream fiction industry doesn’t always do enough to encourage innovative work. Independent publishers do a fantastic job, of course, on tiny budgets. A prize like the Goldsmiths is a vital showcase – I think from that point of view a strong shortlist is important, and we certainly had one!
We met at the Writers Rebel inaugural event in Trafalgar Square, October 11th, 2019. I was one of the organisers and you were one of the writers participating; it was a historical and memorable event. Writers are famously armchair in their activism; why do writers now need to become more visibly and publicly active on the subject of climate change?
What an evening that was, too! Writers communicate. They persuade. They’ve always been the canaries in the coalmine. We’ve ever had more need of that. But I don’t think that, as a writer, I’ve never been so confused as to how I might contribute. Warning is over. Dystopianism is over. I’m looking to invent a more useful version of myself. I haven’t felt the energy I felt at Writers Rebel since the CND marches I went on in the 1960s.
Sixth mass extinction is upon us. The temperature is 1.1 degrees warmer. This is irreversible. We are living through a global pandemic linked to how we poorly care for animals. Over a million people have died from Covid 19. We have a new lexicon for daily survival: bubbles, shielding, the R factor. Brexit advances. We are living in the dystopia writers like yourself, Le Guin and others wrote about in the 70s. The fantasy and prophesy the great speculative fiction writers were making up fifty years ago is now non-fiction. Can you comment?
I wish speculative fiction could have moved more people to the kind of understanding forced on them now with every bleached reef, every fire season, every refugee washed up on a beach.
Lots of writers I know have been frozen and have ground to a halt by the existential enormity of the current pandemic. Several have said to me that what they were writing before now feels meaningless. Other writers have also come to the conclusion that as writers we now have nothing to write about but this impending climate crisis. Do we writers need to press reset?
On climate, we’re evidently no longer in the warning phase, and that’s what speculative writers have traditionally concentrated on. I’ll be trying to learn from novelists like James Bradley, Paul McCauley and the very determined Kim Stanley Robinson, who are already moving forward. Also from less speculative writers like Rob Macfarlane and Will Eaves. One thing we can’t be now is a minority interest. But I don’t know yet how I will strip away my tendency to Cassandra-ism and move on.
Story telling is an ancient human form of bonding over how to live life and survive it. We tell stories to console each other and also guide or even warn each other. Can you talk about how your new book either warns, guides or consoles us?
The message, for which The Sunken Land provides the bottle, is: “Pay more attention!” Media pressure is on us not to see what’s happening, to help people keep their heads in the sand. Except where it can exploit “human interest”, as in fire season stories, the spectacle wants us to be looking away from the hyperobject in the room. If it can embroil us elsewhere, for instance in conspiracy theory, which is really just an extension of immersive fantasy, it will. Fantasy is a powerful platform not just for selling an ideology, but for anti-factual escapism. Many speculative writers have an innate distrust of it because of that. I always want to illustrate that apparent paradox in my own way.
If you were to set a novel fifty years from now, say in the 2050s, what might humanity have got right? What green initiatives both in the UK and Europe and also globally are now being invented and will be essential to our survival? Do you see community rather than fragmentation, love and kindness winning over the forces of darkness? By love I mean ‘metta’, a Buddhist word for compassion.
In all honesty, I remain a bit gloomy about our prospects unless we can find and turn a major political key or take direct action of some more forceful kind. But there was one point in The Sunken Land where the text, to my surprise and without much apparent intervention on my part, lifted the fog briefly on a calmer, less atomised future.
Finally, what are you working on next?
I have a couple of ongoing novel projects. I’m a slow writer and at 75 I obviously need to get moving if I’m to make anything of them. But I also believe that the book decides who it needs you to be to write it. In their various ways, the Goldsmiths, Covid and XR have shaken me up in the last 18 months. So I’m going to potter about with a shortish, fragmented, non-nonfiction memoir while I take some time to think about who I am now.
Act now: Please attend and support On the Brink, Writers Rebel’s reading on Remembrance for Lost Species Day, November 30th – https://www.eventbrite.com/e/on-the-brink-tickets-128515073043