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This interview has been read20067 times

   by Ignacio Illarregui and Arturo Villarrubia

   In the last Hispacon (Spanish National SF and Fantasy Convention) in Getafe, something curious happened. Just finished the first session, a group of Cyberdark users went to a nearby pub to have some beers and a dinner based on croquettes, fried squids, spiced potatoes, pig`s ears, mushrooms,... The kind of meal common in those circunstances. When we were sitting in a pub´s corner, waiting for the first dishes, a group of four people from the Con entered. Between them there was one we didn`t expect to find here, far from publishers and the official fandom: one of the guest of honour, M. John Harrison.

   Being the pub full of public, and the Cyberdark´s people yet with their accreditations quite visible, his cicerone, Sue Burke, came to ask if we would let them sit with us. And it was quite a very good idea, since from this moment we have a very good time. Harrison asked for a "San Miguel", he nibbled at what he could (he is a vegetarian, though he tried one or two jam croquettes), he chat with us,.... Without doubt, something unforgettable.

   These casualties only can happen once in life and can break into pieces the images we have about the writers whose books we read. Anybody who knows Harrison´s tortured characters, suffering from a whole collection of physical and psyquical illnesses, and with very serious difficulties in accepting themselves; a non-conventional style who demands a strong effort to understand; a very complex world, plenty of dark references... Nothing to do with the nice and approachable man we knew in Getafe. A new demonstration on the far distance we can find between the mental images we made and reality.

   This interview, made some days before his visit to Spain, wants to be a sort of introduction to Light, his last novel, and a brief view of his career and the way he understands literature. To prepare it, I had the inestimable colaboration of Arturo Villarrubia, a voracious reader, author of the "Keep Watching the Skies" section of the Gigamesh magazine and a good connosieur of Mr. Harrison`s works. Thanks to both of them.

Ignacio Illarregui   


   Light is your return to science fiction after a lot of years. Why did you decide to come back to your origins?

   I had something to say which would be best said using the medium of science fiction, or something similar to it.

   Why did you title the book so?

   It is a word with broad metaphorical implications of knowledge and illumination. It is also the fastest thing in the universe, and I love speed.

   Through the story you use in a peculiar way some of the last discoverings in fields as cosmology or quantical computering. Do you find poetry in scientific discoverings?

   I do. I also find science a source of useful metaphors not available to "mainstream" literary writers.

   One of the hightlights of the book is in its three desperated main characters, vulnerable as most part of the characters are in your stories. Why do you feel so attracted by this feature?

   One of the main arguments of Light is that life moves on through the vulnerable and unarmed. We live in a global society with a language of bullying and a contempt for those who don't appear to control their own lives. In fact, none of us do. Our obsession with control is the exact measure of our fear that we are actually ordinary, vulnerable human beings. I want to write stories about people, not shoot-em-up computer games. I don't find that control narrative interesting.

   What is the reason for the way in which they take decisions using dices in some moments?

   Only one character, Michael Kearney, uses the dice to make decisions. It is both a bald reference to Luke Rhinehart's existential ideas, and to the quantum idea that the whole of the universe depends on the fallout from constantly random events at the level of very small things.

   Science fiction usually shows characters who live backward to sex, and when we find it is as a discreet background. In most part of the chapters of Light we face sexual scenes of different styles, from masturbation to communal orgies. Do you want to destroy this taboo?

   I think this taboo was destroyed many years ago, both inside and outside science fiction.

   Is there any similarity with your previous sf novel, The centauri device?

   Not very much similarity, no. I wanted to move on. In fact when you leave twenty five years between books, you find you have moved on whether you wanted to or not.

   There`s a part, 400 years later, when the human beings live relying on the artifacts of aliens civilizations, without any interest on developing new discoverings by themselves. It`s quite a pessimistic attitude, isn`t it?

   A deliberately pessimistic attitude. The "beachcombing" culture of Radio Bay is a direct metaphor for the way we do science now--not as an extension of curiosity but as an extension of economics. Contemporary science mines reality for things to sell, just as the Beach cultures mine alien artefacts to sell. I see no difference. At the moment, scientists have allowed themselves to become people who make a living from finding new ways to collect golf balls from water traps, so that someone else can take the resale profits.

   Who is the ideal reader for Light? What kind of reader do you think you can attract as writer?

   I think Light will appeal to many different kinds of reader. But science fiction, fantasy and horror readers will all enjoy it.

   It has been recently announced a sequel, placed in the same universe. Can you tell us something about it?

   I'm afraid not: it is still in the planning stage.

   You began your career in New worlds in the midsixties, what do you remember of this period?

   Not a great deal. They used to say of the Sixties that if you remember it, you can't have been there. I don't think that applies to me. But I like to move on in my life and not get stuck in the past.

   You worked with Michael Moorcock in these years. Even some of your first stories appeared in the book The nature of the catastrophe, about Jerry Cornelius. What do you owe to Moorcock?

   Michael Moorcock had a considerable influence over me, as a person, until the late 1970s. After that, less so.

   Would be the sf different nowadays if would had been another person managing that magazine?

   Yes, it would. It would be a less imaginative, challenging genre. I think Michael Moorocock can be proud that a whole new generation are imitating him.

   With the Viriconium books, you touched heroic fantasy. What is your contribution to so a exploited topic?

   Not large, I guess, since I don't believe in either heroism or fantasy. Commercial fantasy is a literature of comfort and escape. In the first Viriconium novel, The pastel city, I tried to make a fantasy that was a bit more "realistic": more human. I realised that was not possible--because fantasy is based on a big simple idea about people, rather than on the way people actually act--and after that the project became one of deconstruction. The idea was to take away from the fantasy reader the certainties of landscape and, finally, character itself. By 1985, this had produced some quite interesting Viriconium stories, but I knew that my engagement with heroic fantasy was over.

