Denizens of Futures That Failed to Take: On M. John Harrison’s “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again”

Nina Allan reviews “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again,” the latest novel from M. John Harrison.

By Nina AllanOctober 24, 2020

Denizens of Futures That Failed to Take: On M. John Harrison’s “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again”

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison. Gollancz. 480 pages.

IN AN ESSAY published in the London Review of Books in 2004, the critic and historian Edward Said grappled with the question of late style as an act of resistance, not only to the process of aging but to established culture. “The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works,” Said wrote, “but what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction […] an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before?”

M. John Harrison has recently celebrated his 75th birthday. In a career spanning almost five decades — his first published short story appeared in Science Fantasy magazine in 1966 — Harrison has come to be identified with disestablishment, in the political sense certainly but most especially with respect to his relationship with science fiction and fantasy. From the beginning, he was in the field but not of it: early works such as The Pastel City (1971) and The Centauri Device (1974), although making use of relatively traditional narrative techniques, were nonetheless novels that carried within them the seeds of dissolution. The principal characters of these works were already antiheroes: disaffected, lackluster men whose narrative purpose seems at least in part to lie in questioning the worthiness of science fiction as a literary endeavor. In 1985, and not long before the completion of his semi-autobiographical novel Climbers, a news article in the British SF magazine Interzone declared that Harrison had left science fiction forever.

While this contention was brought into question with the publication of Light in 2002, that novel and the two that followed are in a sense Harrison’s ultimate act of bridge-burning. In the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Harrison piles up the furniture of contemporary science fiction and annihilates it with the blaster of postmodernism. The result is both a masterful evocation of fin-de-siècle ennui and a blistering critique of conventional worldbuilding and genre consensus. The rambunctious, verging-on-angry energy that characterized the Kefahuchi novels raises the accompanying question: Where could Harrison possibly go afterward? Indeed, where was there left to go? The years following the publication of Empty Space in 2012 saw the appearance of a new collection of short fiction and narrative nonfiction, You Should Come With Me Now (2017), its pared-back, almost minimalist tone in stark contrast to the outré glamour of the Tract.

Did this tenser, terser approach herald the beginning of Harrison’s late style? The language and ambience of his new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again seems to confirm as much, although the work’s themes and aesthetic also link back to the real-world excursions of Harrison’s middle period, beginning in 1985 with The Ice Monkey and concluding in 2000 with Travel Arrangements.

The characters that populated these real-world novels were all searching for something — risk, redemption, resolution — even while they knew such goals were ultimately unattainable. Lee Shaw, the protagonist of The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, has moved past that point of searching into a state of mind that might be termed post-critical. As the story opens, we find Shaw — somewhere in his 50s, and thus two decades older than the protagonists of Harrison’s earlier real-world novels — living through the uneasy aftermath of an existential crisis:

Since his crisis it was true of all Shaw’s own encounters with people that he lagged behind the leading edge. Events seemed to happen too fast and too completely for him — either that, or nothing seemed to be happening to him at all. Before it he had been a normal human being. Now he saw himself as only partially connected to the stream of events.

With no definite plan in mind except to survive, Shaw takes a room at 17 Wharf Terrace, a ramshackle multiple-occupancy house close to the southern bank of the Thames somewhere between Barnes and Richmond. He gets back in touch with Victoria Norman, a woman with whom he had a brief and desultory affair during the crisis years and who seems similarly adrift. Shaw’s peculiar neighbor Tim offers him a job of sorts, couriering consignments of unspecified goods to private wholesalers to the north of London. Tim also asks Shaw to attend the court hearing of a man named Patrick Reed, “a man who, when he spoke of the sewage system, used the words ‘deep and false waters’ and who believed that it sheltered a wholly new form of life.”

The novel’s narrative fabric rapidly becomes saturated with such watery allusions: the curious website that Tim curates, The Water House, the corrosive damp, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, William Golding’s Pincher Martin, Arnold Boecklin’s A Sea Idyll, the strange map on the wall in the space that passes for Tim’s office in which the positions of the seas and continents have been reversed. Shaw also agrees to attend séances with a medium in Barnes, Annie Swann, and record the sessions on his phone. Tim does not give him a reason for doing this, and Shaw does not ask for one. Eventually he begins going round to Annie’s of his own accord.

In the novel’s second half, the focus switches to Victoria, who soon after meeting Shaw again travels north to settle the estate of her mother, who has recently died. The Midlands market town that was her mother’s last place of residence initially delights Victoria with its sense of community and its closeness to nature, yet it is not long before she begins to experience a mounting unease, the sense that the image presented by the town’s inhabitants is a facade, that she is being drawn into a web of secrets and allegiances that lie beyond her comprehension.

