This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is a tale of weird science, alienation, and medical humilation.
Review: “The New Rays”, M. John Harrison, 1982.
London seems to be our setting with the offices of Dr. Alexandre in Camden Town. The time? Well, that’s not so simple to establish. Since we hear of wounded soldiers about in the streets, maybe it’s the First World War. Maybe the Second. It could be either since there is really no mention of automobiles, only of trains.
And it’s a train that our narrator takes from the Midlands with her husband or, perhaps, just a lover, designated only as W.B.
She is ill. With what, we don’t immediately know. It was her idea to visit Alexandre at his clinic on Agar Grove Street. The treatments are free, but she initially balks at knocking on its door though it was her idea to come. W.B is, not for the last time, impatient.
From the beginning, Dr. Alexandre seems a weird, unsettling character. The narrator, at the clinic, meets a “beautiful crippled girl” whom Alexandra claims he can cure, but the narrator doubts it. She’s Alexandre’s interpreter. The doctor emphasizes that the narrator can’t bother the other patients and that her treatment depends on her full confidence in it.
Washing his hands of her, W.B. leaves the narrator to stay at a hotel, and he returns home leaving the first of many notes indicating his and the narrator’s estrangement. It urges her to “have some thought for other people”. People calling the narrator selfish is a recurring motif in the story.
I guess, to paraphrase Charles Fort, it’s Pastel City time when it’s Pastel City time.
Maybe I was just really cranky when I read this.
Others think differently:
Raw Feed (2004): The Pastel City, M. John Harrison, 1971.
A rather dull fantasy set in a dying world winding down from better, more technologically advanced days. Mining the ruins and artifacts of those more advanced days is a major preoccupation. Harrison seems to think that he can get by with some obscure poetic descriptions and Homeric-like epithets (for instance, our hero tegeus-Cromus’s weapon is constantly described as “the nameless sword”).
Still, given the criticism I’ve read of this series, I’ll probably read the rest. This novel seems uninspired hack work, but, supposedly, Harrison later in the series introduces some radical, self-conscious innovations attacking generic fantasy conventions and introducing some Arthurian elements.
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.
I strongly recommend James Gunn’s six volume The Road to Science Fiction anthology series as a good look at the history of Anglophone science fiction. In the sixth volume, foreign language science fiction is covered.
However, I only reviewed this volume.
A retro review from September 2, 2003.
Review: The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5: The British Way, ed. James Gunn, 1998.
Several novels are excerpted here. And one prominent one isn’t: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which Gunn argues is a transition from the gothic but not yet fully in the camp of self-aware science fiction. Lt. Col. Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking is the first of those future war novels written by politicians and military men determined to influence public policy. Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, still in print, is a charming tale of life and culture in a two-dimensional world. That incomparable giant of science fiction, Olaf Stapledon, is represented by a selection from Star Maker, narrated by a “cosmical mind” who views the life of the universe. (Though oddly, in this volume, Gunn barely mentions his importance to the genre. For that, you must consult volume two.) The title for the section on Richard Jeffries After London; Or, Wild England is “The Craving for Catastrophe”. It is a pastoral tale of a simpler life after an unexplained disaster has befallen the country.
That craving shows up in several more tales. Killer smog hits the city in Robert Barr’s 1892 story “The Doom of London.” “The Great Fog” of H. F. Heard wipes out worldwide civilization. Life gets extinguished on an alien planet in Arthur C. Clarke’s much anthologized “The Star”. “The Nature of the Catastrophe” in Michael Moorcock’s story of that name is never really explained. An amalgam of newspaper excerpts and fiction, this story unfortunately shares the oblique prose and loose setting of his Jerry Cornelius novels. Not readable in its own right, it still gives you some idea of Moorcock’s influence on the New Wave. Tanith Lee’s “Written in Water” is a last woman on Earth tale. The world that may be destroyed by an artist in J. D. Beresford “A Negligible Experiment” is our own. The disaster of John Wyndham’s “The Emptiness of Space” is a personal one. Its hero has survived a spell in cryonic suspension and fears his soul has left his body.
As you would expect, the anthology is full of several famous names. Continue reading