Paul Kincaid on a new collection of reviews and essays by Niall Harrison
A word to the wise: I know Niall, I was one of those who tried to dissuade him from his decision to stop reviewing a little under a decade ago. And I welcome this volume because, as it goes on so we find new writing beginning to creep in and so, along with his new column at Strange Horizons, it seems to indicate a return to the critical fold. Frankly, we need all the reviewers like Niall Harrison that we can get.
Not that that means that All These Worlds (Briardene Books, 2023) is necessarily going to get an easy ride from me. There is, after all, a big difference between reading individual reviews as they appear in different venues weeks or months apart, and reading all those reviews one after the other hugger-mugger in a single book. For a start, a volume like this can cast a sometimes unflattering light on tics, themes, habits of thought and habits of expression.
For example, Harrison likes to be gentle, almost generous in his reviews. Particularly in the earlier pieces collected here (and the book is arranged in strictly chronological order, by the date the work under review was first published rather than the date the review first appeared, taking us from six reviews representing 2005 to one final review as he (temporarily) abandoned the field in 2014) he sometimes seems to bend himself into awkward contortions in order to balance a critical word with a more kindly gesture.
Since he is an avowed fan of Stephen Baxter (something he makes clear several times throughout the book) it is perhaps no surprise that, of Flood, he can remark that in the face of ‘cunningly intense passages […] it seems churlish to complain’ (the way that the ebook is laid out makes it impossible to give page numbers for any quotations). But this is the sort of formulation that becomes rather too familiar, particularly in the earlier reviews, with Harrison approaching his criticisms tentatively, almost apologetically. For instance, having detailed a series of faults and weaknesses in Idolon by Mark Budz, he then discounts the failings by describing them as ‘a bug that turns out to work as a feature’, so everything that is wrong turns out to be okay after all. The criticisms, when he can bring himself to deliver them, are acute, well worked out, often examining how the fiction works on a sentence-by-sentence level. But he comes to them reluctantly, and when he does have to call attention to something that doesn’t quite work, that doesn’t make sense, that seems awkward or out of place with what has gone before, there is a definite more-in-sorrow-than-anger vibe. When he concludes that Watermind by M.M. Buckner is ‘if not incoherent, certainly inelegant’ he then has to add ‘which is a real shame’ even though he has been critical throughout the review of just about every aspect of the novel. Indeed it is only late in the book, and therefore late in this phase of his reviewing career, that he becomes willing to simply let rip, as in his demolition of the cack-handed and often blatantly sexist character of Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, without feeling the need to soften the blow somehow.
Harrison is clearly much more comfortable turning to what works well. But it is here that we see how perceptive his criticism can be, as in his discussion of Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, a novel based on real events in the time of China’s Tang Dynasty. Harrison is careful to note that it is ‘a novel “about” Tang China in a way that it is not a novel “about” any specific Tang figures’, a subtle but important distinction that leads him to conclude that ‘if all history is story, there can be no final, specific truth’.
That is a big point to extract from one novel, but then, Harrison rarely deals with just one novel, everything he touches set within a complex web of relationships that somehow encompass a broader view about the nature of science fiction (or, given how much he draws his critical vocabulary from John Clute, I suspect Harrison might prefer the term fantastika). And this leads us to an important point about the structure of the reviews that would have been almost completely invisible to anyone simply following these pieces as they first appeared over a number of years and in a wide variety of venues.
The reviews in the early part of the book, from 2005 to 2008 inclusive, are predominantly of short fiction, either individual stories, collections, anthologies or magazines. This has an obvious advantage for a critic who can be so hesitant about being negative: any story that doesn’t work for him can be passed over quickly in favour of one more to his taste. But in fact these reviews are rarely about the stories, but are rather platforms for presenting an overview of whatever he feels the story represents. This may be a broad point about the genre, or a narrower point about some currently fashionable trope, or some such. And the story ostensibly under review becomes not the focus of the piece so much as an echo chamber that amplifies a theme that Harrison has picked out from any number of other near-contemporary stories. In some ways I found this the most interesting part of the book, the concentration on short fiction somehow allowing a lighter, more nimble movement from idea to idea. There’s a richness here in the simple multiplicity of ideas he teases out of these short stories, some more convincing than others, but all worthy of our consideration.