   How do you see actually heroic fantasy?

   To be honest, I haven't read any for the last fifteen or twenty years.

   One of your passions is the world of climbing, which appears in some of your short stories as "The ice monkey" or "Running down". Even you wrote a novel, Climbers. Why are you son keen on this topic?

   To begin with I saw climbing as an opposite to fantasy, a basically "realistic" act with massively realistic consequences. Fall and you get badly hurt; or die. Later, I began to see that even an activity like this is escapist. It is a way of running from the obligations of an ordinary life, a way to get high and have everything else driven out of your awareness. Climbers is about the addictiveness of that act. So I am interested in climbing as a subject for the same reason I am interested in fantasy as a subject: because it enables us to understand the West's dreams of self-transformation and prolonged adolescence, its dream-plan to evade death, change and the realities endured by cultures not so fortunate.

   Critics pointed out The course of the Heart as your best novel. Do you agree with them?

   I like The course of the Heart, but I think Climbers is a better book. It speaks directly of real things and real emotions. Actually, I wouldn't want to choose between them. I'm satisfied with both of them, and with Signs of life too.

   This book is about the danger of escaping reality or refuging in an ideal reality. What place will you give to politic or social militancy? (Probably it wouldn`t be possible if you are not capable of concibe a better society or at least different). Do you see social change as possible or even prudent?

   I see it as neccessary. Political and social militancy are not very fashionable at the moment. It's more fashionable at the moment to buy things. Since the fall of the East, economics has won the battle to be considered an ideology. The default ideology of the West is consumption--having a nice time at the expense of others. Obviously, any kind of political change might harm that, so anyone with other views is demonised.

   As we can see in Signs of life, it`s plain that you weren`t too happy during the Thatcher era. Could we expect in the future a similar portrait of the Blair era?

   Yes, I hope so.

   Here in Spain, we don`t know your task as critic. Don`t you find this job contradictory with your work as writer?. Don`t you cross to the "enemies"?.

   I don't think so. It's simplistic to see critics and novelists as natural enemies. For a start, most critics these days are novelists! The relationship between the two is much more entangled and complicated than that. Criticism and reviewing provide part of the connective tissue in the difficult relationship between writers, readers and cultures. I try to make sure that my criticism is based on two apparently mutually exclusive ways of viewing a book--the technical and the emotional. I am also a firm believer in revisionary criticism--that is, I believe that the book is a machine with two primary parts, a text and a reader. A book exists only briefly as something written into existence; after that it spends its whole life as something read into existence by readers. As a critic I do the same.

   How do you see the evolution of science fiction in the past thirty years?

   The New Wave of the mid-to-late 1960s created a reservoir, or library, of possibilites both technical and in terms of human content. That library gets visited less than we hoped, more than you'd think. The result is that, at any given time in the last 30 years, someone, somewhere, has been writing something a little more interesting than run-of-the-mill science fiction; and there has been a steady, strong development of alternative science fiction. At the moment this tendency sits well with what is happening in mainstream literary fiction, so we are in another period of development. I think this will get richer and more productive, although what effect it might have on sf in general I don't know. Probably none!

   What books would you prefer between your last readings?

   I recently reviewed Alan Wall's new novel China, Alan Burn's new novel The north of England home service, and Alan Garner's new novel Thursbitch. Three novels by men called Alan! What more can you ask ? I can recommend them all.

   Talking about classics, who are your favourites?

   Turgenev, Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield.

   Katherine Mansfield is more and more often named as a big influence on contemporary writers. What would you say you owe to her?

   The same thing the contemporary writers owe her, since I am one! Mansfield "went underground" in the text. She took away the overt authorial voice, and instead used "muted direction" to indicate the moral value of the story. She was also an epiphanic minimalist, using a massively technical approach to get her effects in as few words as possible. Finally, for me, she demonstrated how the surface of a story is all the writer has to work with to make the rest. Her prose seems to skate lightly over the surface of the events she is presenting, but that is an illusion, of course: *because the surface is actually creating the events*. It is an illusion only a real master can manage. She was a genius.

   And what about the ones who are publishing now?

   In sf/f, I read China Mieville, John Courtenay Grimwood and Justina Robson, whose sf novel Natural history is superb. Also, watch out for a newcomer called Stephanie Swainston, whose first novel The year of our war is published in the UK early next year.

   Do you think of sf as anything with a future?

   To survive commercially it must start making itself accessible to a broader readership. I don't know whether science fiction writers are capable of doing that. If they aren't, other writers will come along who are, and science fiction will no longer be what we understand it to be. Still: change is good, yes?

   Of course, change is good, but what do you think are the points that should be changed to achieve accesibility?

   If science fiction is to broaden its audience, and begin to speak again to people in general, it must stop using a language --and stop making assumptions-- that only sf readers can decode. The broader readership is very interested in the way that science impacts on the world; but it doesn't know--and it doesn't want to know-- about science itself (or about science fiction, for that matter!). The successful writer of a "new" sf will make assumptions that can be reached easily, and without too many steps. from the day-to-day world of the reader. All science fiction used to be written like this. Good examples are H. G. Wells' The war of the worlds and John Wyndham's The day of the Triffids. Both these books were perfectly accessible to the broad audience of their day. Science fiction writers are no longer doing this; instead, they complain in a protectionist way when non-sf writers fill the gap they have left. This will be a difficult thing for sf writers to do. I know because I have tried --and failed-- to do it myself.


@2003 Ignacio Illarregui and Arturo Villarrubia para cYbErDaRk.NeT
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