Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review of The Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories by M. John Harrison

The more of M. John Harrison I read, the more I begin to believe he emerged from the chrysalis fully fledged.  Even his first published stories display a maturity, a poise that the majority of writers seek but can never find.   That emergence is captured in Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories (1975).  Like an artist’s preliminary sketches, many of the stories would later be developed into Harrison’s novel length work, notably the Viriconium sequence and The Centauri Device.  Bleak visions tattooed onto vivid wastelands and fantastical landscapes, Harrison’s awareness of the written word is bar none.

The collection opens with its most incongruous tale, the eponymous “Machine in Shaft Ten.” In fact a Jerry Cornelius story that (intentionally and perfectly) smacks of Moorcock’s style, which in turn smacks of the classic British gentleman story caught up in events over his head, it looks into a giant emotion converter discovered at the Earth’s core.  The second story, “The Lamia and Lord Cromis,” is likewise classic, but only in feel.  One of the most dynamically realized settings in the collection, it tells of the sword-and-sorcery anti-hero, Lord Cromis “who imagined himself to be a better poet than a swordsman” as he hunts a beast through wilds of Viriconium with the dwarf Rotgob.  The final showdown is the opposite of classic but fitting.

While seemingly the mad tale of patients at a mental asylum, the third story “The Bait Principle” opens wide the gates of language and structure.  Atypical beginning to describe it, by the time one gets to “The Orgasm Band” they must be ready for anything.  Seeming to borrow something of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, it presents a collage of images and scenes that may or may not reflect the dirt reality of a rock band, but certainly is rendered in a rhythm of language that digs at meaning imperceptible on the surface.

“…At these times, Mayer would make a small ankh-mark on the sheet music above the appropriate bar. The mixing engineers could later smooth the performance off. ‘Please don’t go,’ she said, ‘…unh.’ He remembered that the stripper on that gig had been French Modesty.  Blas√©, he had refused to take her with his boots on, preferring to avoid the implied link with Lady Hamilton. ‘I have to go out for some cigarettes…’

Likewise garnering a subterranean emotional response from seemingly detached language in the Ballardian mode is “Vision of Monad.”  The ennui of art artfully expressed, it feels more meditation than story, much the same as “Ring of Pain” and its tale of a man and his mannequin wandering a destroyed city. 

By far the longest piece in the collection, “Running Down” tells of a man haunted by another who always seems to be in the right place at the right time to destroy yet another aspect of his life.  The piece a reflection on the state of Britain at the time, Harrison’s states in his own words that it“is where the chap is conceived to be so cynical, unpleasant, and miserable, that his own self-disgust affects his environment.” Entropy it is then.

An obvious precursor to A Storm of Wings is “London Melancholy.”  Giant dragonflies haunting human flyers above a derelict London, the imagery and mood fade perfectly into the novel.  Locating a schism in space-time, “Events Witnessed from a City” finds the mad dwarf Choplogic looking over a city wherein Lord Cromis of The Pastel City and Dr. Grishkin of The Centauri Device go about their own mad business.  Feeling as apocalyptic, “The Causeway” tells of a sapper setting bombs in a war.  Having turned his back on the sane world, his actions ripple through the lives of others.  The post-apocalytic feel continuing, “The Bringer with the Window” sees the demented Dr. Grishkin guiding two people to the Ash Flats of Wisdom, there to grant their wishes.  They get what they deserved.  A man on the run from a labor prison, “Coming from Behind” tells of the hopeless fate he encounters, and closes the collection on a suitable, recursive note.

In the end, The Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories is a collection so varied in style and content that at times it feels like an anthology—a remarkable feat considering a handful of the stories can be considered radial to extent Harrison novels.  Each word placed with care, it proves that from the very beginning of his career Harrison is one of the top stylists.

Published between 1968 and 1973, the following are the twelve stories collected in Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories:

The Machine in Shaft Ten
The Lamia and Lord Cromis
The Bait Principle
Running Down
The Orgasm Band
Visions of Monad
Events Witnessed From a City
London Melancholy
Ring of Pain
The Causeway
The Bringer with the Window
Coming from Behind

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