REVIEW: “The Causeway” by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, “The Causeway”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 109-121 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the Review of the anthology.

What a strange story. I’m finding that a lot of Harrison’s stories are told at a curious level of remove whereby it’s almost as if the reader is expected to be close enough to already know a bunch of the background details, but in fact is far enough away that none of these gaps are ever filled in. Done poorly, this sort of gappiness can be extremely frustrating. But while this story was one where when I went back and reread the beginning after I’d reached the end and went “oh! I get it a bit more, now”, I didn’t have any of the usual frustration. Instead, as with many other stories in this volume, I found myself reading this with my writer’s brain whirring in the background, watching every step and every move to learn by observation of a master.

(First published in New Worlds Quarterly, 1971).

REVIEW: “Yummie” by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, “Yummie”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 99-108 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the Review of the anthology.

What a strange combination of banal and surreal this was! It reminded me of a Kafka story, where you get pulled along with this growing sense of horror as everything that should be normal goes sideways.

(Originally published in The Weight of Words, 2017.)

REVIEW: “Land Locked” by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, “Land Locked”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 95-98 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

What a contrast this story was to the previous one! A fraction of its length, and entirely different. It bothered me, though, that in a story centered on two characters, one man, one woman, the man was named, and the woman was not.

(Originally published in Seen From Here, 2020).

REVIEW: “Running Down” by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, “Running Down”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 55-93 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the Review of the anthology.

One thing I have really enjoyed about Harrison’s stories is the way that he highlights experiences that seem at once very specific and yet at the same time also familiar. In “Running Down”, this manifests in the opening of the story when the narrator, Egerton, explains his relationship with Lyall, his erstwhile university roommate. The details of their story seem utterly unique to them; and yet, the experience of mutually dislike between close friends is one that has happened more than once in my own life (it makes me wonder, now, whatever happened to my childhood bestfriend whom I moved away from age 10. She and I loathed each other more often than not). The deft way that Harrison does this is what makes his stories feel so real, even when — once you get more than a few pages in — you cannot escape the utter unreality of the story being told (especially when an unexpected personage turns up!).

(Originally published in New Worlds Quarterly 8).

REVIEW: “I Did It Too” by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, “I Did It Too”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 49-54 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the Review of the anthology.

I never would have thought I’d read a story about football and enjoy it! This one had me laughing all the way through; Harrison has a very clever way of juxtaposing something utterly realistic with something utterly fantastical, and the result is perfection.

(Originally published in A Book of Two Halves, 1996).

REVIEW: “The Gift” by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, “The Gift”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 27-48 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the Review of the anthology.

I found this story strange: When I first read it, I was deeply entranced by the alternating pictures of the lives of Sophia and Peter, their separate threads and their interwining events. And yet, within a week or so of reading it, I found I could remember almost nothing of it. Ephemeral, not substantial; beautiful while it lasted, but then gone.

(First published in Other Edens, 1988.)

REVIEW: “Settling the World” by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, “Settling the World”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 1-26 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the Review of the anthology.

This was a great piece to open the anthology with: Reading it you cannot escape the clear and certain knowledge that this is a piece by a master craftsman. Every single part about this story was perfectly developed and perfectly placed, and left me hungering for more. After reading this story, I knew I was going to love the rest of what was to come.

(First published in The New Improved Sun, 1975).

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.