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Things That Never Happen

by M John Harrison

(Gollancz, £8.99, 436 pages, paperback, first published 2003, this edition published 11 November 2004.)

Review by Gary Couzens

cover scanThings That Never Happen is a retrospective collection of M. John Harrison's short fiction. Many writers all but abandon the short form when they start selling novels -- whether from time or financial constraints, or maybe from a sense of having paid their dues in the little league -- but fortunately for us Harrison has never been one of them. His first publication was in 1968 ("Baa Baa Blocksheep" in New Worlds, not reprinted in this collection). He has written novels, beginning with The Committed Men in 1971, the most recent being 2002's Light. However, Harrison is perhaps best as a writer of short stories -- or not so short, many of them being in the 8,000-10,000 word range, or novelettes -- and this book gives plenty of evidence for that.

It says "SF/Fantasy" on the cover, and that's true to an extent, but Harrison's abilities are an at times unsparing eye for place (London, especially) and character (mostly male -- "The New Rays" has a female narrator but she doesn't convince). Fantasy, when it appears, is often tangential, only glimpsed, desired as an escape from life but not necessarily a better alternative to it. Add to that a prose style that has few equals in the genre. His influence has been considerable: younger writers such as Nicholas Royle, Joel Lane and Christopher Kenworthy owe Harrison a considerable debt. Some of the stories here are oblique and make demands on the reader, requiring him or her to fill in details that are hinted at. He's not an especially humorous writer, except in a dark sort of way. (An exception is the short-short "I Did It".) But far more often than not, the results are worth the effort.

That's not to say that Harrison can't come up with grandiose genre concepts if he wants to. "Settling the World", the oldest story in the book, deals with God being discovered on the far side of the moon, and coming to earth to demand a giant highway for His exclusive use. The story concerns an attempt to assassinate this deity. "Running Down", the longest story here and perhaps Harrison's finest single work, tells of a man who is a walking embodiment of entropy, and the destructive effect he has on the places and people in his path. "Anima" depicts a man whose whole life has become defined by a single profound (and sexual) encounter with something unexplained.

Some of the stories formed the basis for novels. "The Great God Pan" (with a title lifted from Arthur Machen) became the basis for the 1992 novel The Course of the Heart. In story and novel, a group of students take part in an undescribed ceremony, and the narrative describes the devastating effects this has on their lives. "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring" is a febrile, painfully intense story of a woman who wants to become a bird: it became part of the novel Signs of Life.

Whether or not he feels as one with such movements, Harrison's career began in the 1960s New Wave and he's remained a vital presence up to the modern-day New Weird and hopefully beyond. With the proviso that future stories may well belong in an updated version, Things That Never Happen is an essential collection.

N.B. Things That Never Happen was originally published by Night Shade Books in the USA. That edition includes an introduction by China Miéville and story notes from Harrison which have not been carried over to Gollancz's edition.

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