She befriends Pearl, who works the counter of a local café and who was friends with Victoria’s mother. The two women go on motor excursions into the countryside, visiting garden centers, antiques markets, and other towns. When Pearl invites Victoria back to her apartment for a cup of tea, Victoria finds her living on the second floor of a damp and dilapidated house whose address, in an uncanny mirroring of Shaw’s living arrangements in London, is 17 The Wharfage.

Meanwhile, the sinister door-to-door salesman Tommie Jack keeps up his pestering, anxious to engage Victoria in a discussion of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. Later, Victoria glimpses Tommie Jack behind the counter of the new aquarists’ shop that has mysteriously replaced Pearl’s café:

Down there, where scale meant nothing and even water could be depicted as drowned, postmodern treasure chests dwarfed the houses, overflowing with vast coins and strings of pearls. Everything was vividly simulated, luminous, tropically coloured, encrusted with plastic algae to signal slow, deep marine change: it was as if the fish tanks had transformed themselves into dioramic representations of the famous but now lost coral reefs of the world, designed by animation artists who had never seen one.

Victoria pointed: “That waterfall,” she said. “It’s made of plastic. Doesn’t that give you such an uncomfortable feeling? Water shown flowing under water?”

She felt herself shiver.

“It does me,” she said. “It gives me an uncomfortable feeling.”

Then Tommie Jack and his mother disappear also. Pearl’s father assures Victoria they have departed to attend to “business of their own.”

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again does have a plot — halting, obscure, questionable, and inconclusive though it is. But what dictates and defines this novel more than any amount of “what happens” is the texture of its language, and the eroded, deliquescent nature of the society depicted. The Sunken Land may well begin to rise again, but the shape it assumes when it does is unlikely to be familiar or pleasing. As in so much of Harrison’s writing, sense of place is crucial, yet as Victoria intuits, her surroundings, when exposed to scrutiny, reveal “none of the picturesque qualities you might expect,” and Harrison’s treatment of landscape in this novel stands as a deliberate deconstruction of traditional nature writing, an undermining of the concept of landscape as heritage.

The aging of Harrison’s people is starkly apparent. Shaw inhabits a different kind of limbo from the characters in Climbers and The Course of the Heart. When we read about them, we have the sense they were simply waiting for their lives to begin. Shaw drifts in a kind of void, not knowing if he’s closer to the end than the beginning. His attempt to restart his relationship with Victoria arises not so much from a sincere desire to be with her as a grasping at straws, an attempt to haul himself back into life by any means possible. Shaw feels a kinship with Victoria, but there is a mutual acceptance of defeat that had not set in so completely in his earlier novels.

Harrison’s fiction is often characterized by the presence of a magus figure — Isobel’s surgeon Brian Alexander in Signs of Life, the necromancer Yaxley in The Course of the Heart, Dr. Petromax in “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” — a savant who promises enlightenment or salvation but in fact purveys the opposite and is an opener of the way to spiritual ruin. In The Sunken Land, the role of the magus is shared between Pearl and Tim, the initiate and the spy, the facilitator and the prophet.

Where in both The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life, the hold exerted by the magus is finally broken, in The Sunken Land, the outlook for those caught in the web is noticeably grimmer: Victoria moves effortfully through the maze that has been constructed for her toward a final capitulation that is her only hope of release. Even though Shaw seems to escape from his involvement with Tim and Annie, the novel’s conclusion suggests that escape may only be temporary. “They are all the past,” croons little Tommie Jack. The future they are being pulled toward is unlikely to be anything they wish to see.

As Harrison’s Viriconium novels reveal the limits of fantasy by refusing a suspension of disbelief, the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy effectively destroys science fiction by pushing its tropes so hard and so far they begin to implode. Harrison’s real-world novels toy obsessively with the horror genre and with the atmosphere and personality of Weird fiction. One of the dominant themes of The Sunken Land is that of non-communication, the lacuna that is opened up when what is seen and felt and intuited is so alien and so terrible it is a prelude to madness.

This kind of cosmic horror is familiar from the work of H. P. Lovecraft, and there are parallels to be drawn between what happens in The Sunken Land and the fishy revelations in Lovecraft’s classic story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Harrison makes inventive use of that most Lovecraftian of horror tropes, sub-speciation, as both a literal and metaphorical response to climate change. If Patrick Reed’s visions are anything to go by, rising sea levels have triggered the reactivation of an ancient recessive gene, while the map so coveted by Tim and Annie provides a watery revelation of a new world order.

Yet there are still more powerful connections to be made with the quintessentially British brand of strange fiction Arthur Machen specialized in, the decadent, psychosexual fantasies of Robert Aickman, and the claustrophobic, tenebrous mind-fields of Ramsey Campbell. The potency of Campbell’s vision lies not only in the Aickmanesque odor of corruption and thwarted sexuality that permeates his stories but in the horrification of an entire landscape, in which everything seen and touched and felt forms a part of the conspiracy. Like Campbell’s, Harrison’s characters are ultimately compromised and violated by the very material that forms the backdrop to their stories.