There is the same intent obvious when, sometime around the middle of 2008, the emphasis shifts from short fiction to novels. Certainly I cannot recall a single review of a novel anywhere in this volume that does not reference at least one other novel, and usually several. But the shift to the novel, at least for a while, seems to have had a rather deadening effect on Harrison’s writing. There were several reviews that seemed to me to reach a satisfying critical conclusion, only to continue for another page or two. It is as if he is never quite sure that he has extracted all the juice from the book he is discussing, or possibly he is not sure what juice he is trying to extract. He will discuss the plot or characters or style of the novel, often in great detail, but that is rarely what the review is about. The focus of Harrison’s reviewing is not to explain or open up the particular novel, not to offer a way of reading it, but rather to present the novel within a panorama of other novels that represent similar ideas or approaches, and through this, as with his reviews of short fiction, to present a broader idea about the genre. But having done so, it sometimes feels as if he hasn’t quite exhausted all that needs to be said about the particular novel, or maybe as if he needs to find some measure of praise to balance an earlier criticism, and so he comes around for a second go. As the book goes on, though, he seems to get the measure of his ambition, and the reviews become steadily sharper and tighter.
One of Harrison’s tics, which I noticed throughout this book, is to reference other critics on the work under review. Speaking entirely for myself, I find this a discomforting approach. When I am preparing to review something I will very deliberately avoid looking at what other critics have said, lest it might affect my own judgements. But Harrison positively embraces such an approach. In his review of Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie, for instance, he skewers the way heroic fantasy will put a character whose attitudes and beliefs are entirely 21st century into a pseudo-medieval setting, where they will discover that just about everyone else has exactly the same attitudes and beliefs. But he does this primarily through a long quotation from Adam Roberts, and another from Joanna Russ, as if this gives greater validity to the observation than his own statement might possess. Even then, he finds a way to excuse this generic failing in Abercrombie by praising his conscious use of artifice.
This referencing of other critics (for the sake of complete openness, I should note that I appear in there a couple of times) is less to conduct a dialogue with them than it is to provide supporting arguments for his own views. Within his review of The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston, for instance, he calls on Farah Mendlesohn, only to note that Mendlesohn ‘anticipates much of what I’ve just said above’. Harrison is a valuable critic, this book is ample evidence of that; he really doesn’t need this sort of buttressing.
But then, despite their provenance, I’m not sure that the majority of these pieces really count as reviews in the usual sense. The book concludes with three long pieces that are collected together as ‘Essays’. One, cobbled together from several previously published pieces, concerns history and science fiction; another is an overview of short fiction by Chinese writers translated into English this century (which may be particularly apposite with the approaching Chinese Worldcon). Both of these are interesting, and both are recent works encouraging the view that this collection marks a return by Harrison. But the one I found most intriguing was a collection of the pieces he had written every year from 2009 to 2013 about the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Again and again he discusses a seemingly random selection of six titles, and each time finds in the shortlist some representation of the state of the Clarke Award, or the state of science fiction more generally, or both. And I realised that this is actually the model for the whole book, or rather it stands as an exemplar for his enterprise throughout his reviewing career. He is not concerned with doing what we expect a review to do, he isn’t really interested in telling us why we should or should not read an individual title. What he is doing is jamming together a disparate collection of books, just like the Clarke Award pieces are jammed together, in the hope that collectively they will reveal something bigger and broader about the state of science fiction, whether that is identifying what science fiction might actually be, or explaining what is going on within different facets of the genre. You do not read All These Worlds to find out what Niall Harrison has to say about Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link, or The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi or Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett; rather you read to find out what these three books, and the dozens of other books they resonate with, have to say about science fiction.
Which is why we need to celebrate Niall Harrison’s return to criticism. ∎
Paul Kincaid is a Clareson Award–winning critic and frequent Interzone contributor. He has published What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion, and two books in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series: Iain M. Banks (winner of the 2017 BSFA Non-Fiction Award) and Brian W. Aldiss.
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