REVIEW: Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I’ll admit: Prior to receiving a request from the press to review this collection, I had not heard of M. John Harrison. My personal route through SFF has been rather idiosyncratic, and has missed out pretty much all of the “classic” SF authors. This made the opportunity to read a retrospective collection of Harrison’s stories — spanning 50 years — rather more desirable, not less, because it gave me an opportunity to fill a gap in my education. For that, I must comment on how useful I found Jennifer Hodgson’s interesting foreword to the collection; it says almost nothing of Harrison’s biography or history, but focuses more on the experience of reading his stories, and the way in which they reflect the world we inhabit and our experiences within it. Coming ignorant to Harrison and his work, Hodgson’s foreword piqued my interest and whetted my appetite, and set the stage for reading this excellent collection.

In these stories we find many repeated themes, as Hodgson highlights: The theme of dissatisfaction with how things have turned out; the theme of never knowing enough; the theme of always being just outside of things. Some of the stories focus on questioning reality; in others, the reality is so different from our own and yet it is taken for granted. Most of the stories contain at least one of these aspects; many of them contain more. This makes them exceptionally accessible: Even the weirdest of weird science fiction in them is not enough to make the stories themselves unfamiliar or strange, while sometimes the most mundane and ordinary of settings turn out to be home to the strangest and weirdest of stories.

Reading the collection was edifying, and I don’t mean this to be pejorative. I learned a lot about ways people look at the world; but I also learned a lot about the craft of writing stories, because even though I liked some stories better than others (usually the older ones I found more effective than the newer ones), there is no doubt that Harrison is a master of his craft, and one cannot help but marvel at what he has produced.

As is usual, the stories will be reviewed individually, and we will link the reviews back here when the are posted.

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