Similarly, the rites and rituals of Robin Hardy’s 1973 movie The Wicker Man are satirized in The Sunken Land, but they are echoed there, too. Like Edward Woodward’s naïve and patronizing Sergeant Howie, both Shaw and Victoria have been drawn into a set of circumstances they have neither the background nor the insight to comprehend. As Shaw struggles to extricate himself from the folie à deux that is being perpetrated by Annie and Tim, the rapturous intensity of Victoria’s encounter with nature is clawed away, revealing the chasm that exists between her sanitized worldview and life as it is actually lived by the town’s inhabitants. Victoria is “a London woman in a lot of mud” whose “latte-coloured car and London stylings” reveal her insufficiency and privilege. “I’m not quite as settled as I thought,” Victoria realizes. “I shouldn’t have come here.”

Nor should we forget that Harrison’s fiction has always been political in this way. His protagonists are alienated not only as a result of personal existential misalignment, but equally through the desire for self-actualization within a society where an individual’s worth is calculated according to their economic value. The generation of writers who followed Harrison — Simon Ings, Joel Lane, Conrad Williams, Christopher Kenworthy, and Nicholas Royle, sometimes dubbed the British Miserabilists — found much of their subject matter in the collapse of British manufacturing through the ’80s and ’90s. As these writers’ spiritual godfather, Harrison excels as no other in showing how Britain as a nation has never fully recovered from Margaret Thatcher.

The Sunken Land presents a grimy, debased portrait of post-Thatcherite Britain: long hours and short incomes, scant resources and defunct business ventures, abandoned offices strewn with old stationery that no longer has a point of reference in the modern world. Accommodation is overcrowded and insanitary, stinking of hoarded garbage and cheap food. The system is broken. Thatcher herself is everywhere: “This can be the core of my Margaret Thatcher look,” Pearl says, holding up an antiquated-looking blouse with a bow at the throat. Landscapes are described as Thatcherian, a “determined old off-white” rambler rose is “named Vivienne Dulac in 1852 but known to family insiders since 1979 as ‘the Iron Lady’.” The depleted Midlands towns and hapless sprawl of Greater London alike become stage-sets for the inevitable endgame of late-stage capitalism:

The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it was still 1981 — denizens of futures that failed to take, whole worlds that never got past the economic turbulence and out into clear air, men and women in cheap business clothes washed up on rail platforms, weak-eyed with the brief energy of the defeated, exchanging obsolete tradecraft like Thatcherite spies.

Although the EU referendum of 2016 is only sparingly referred to, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is surely the Brexit novel, capturing a nation in the slurried, atrophying grip of a devastating regression. The atmosphere of “the inter years,” the 40 months between the Brexit referendum and the COVID-19 pandemic — the abandonment of progress, the casting in circles, the insidious resurrection of dangerous forces — is captured vividly and with ire.

In The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, we witness the triumphant flowering of Harrison’s late style, in which the point is not the story but the accretion of circumstance. If Harrison’s 12th novel is “about” anything, it is about the crisis — not just Shaw’s but our own, our nation’s, the planet’s, a state of brokenness and wrong-thinking that seems to preclude the idea of acting, or even of wanting. The novel’s colors are the dense beige of mudflats, the corroded, outmoded green of a faded Polaroid.

If there is hope to be had anywhere in this novel, it is in the fact of the novel itself. This book is forthright, steely, courageous. There are passages of startling beauty and, if you look for them, tenderness. In the words of Edward Said,

This is the prerogative of late style: it has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them. What holds them in tension, as equal forces straining in opposite directions, is the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile.

Though the whole subject of The Sunken Land is decadence, the disintegration of the status quo not so much into anarchy as into obsolescence, the book refuses compromise as it refuses despair. It has become fashionable in these strange times, to talk of writing as an act of resistance. Harrison’s newest work lives up to that ideal as robustly and defiantly as those that came before.


Nina Allan is a novelist and critic. Her first novel, The Race, won the Grand Prix de L'imaginaire and was a Kitschies finalist. Her second novel, The Rift, won the British Science Fiction Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle, and was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Her most recent novel is The Dollmaker.

LARB Contributor

Nina Allan is a novelist and critic. Her first novel, The Race, won the Grand Prix de L'imaginaire and was a Kitschies finalist. Her second novel, The Rift, won the British Science Fiction Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle, and was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Her short fiction has previously been shortlisted for the Hugo Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the British Fantasy Award. Her most recent novel is The Dollmaker. Born in London, Nina Allan lives and works in the west of Scotland.


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