Review of M. John Harrison, “Science & the Arts”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 165-171 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.
In this story, Harrison’s mastery of character creation is on full display. He understands how to select details that turn words on a page into real persons; this is the first story I’ve read that features as a central character a woman with chronic pain that had — two years previously — landed her in a mental institution until they realised that, oh, wait, it wasn’t all in her head, it was the result of a botched surgery. The story opens introducing us to her (her name is Mona), and reading this was both a sucker punch and a validation. Here is someone who knows that this happens to women, and isn’t going to pretend it doesn’t. Mona is an artist, one half of the titular pair. The other, the scientist, is the narrator, and Harrison gets him bang on the money too — “I said that I had got around that in the 1970s by presenting my own opinions as quotations from other people which seemed to authorise them for me until I had enough confidence to present them as my own” (p. 168) so neatly encapsulates a trick that I’m sure many an early career scientist will either recognise or read and be like “oh, wow, that’s a great idea.” There’s nothing terribly flashy or daring in this story, and that’s what gives it so much of its charm.
(Originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, 2003.)